In 1940, America instituted a peacetime draft for the first time. All American men between the ages of 21 and 36 were required to register for service that September.
One year later, a million men were in uniform and being trained in Army boot camps. The danger of war still existed, but there was no immediate need for such a large standing army. The draftees looked forward to going back to their regular lives when their terms of service expired in October 1941.
But the Army, still expecting trouble, wasn’t ready to let the men go. It maintained that only two divisions — less than 80,000 men — of the million-man force was combat ready. They persuaded President Roosevelt to extend the term of service from one year to two-and-a-half years. Congress approved the extension in August.
When the draftees heard they couldn’t go home, there was widespread unrest. Rumors circulated of mutiny, mass desertions, or at least passive resistance. October passed with no serious disruption, however, and the men stayed in uniform, on base, and under orders. But they weren’t happy about it, and the Army reported “low morale” among its conscripts.
Edgar Snow reported on the causes of unrest, which was only partly due to the extended service date. Shortages of both equipment and good leadership were also discouraging to the troops. And, of course, there was the natural civilian resistance to military discipline, which seemed even more pointless in peacetime.
“They Don’t Want to Play Soldier” offers an interesting look into the nascent American fighting force on the eve of World War II. It reflects the grumbling, dissatisfaction, and obstinate resistance to service that was part of the American character — before it was roused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and by the German declaration of war four days later.