In the early days of the Reagan administration, military manpower was a critical issue because the all‐volunteer force was having problems with quality and discipline. So it was a major concern of the Reagan administration to get the force right and to get it working. And that has happened. We’ve got ourselves a very high‐quality force. The volunteer military is working very well.
Nevertheless, we are hearing some low but unmistakable calls for a return to conscription. We have a number of representatives and senators — Rep. Steve Buyer, chairman of the National Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel; John Murtha, ranking minority member on the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Defense; Norm Sisisky, senior member of the House National Security Committee; and Sen. John McCain, potential presidential candidate — who are talking about the potential need for conscription. This seems an odd time to be talking about conscription. The United States is at peace. America’s enemies are pitiful. Our allies dominate the globe. The normal reasons for conscription just aren’t there.
Nevertheless, a potpourri of reasons for conscription has been cited:
- High payroll and recruiting expenses.
- Poor recruiting results: Both the quality and the number of recruits are problems. The Navy, in particular, fell 7,000 recruits short last year.
- Poor retention — for example, of pilots and certain other skill grades.
- The lack of connection between political leaders and the military.
- The notion that young people today lack discipline. We no longer have some of the virtues that were inculcated by the military in the past.
None of those arguments is new. They’ve all been around for a long time, and they’re not any better today than they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Conscription is not cheaper than a volunteer force. I remember debating Gen. William Westmoreland, who said that, with a draft, you just pay soldiers cigarette money. This was a constant mantra in the early Reagan years: conscription is a great way to save money. But it doesn’t reduce costs; it shifts costs. What you’re saying is that a cost that the entire society cannot bear should be shifted to 18‐year‐olds. That’s a curious tactic for a free society. Moreover, there are new costs — the costs of the conscription apparatus, of avoidance activities, of economic dislocations. Look at the Vietnam War, when we saw the creation of an entire industry for avoiding conscription.
Then there’s the issue of quality. If you look at any measure of quality today, our volunteer force is far superior to a conscript force, and there’s a very real reason for that. The question is, who wants to be in the military? In a conscript military you have people who don’t want to be there. Today you can discharge somebody who abuses drugs. You can refuse to bring in lower quality recruits. It’s much harder if you have a conscript force to make those decisions because restrictions on drugs and so on just give unhappy conscripts a way out. That’s a completely different dynamic in terms of discipline and all the measures that are important to an effective force.
Conscription has nothing to do with careerism. Conscription brings you first‐termers, not long‐term soldiers. Indeed, conscripts are far less likely to reenlist than are volunteers. The extra difficulty of maintaining a high‐tempo military with all the new commitments that we’ve been making is reflected, for example, by the reenlistment rate of people who have been in Bosnia. If you factor out higher bonuses, you find lower retention rates. A draft would exacerbate the problem.
Some people are concerned that a volunteer military can become a Praetorian Guard that is more dangerous than an army drawn from the whole people. It can be used for undemocratic purposes. But our history disproves this argument. The Vietnam War showed how a conscription apparatus run by the government can be maintained even in the face of an increasingly unpopular war. It took years of protests to stop the draft because the costs were immediately felt by 18‑, 19‑, 20‐year‐olds as opposed to the entire society.
A somewhat opposite claim for conscription today is that it’s harder to get soldiers to enlist and reenlist to fulfill our commitments around the world. People aren’t thrilled about patrolling Kosovo or Bosnia or Somalia. So the only way we can maintain those commitments is to have conscription. One of the virtues of a volunteer force is that it shuts off unpopular foreign commitments. If people don’t want to serve in such deployments, they don’t show up in the military. That puts a real check on governmentpolicy.
It has been alleged that we have a military that is not representative of society, so we need conscription to bring in college‐educated people and others who are escaping their duty today. There’s a whole tangle of issues here. Many people who talk about the number of college grads in the military ignore the officers and look just at the enlisted force, which gives a strange view of the armed forces. Today our military is very much middle class and weighted toward the middle. It has a slightly higher percentage of minorities than the general population. It has a much higher percentage of high school graduates. It has a somewhat lower percentage of college graduates. What we have is, not a force that is dramatically out of keeping with America, but one that is representative of middle America.
Ironically, conscription would force people who don’t want to be in the military to serve and supplant people who do want to be there. That’s a stupid policy if you want a force that’s effective, a force that can fight wars, a force that will do the job that it’s supposed to do. And to go out and take 5 or 10 percent of 18‐year‐old men — because realistically we’re talking about conscription of men only — would be grossly unfair. I find the argument for conscription unconvincing, but it might be at least plausible if conscription were universal — everyone served — and we were, in fact, fighting a serious threat to our national survival. But it’s very hard to see that today. There is no such threat. And the notion of drafting 5 or 10 percent of 18‐year‐olds and calling that a fair process betrays a gross misunderstanding of what fairness is all about.
There are only two conceivable arguments, then, for conscription today. One is that it’s the only way to fulfill all the grand new commitments that we have. The problem is that most of those commitments are frivolous at best. What happens in the Kosovo civil war is not a matter of great security concern to the United States. It’s a tragic situation — I visited there back in June. But it is not an issue that requires drafting young Americans and sending them off to settle a quarrel that goes back centuries. The only acceptable reason for foreign interventions is that they defend vital American interests. The interventions in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti do not. That somehow we might feel good about ourselves because we are wandering around the globe doing costly and dangerous things that have very little to do with American national security is not sufficient.
The other argument that has to be taken seriously is based on the notion of moral duty, the sense that we owe something, and that young people today are not paying their debt. We have important duties to one another, but those duties are owed to our overall society, not to the government. And they are owed by everyone, not just 18‐year‐olds. To my mind, a voluntary military is the right way to share the defense burden. We issue a call for patriotic young people to come forward, and everyone helps pay for that military. Everyone supports that military, and we withhold from the government the extraordinary power to order somebody to go fight and die. And that’s the proper way for a free society to defend itself.
Still, some military manpower problems exist. What should we do? First and foremost we should drop commitments that aren’t important for American security. We also need to look at benefits — in a booming economy we may well have to pay soldiers more. We may need enhanced benefits for pilots and particular skill grades. We need to recognize that military life is very tough. I spent two weeks in Britain with my sister and her family. My brother‐in‐law, who is in the Air Force, is stationed near London. It’s a hard life, especially when you’re overseas. We need to take that into account. We also need to view a military career as worthwhile and to speak well of our armed services.
But we must recognize that the military is the means to an end. It’s not an end in itself. Defending a free society, built on respect for individual liberty, is the reason that we have a military. That, ultimately, is the most important reason to reject conscription. It is simply incompatible with the government’s duty to protect our liberty. A draft would destroy the very values that government is supposed to be defending.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.
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