Cato Policy Analysis No. 430 April 10, 2002

Policy Analysis

Fighting the War against Terrorism: Elite Forces, Yes; Conscripts, No

by Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of Human Resources and Defense Manpower, published by the National Defense University. As a special assistant to President Reagan, he worked with the Military Manpower Task Force.


Executive Summary

The United States possesses the most powerful military on earth, one that has proved its potency in ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Yet, even as the military was gearing up to perform so well, some people were calling for a return to conscription or, more dramatically, for institution of mandatory national service for all young people.

A draft would make no sense militarily: U.S. soldiers are the best trained and educated ever. Operations like that against the Taliban—and potential future anti-terrorist initiatives elsewhere, such as in Yemen and Somalia—require elite special forces, not mass conscript armies. Indeed, a draft would degrade the military's performance, requiring induction of less-qualified personnel, who are rejected today, and raising the rate of "indiscipline" by filling the armed services with people who don't want to serve. It comes as no surprise that the military leadership opposes conscription.

A broader national service draft would be even less justifiable. Conscripting 18-year-olds would do nothing to protect America from terrorism; a few skilled personnel can do far more to make us safe than can masses of untrained young people.

Turning over to Washington the lives of the 4 million men and women who turn 18 every year would guarantee the grossest misuse of enormous human potential. If opportunity cost is not considered, perceived "needs" will be infinite. Control by a federal government engaged in the usual pursuit of political pork would guarantee that national service would become a monumental boondoggle.

Most important, turning over control of young people's destinies to government would be a massive transfer of power from civil society to the state. Conscription would undermine the very individual liberty that makes our nation worth defending.

Full Text of Policy Analysis No. 430 (PDF, 11 pgs, 80 Kb)

2002 The Cato Institute
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