John Kerry says that the Bush administration is heading towards a draft. Administration spokesmen say that's just an urban legend. Before going home to campaign, the Republican House voted against restarting conscription to quiet public fears. In fact, the draft deserves far more than one "nail in that coffin," as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) put it.
For three decades the U.S. has manned its armed forces with volunteers. America's military has grown steadily more potent. But now the unexpectedly difficult occupation of Iraq is generating calls for conscription -- which would sacrifice both America's freedom values and the military's fighting ability.
The military, particularly the Army, is facing enormous stress. Active duty forces are facing successive foreign tours; reservists are being treated as substitutes rather than supplements for active units, serving one and two years in uniform. The Pentagon is even calling up thousands of members of the Individual Ready Reserve, former active duty soldiers who are rarely activated.
So some analysts are calling for a return to conscription. The most obvious argument is to get more bodies into uniform. Writes former Nixon speechwriter Noel Koch, "If we are to fight elective wars, as we are told we must, we need more men and women on active duty."
Actually, there are plenty of creative ways to attract more people into the armed services. Increased pay and benefits, as well as added recruiting resources are obvious steps. The Army has initiated a new program, offering bonuses and training, to attract qualified personnel from the Air Force and Navy, which are shrinking.
Creating special expeditionary reserve units, designed for occupation duty, would reduce the strain on folks who signed up believing they would only be activated in an emergency. Simply lowering quality standards to those of a draft force -- the All-Volunteer Force allows the Pentagon to be extraordinarily choosy, so today recruits must score in the top three of five mental categories and possess a high school degree or equivalent -- would generate thousands of extra personnel.
In any case, the demand for additional manpower is nothing like that in past global wars, hot or cold. Abundant cannon fodder might have been necessary in World War II, but it would be of little value today. America needs a highly trained professional force.
Ironically, a draft would result in a less effective military, making it less capable of defending America from real threats. Today the armed services attract a bright, well-disciplined force of people desiring to serve. Recruits and the services share the desire for a beautiful relationship: the resulting professionalism has made the American military the best on earth.
Draftees might be no less patriotic than volunteers, but they usually aren't as well-qualified or -motivated. In particular, a draft military must retain the discontented and ill-suited, since discharge would effectively reward misbehavior. At the same time, retention rates are low -- fewer draftees decide to make the military a career--making it difficult to build a quality NCO force.
Moreover, by forcing the military to value its personnel more, it encourages the services to provide more intensive training and better weapons. As a result, the U.S. deploys a superior military and incurs less casualties in doing so.
As the Iraq war approached Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) contended that conscription would ensure that Americans "shoulder the burden of the war equally." But the AVF is a largely middle class force.
If Wall Street is underrepresented, so is the inner-city. Underclass youth aren't even eligible to join: the bottom-ranking third of 18-year-olds don't meet the military's enlistment criteria. The officer corps is overwhelmingly college-educated and the enlisted ranks are as college capable as their civilian counterparts; in fact, the former read at a higher grade level. Reservists, who have taken on an increasingly important combat role, are drawn from all walks of life.
Blacks enlist in slightly greater numbers -- accounting for 16 percent of new recruits as opposed to 14 percent of civilian youth -- but Hispanics are underrepresented. Nor would conscription affect the higher reenlistment rates which also boost the numbers of African-Americans. Moreover, blacks are concentrated in support roles rather than combat arms.
To speak of "economic conscription" is to complain not about the volunteer military but about the lack of adequate civilian options. A draft merely forecloses yet another alternative, making everyone worse off: some minorities who want to join can't, some who don't want to join must.
Since the damage to military quality and social peace is so great, the trump offered by some conscription advocates is similar to fraternity hazing: I went through it and it was good for me. No doubt, military service can help "make a man" (and perhaps a woman) of a soldier, but it is neither the only nor even the best instrument to do so. Not all former draftees wax lyrical about their time in uniform.
Noel Koch dismisses "technical arguments that mask political squeamishness," but technical arguments demolish his argument that a draft would bring "unity to our rapidly separating parts." Roughly four million young people turn 18 every year; the armed services plan to enlist 180,000 recruits this year. A draft of five percent of the population, which unrealistically assume that no volunteers are accepted, would not create social homogeneity.
Some fans of conscription respond by advocating compulsory national service, as if sorting library books equates with patrolling Iraq's Sunni Triangle. Military service is unique, both in its value and danger, and in the way that it represents service to the national community, rather than to individuals or particular institutions.
To jail people unless they engage in social work, however worthy, is a frivolous misuse of state power. A government that performs so many of its other functions badly is not qualified to launch a vast new social engineering scheme.
The objection is principle as well as practical. Soul molding is important business, but it isn't government's business. The state doesn't do the job well; the government's agenda won't always be benign.
Most important, that's not the state's proper role. Government has been instituted to secure individual rights, not to empower those who would reprogram their neighbors. The state should step out of the way of the family, church, community, and other institutions as they seek to shape values. Government should not seek to override or supplant those institutions.
The military is especially ill-suited for social experimentation. The armed services are necessary to deter and win wars. Degrading the military's effectiveness in an attempt to achieve other social ends unwisely risks soldiers' lives and society's safety.
War is too serious to leave to social engineers. The government should choose a form of military organization that delivers the most capable force. That is the volunteer military.
Moreover, the military should reflect, not subvert, the freedom values which the state was organized to protect. That also requires a volunteer military.
We should hope that Iraq is the last war we fight in our lifetimes. Since, sadly, that is not likely to be the case, we must ensure that we have the most capable military possible with which to fight. We should strengthen, not abandon, the All Volunteer Force.