The Draft: Way to (More) War

The United States’ increased military activity following the declaration of the “War on Terror” has inspired a growing movement to reinstitute compulsory service — that is, to bring back the draft. Perhaps surprisingly, the movement is largely on the political Left.

We could joke cynically that the new draft movement shows Democrats’ love of slavery is still strong nearly a century and a half after the 13th Amendment. But draft advocates have a serious motivation: They see the return of compulsory service as “a way to peace.”

Their thinking goes like this: If the draft were reinstated, then a cross-section of the public would be directly affected by U.S. military action — our children could be drafted. The public would thus develop a more critical view of military involvement than what they have now. They would pressure Congress and the White House to give greater attention to the troops’ well being, would prompt a withdraw from Iraq, and would decrease the likelihood of questionable missions in the future. As an Iraq war veteran wrote in a Sunday NYT op-ed:

[S]erious consideration of a draft could set off such a violent reaction from the American public that the pressure on politicians to abandon their cliché-ridden rhetoric and begin a well-considered withdrawal would be overpowering.

The draft advocates’ motivation is respectable. Unfortunately, their strategy is too clever by half — or, perhaps, not clever enough about the incentives and disincentives of political leaders who dispatch troops, and about 20th century American military history.

With no compulsory service, America’s military can only rely on volunteers to fill its ranks. If political leaders are overly aggressive in their use of the military, or if service members are poorly treated, poorly compensated, and poorly trained and equipped, or if they are exposed to unacceptable risk, then the Pentagon will have trouble with recruitment and retention. That’s why, when the United States abandoned selective service in 1973 after 25 years of paying conscripts poorly, training them minimally, and using them as cannon fodder in Korea and Vietnam, the Pentagon had to increase troops’ compensation significantly and reduce their risk of being killed or injured in combat (which was accomplished, in part, by developing and deploying advanced weaponry and improving troops’ skills and training).

Call this the “enlistment veto” — because the United States has an All-Volunteer Force (AVF), would-be volunteers act as a check on the politicial leaders who would send them to war and the military leaders who would command them. If those leaders are reckless and abusive in their use of the troops and miserly in the troops’ compensation, then the military will have trouble filling its ranks. As a result, the leaders would be less inclined to use the military because the understaffed force would be less likely to achieve military success.

Contrast the AVF with compulsory service, where there is no enlistment veto. With the draft, young people are forced to soldier for America’s political and military leaders regardless of the soundness of those leaders’ decisions, their treatment of the troops, and the troops’ level of compensation, training, and equipment. With the draft, U.S. politicians have an ample, cheap supply of military manpower to use as they see fit.

Put simply (and perhaps crudely): If political and military leaders were given a larger, cheaper supply of a vital input to war — namely, troops — would that result in less military involvement or more?

A look at selective service in the 20th century shows politicians can find all sorts of questionable uses for the military when young people are forced to serve. Following the expiration of the WWII draft in 1947, the United States adopted the peacetime selective service program for the period 1948–1973. In that quarter-century, the United States dispatched troops to the following foreign entanglements:

  • China (1948–1949)
  • Korea (1951–1953)
  • Egypt (1956)
  • Lebanon (1958)
  • Panama (1958)
  • Vietnam (1960–1975)
  • Panama (1964)
  • Dominican Republic (1965–1966)
  • Cambodia (1969–1975)

Did U.S. leaders show they more highly valued the cheap, forced labor of the selective service era than the more costly, more discriminating labor of the post–selective service era? Complete data on casualties for the two time periods are difficult to compile, but we can make a rough comparison by using fragmented data [sources]. The two major U.S. military involvements of the selective service era (Korea and Vietnam) saw 81,165 hostile action deaths of U.S. troops and 256,587 wounded. In contrast, for the period 1980–1999 (including the Gulf War and Somalia) plus the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (as of 10/06/2007), U.S. troops experienced a total of 3,927 hostile action deaths, and the three prominent post-1980 military conflicts (as of 10/06/2007) yielded a total of 30,290 wounded.

Granted, the conflicts and geopolitical dynamics of the selective service era are different than the post–selective service era. But given the historical data, it’s very hard to accept draft advocates’ claim that reinstituting compulsory service would make the United States less aggressive militarily and would make political and military leaders more responsive to the troops’ concerns.

Draft proponents would respond that using compulsory service to supply troops for a politically unpopular war would lead to social unrest that would reshape U.S. politics. But is that unrest a stronger check on political and military leaders than the enlistment veto? Consider that there has been precious little change in Iraq policy despite protests and considerable public criticism of the war. And yes, the United States did change course in Vietnam after a lot of 1960s protests — but it took a very long time before that policy change happened. It is difficult to believe that the United States would have fought the Vietnam War the way it did, for as long as it did, if it had to rely on an all-volunteer military instead of being able to call on cheap, forced labor.

The “protests instead of enlistment veto” strategy becomes even more untenable when we consider U.S. demographics. The American public is aging, families are growing smaller and more fragmented, and it is older Americans with adult children — people who are not at risk to be drafted, and whose kids are not at risk to be drafted — who are increasingly dominating American politics. This older, less-connected American majority seems unlikely to take a stronger interest in the well-being of U.S. troops than the would-be volunteers themselves.