Politicians have been busy taking America into war. Some commentators want to make the American people pay by conscripting 18‐year‐olds into the military.
It’s a bad idea.
Throughout most of their history, Americans freely defended their nation from threats both domestic and foreign. Only in their greatest conflicts—the Civil War, World War I, and the lead‐up to World War II—did Washington resort to conscription.
The practice persisted during the Cold War, when the U.S. maintained globe‐spanning alliances to protect friendly war‐ravaged states from the Soviet Union. However, four decades ago the Nixon administration inaugurated the All‐Volunteer Force, which successfully deterred the Red Army. Now Russia is moving in America’s direction by professionalizing its force.
Despite a rough start, the AVF has been a brilliant success. Quality is far better than under a draft. A volunteer military can be choosy and set higher standards. Even when the army was reducing its requirements during the worst of the Iraq years, its quality standards remained well above those of conscript forces. Moreover, noted a recent Congressional Research Service report, “starting in 2008 these concerns were alleviated by the more favorable recruiting and retention environment,” which CRS expected to remain “over the next few years.”
The end of the draft also has dramatically improved commitment and morale in the armed forces. The difference is simple: recruits who want to serve and succeed are likely to perform better than draftees who want out, the sooner the better. The AVF also enjoys higher reenlistment rates, which reduce turnover and enhance experience.
Returning to conscription would generate a force that looked a lot more like the force during the Vietnam War than World War II. Even reluctant draftees in the latter identified with the campaign against Nazi Germany. Vietnam War conscripts shared no similar commitment to defending Saigon. Personnel drafted to patrol Afghan valleys on behalf of a corrupt government in Kabul or stop ethnic slaughter in a post‐civil war Syria likely would be no more enthused with their respective task.
All told, shifting to conscription would significantly weaken the military. New “accessions,” as the military calls them, would be less bright, less well educated, and less positively motivated. They would be less likely to stay in uniform, resulting in a less experienced force. The armed forces would be less effective in combat, thereby costing America more lives while achieving fewer foreign policy objectives.
Why take such a step?
One argument, most recently articulated by Thomas Ricks of the Center for a New American Security, is that a draft would save “the government money.” That’s a poor reason to impress people into service.
First, conscription doesn’t save much cash. It costs money to manage and enforce a draft—history demonstrates that not every inductee would go quietly. Conscripts serve shorter terms and reenlist less frequently, increasing turnover, which is expensive. And unless the government instituted a Czarist lifetime draft, everyone beyond the first ranks would continue to expect to be paid.
Second, conscription shifts rather than reduces costs. Ricks suggested that draftees should “perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around.” Better to make people do grunt work than to pay them to do it? Force poorer young people into uniform in order to save richer old people tax dollars. Ricks believes that is a good reason to jail people for refusing to do as the government demands?
The government could save money in the same way by drafting FBI agents, postal workers, Medicare doctors, and congressmen. Nothing warrants letting old politicians force young adults to pay for Washington’s profligacy. Moreover, by keeping some people who want to serve out while forcing others who don’t want to serve in—creating a veritable evasion industry along the way—conscription would raise total social costs. It would be a bad bargain by any measure.
Worse, some draft advocates, like Ricks, would join military conscription to civilian national service. But it is bizarre to equate patrolling city streets in Kandahar with shelving library books in Washington, D.C. Moreover, it is offensive for any society which calls itself free to consider drafting people to do the latter. Surely it is better to hire than effectively kidnap, say, guides at national parks.
Moreover, the idea of government‐mandated national service is foolish economically. There are an infinite number of “unmet human needs.” Years ago one national service advocate helpfully toted up 5.3 million jobs which the government could fill with cheap labor—indeed, with truly universal “service” the government could keep the entire population busy. Alas, there is an “opportunity cost” of other work forgone. Forcing someone to pick up garbage in a park instead of attending medical school could end up being very expensive for society.
More fundamentally, compelling service violates government’s essential responsibility to protect individual liberty. Ricks argued: “the government could use this cheap labor in new ways,” but the labor does not belong to America’s government, nation, or people. It belongs to Americans, individually. People should serve others, but genuine service is good precisely because it is voluntary. Compulsory compassion is an oxymoron.
Within the public‐spirited rhetoric behind national service is an ugly collectivist core. In 1979 a Potomac Institute report on national service noted that two commission members returned from China “impressed and challenged by the extraordinary mobilization of the talent of young people possible under authoritarian, post‐revolutionary conditions” and determined “to try to devise a democratic equivalent.” There isn’t one. Self‐seeking politicians who lecture the young about selflessness and concoct schemes to give other people’s lives meaning are only likely to multiply public contempt and cynicism.
Some conscription advocates also contend that a draft would make war less likely. A few years ago Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) proposed conscription to ”bring a greater appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war.” Three years ago Bill Moyers suggested that “If our governing class wants more war, let’s not allow them to fight it with young men and women who sign up because they don’t have jobs here at home.”
In May Jon Meacham of Time wrote that “the politics of war are inescapably different than what they would be if the children of the most influential families in communities across America were at risk of being drafted to face fire at the front.” More recently Stanley McChrystal, former commander in Afghanistan, argued: “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”
Yet the widespread use of reserve and guard units unintentionally achieved much the same social effect, but with little political impact. People complained when their communities lost people from different walks of life, but George W. Bush nevertheless pursued his misguided nation‐building missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the American people reelected him despite his deadly military mistakes.
Moreover, the Vietnam War demonstrated that a draft gives the government a virtually limitless manpower supply with which to keep fighting even an increasingly unpopular war with heavy casualties—more than ten times the number of dead in Iraq, for instance. It took years before opposition to the Vietnam‐era draft reached critical levels. In the meantime Washington had no difficulty maintaining its forces and continuing the war.
In contrast, the reduced willingness of Americans to volunteer for both the active and reserve forces as deployments increased in both Iraq and Afghanistan had an immediate impact on the military. Policymakers worried and debated how to respond. Whispers began about the necessity of reinstating the draft. Government officials recognize that volunteers can stop an unpopular war by just not signing up.
Anyway, unless the U.S. ended up in a big war, even a draft wouldn’t much affect the policymaking elite. Roughly four million people turn 18 every year; at the same time the military takes about 160,000 new accessions, or four percent of the total. Moreover, draftees with education and connections would be least likely to end up in combat arms. Sending the kids of the elite to shuffle paperwork at a base stateside, as Ricks proposed, wouldn’t have much impact.
Some draft promoters argue more generally for a more representative military. Rep. Rangel promoted the common myth that conscription would make the military inclusive of today’s population. He argued: ”A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent.”
It’s simply not the case. America’s military is quintessentially middle class. The elite is underrepresented, but as noted earlier, drafting four percent of 18‐year‐olds isn’t going to put many of the privileged into uniform anyway. However, the underclass is not represented in today’s military at all. If you don’t have a high school diploma or GED, and don’t score well on the military’s aptitude test, you won’t be accepted. Last year all recruits met the high school standard, while two‐thirds of Army, three quarters of Marine Corps, 90 percent of Navy, and essentially all of Air Force scored in the top half of the five categories of the Armed Forces Qualification Test.
The officer corps is largely university educated, many with advanced degrees. The enlisted members are more educated and read at higher levels than youth generally; recruits also are college capable, joining the military rather than entering university. Many go to school after getting out, using their educational benefits. There still are regional (the South is overrepresented) and racial/ethnic differences (more African‐Americans, 17 percent compared to 12.6 percent of the population, and fewer Hispanics, 10.8 percent compared to 16.3 percent of the population) but not enough to suggest that the AVF is not truly America’s military. Moreover, unless armed services refused to take any volunteers, a draft would have limited impact because those who tend to volunteer now would still be more likely to volunteer.
Finally, many conscription enthusiasts wave the flag and ring the patriotic bells. Yet the truest form of patriotism is serving, not making someone else serve. Patriotism no more than compassion can be coerced. A society which no longer wins the voluntary allegiance of its people has no moral authority to coerce them into its service. Especially when most of Washington’s foreign policy goals today—subsidizing prosperous and populous allies, rebuilding failed states, exercising influence for economic or political ends—have nothing to do with defending America, the federal government’s most basic responsibility. Americans owe their allegiance to their nation, not the gaggle of politicians who happen to be in power at any particular moment.
Americans will continue to disagree sharply about the Iraq war and other conflicts. But if the U.S. goes to war, it should do so with the best military possible—which it has today. The AVF also ensures that a free people are voluntarily defending a free society. Which is as it should be.