Commentary

Draft Would Cast a Chill Over the Military

This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on Octpber 16, 2002.
Although many questions about how to fight a war with Iraq and how to manage the aftermath remain unanswered, one thing is clear: The United States will win this battle with volunteers.

Whenever the U.S. goes to war, someone proposes a draft. That was the case a dozen years ago in the Gulf War. It’s happening again, most recently when Jeffrey Smith, onetime general counsel to both the CIA and the Senate Armed Services Committee, advocated forcing people into uniform not only to conquer Iraq but to serve in the Peace Corps and rebuild Afghanistan. Here is why that’s a bad idea:

The U.S. has the most powerful and effective military on Earth. The soldiers and sailors who use high-tech weapons today are better-educated than the draft-era force. More than 90% of Army and Navy recruits last year had high school diplomas, as did 96% of Marine and 99% of Air Force recruits. Recruiting was tougher in 1998 and 1999, but even then the military’s problem could have been solved by lowering standards.

The all-volunteer force is superior in another way: The armed services are filled with people who desire to serve, reducing discipline problems. Those who are discontented are released. With conscription, the services can ill afford to kick out even the worst performers, since doing so would reward those wanting out.

Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos and Paul Glastris, editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, recognize the need for high-quality volunteers. But they suggest a draft to bring in sufficient numbers of recruits for support and peacekeeping duties to “free up professional soldiers to do the fighting without sacrificing other U.S. commitments.”

More sensible, however, would be to ask: Which commitments are worth meeting?

For instance, no vital national interest is at stake in the Balkans, certainly not forcing three hostile communities to forever live together in the artificial country of Bosnia and ensuring that Kosovo remain an autonomous part of Serbia against the wishes of its inhabitants. Moreover, why should the U.S. rather than Europeans undertake that? Similarly, why do 37,000 troops remain on station in South Korea, a nation with 40 times the gross domestic product, twice the population and a vast technological edge over its northern antagonist?

Smith and others oppose using reserves to supplement our volunteer forces in Iraq because that would make recruiting more difficult. But why even have reserves if they aren’t used when necessary?

Conscription advocates also criticize a so-called underclass military, even though rigorous educational and test standards mean that few of the underclass ever suit up. Although not perfectly representative — in terms of percentage there are more blacks and fewer Latinos in the military than in the population, for instance — those in the services are generally from families with middle-class incomes and social backgrounds. To be perfectly fair, a draft would have to target poor as well as rich.

Some complain that only volunteers are being asked to die for their country. Yet New York City firefighters volunteered to defend their fellow citizens, and 343 of them died on Sept. 11, 2001, more than the number of servicemen and servicewomen killed in the Gulf War, Kosovo and the war on terrorism combined. Should only volunteers fight fires and crime? Devote their lives to the poor?

A free society doesn’t mean there are no shirkers, content to benefit from the sacrifices of others. But that is the price of freedom. Allowing a Washington elite to decide how everyone else should spend his or her life is a dubious form of “fairness.”

Defending the United States means defending a free society built on individual liberty. Renewing conscription would destroy the very thing we are supposed to be protecting.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.