Commentary

We Don’t Draft Firemen

This article was published in the Washington Times, May 2, 2004.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, recently invited the country to debate reviving the military draft. “Why shouldn’t we ask all of our citizens to bear some responsibility and pay some price,” Mr. Hagel said.

But not all our citizens are between ages 18 and 26, and it is those who are and their families who would pay the entire price of involuntary servitude.

Before the Iraq war began, Rep. Charles Rangel, New York Democrat, introduced a bill to reinstate the draft (H.R. 163). In a New York Times Op-Ed of Dec. 31, 2002, Mr. Rangel said, “If we are going to send our children to war, the governing principle must be that of shared sacrifice.”

Personally, I’m offended by the collectivist notion that “our” children are national property to do with as “we” (the government) decide. In any case, it is obvious nonsense when Mr. Rangel and Mr. Hagel pretend that people who cannot possibly be drafted will “share the sacrifice” with those who can be drafted. The draft falls only on those 18 to 26 who are ineligible for the inevitable deferrals. Their families bear a secondary burden.

Those with no children or older children can only share in the sacrifice under the current system by paying taxes to recruit volunteers. Under a volunteer army, the burden is largely borne by mature people with relatively high incomes, since they pay the income taxes. The point of conscription is to replace the incentives of attractive pay and benefits with the cheaper option of brute force. Dan Rather recently opined that if the U.S. is at war, “We can’t do it on the cheap.” But doing it on the cheap is what a military draft is all about.

Mr. Hagel argues that conscription would force “our citizens to understand the intensity and depth of challenges we face.” Mr. Rangel likewise claimed the U.S. would be less likely to go to war if soldiers were drafted rather than adequately paid.

Mr. Hagel introduced a bill to permanently increase the Army by 30,000 enlistees, at an estimated cost of $3.9 billion. Defense has not asked for that, nor is there any reason it should.

The number of military personnel in Iraq is about 130,000, or 9 percent of the total on active duty. A September 2003 count showed nearly as many in Europe (117,910) and Asia (99,862). The oddity of keeping so many U.S. troops in Germany (74,796) and Japan (40,519) suggests a lack of awareness that World War II and the Cold War are over. But surely we could easily find 30,000 spare soldiers from a few of the 130 countries in which we stash troops.

Compare the difficulty Mr. Hagel faces in trying to persuade taxpayers to instead fork over another $3.9 billion (spare change by D.C. standards) for a mere 30,000 extra soldiers with the 1,766,910 drafted during the Vietnam War. Can anyone really believe the Vietnam War would have lasted nearly 10 years if taxpayers had been asked to pay a competitive wage to nearly 1.8 million conscripted soldiers?

Far from making it harder to get into unjustifiable wars, using the draft to build an oversized standing army would again be an open invitation to rush into foolish foreign adventures and (as in Korea) never send our troops back home.

Mr. Hagel says we need a draft so “the privileged, the rich,” as well as the less affluent bear the burden of fighting wars. Scratch below the surface and this argument usually turns on the relatively high proportion of blacks in the military (as though blacks must be poor), and never on the inconveniently low proportion of Hispanics.

Kathleen Rhem of the American Forces Press Service reported that blacks now account for 21 percent of the armed services, mainly due to high re-enlistment rates, but only account for 15 percent of combat forces (because blacks are greatly over-represented in the medical professions).

Among civilians of the same age, blacks account for about 14 percent of the total. The key point, however, is that these are voluntary job choices, no different from deciding to become a fireman or policeman.

There were 343 firefighters killed at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Nobody then suggested the fact that these men were paid professionals detracted from their heroism. Nobody worried whether the relative numbers of whites, blacks or Asian firefighters was fair and balanced.

Nationwide, another 106 firefighters died in 2003 — a typical yearly loss. From 1991 to 2001, an average of 163 law enforcement officers also were killed each year in the line of duty. If compulsory service is such a fair and reasonable idea, why don’t Mr. Hagel, Mr. Rangel and others of their ilk favor drafting people to be firemen and cops?

Mr. Rangel’s bill would require “that all young persons in the United States, including women, perform a period of military service or a period of civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, and for other purposes.” That is, the bill mandates a period of involuntary servitude for a select group of young people compelled to do whatever the government decides. They would presumably be paid something, but nothing remotely close to what they would have earned in employment of their own choosing. If the pay and benefits were competitive, after all, there would be no need to coerce them. And the pressure of competing with cheap draftees would, of course, deeply depress pay and benefits for military volunteers.

Young voters who value freedom should know Mr. Rangel’s deplorable bill was co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Corrine Brown of Florida, William Clay of Missouri, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Alcee Hastings of Florida, John Lewis of Georgia, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Jim McDermott of Washington state, James Moran of Virginia, Pete Stark of California, Nydia Velazquez of New York and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia.

All these apologists for a military draft have earned the same respect we would accord anyone who openly advocates placing the financial interests of the state above the freedom of individuals, or to anyone who openly extols the practical and egalitarian virtues of slavery.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and is a nationally syndicated columnist.