Save America: Please DO NOT Restore the Draft

November 30, 2013

It is becoming increasingly popular for journalists and commentators to call for the restoration of conscription.  With the exception of an actual existential threat to the security of our nation, the draft is a dangerous and terrible idea.

The latest to join the pro-draft chorus is The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank in his 29 November 2013 Op-Ed titled “Save America: Restore the Draft.”  Mandatory military service is held up as a way to “save America,” which is a rather broad problem that apparently would be solved by putting all 18-year olds in uniform.

Dana Milbank’s arguments are becoming familiar, as he joins other commentators such as Tom Ricks and General (ret.) McChrystal in calling for a draft (see WOTR’s deconstruction of a similar argument by Andrew Bacevich here).  These arguments are flawed and require deconstruction.

The benefits of a draft, as cited by Milbank:

Overcoming growing social inequality without redistributing wealth; making future leaders, unlike today’s “chicken hawks,” disinclined to send troops into combat without good reason; putting young Americans to work and giving them job and technology skills; and, above all, giving these young Americans a shared sense of patriotism and service to the country.

The necessary rebuttals, in order:

  1. Putting 18-year olds through boot camp to address social inequality will most certainly necessitate a redistribution of wealth.  First, most obviously, taxes will need to be paid to put millions of new conscripts through military training.  Secondly, wealth will be redistributed away from the young people who are forgoing some of their earliest productive years as part of the workforce.  Conscripts, by definition, are not paid market wages.  Some might be paid more but most will be paid less than they would command elsewhere.  Draftees would be paid what politicians or Department of Defense bureaucrats have decided they will be paid.
  2. Strong evidence does not support the claim that future leaders with military service will be disinclined to send troops in combat.  Donald Rumsfeld was a naval aviator.  Robert McNamara served in the US Army Air Forces in the Pacific during World War II.  And some of the best political leadership during wartime has had very little previous military experience.  There is no causal relationship between a politician’s earlier military service and good decision-making abilities.
  3. The responsibility to ensure Americans have good “job and technology skills” does not belong to the Department of Defense.  That responsibility belongs to the Department of Education.  Or, even more appropriately, that responsibility belongs to the individual.  Unemployment of 18-year olds should not be solved with mandatory military service, just like the unemployment of 28, 38, 48, or 58-year olds should not be solved with mandatory military service.
  4. Giving young Americans a “shared sense of patriotism and service” through mandatory military service is one of the more nebulous claims, but forcing someone else to do something in order to feel a certain way is patronizing and certainly prone to error.  As Americans, we have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” which should include feeling any way we please.  Attempting to enforce a “shared sense” of anything, especially by sending young people though boot camp, is a very flawed idea.  Milton Friedman, arguing against the Vietnam-era draft, put it quite well: conscription was “inequitable and arbitrary, seriously interfer[ing] with the freedom of young men to shape their lives.”

Mandatory military service will not prevent the “gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves” as Milbank implies.  Drafting young people into the military in the absence of an actual threat to the sovereignty of our country is not necessary, effective, or moral.  “Saving America” will not be accomplished by putting all the 18-year olds in a uniform or some other form of forced servitude to the country.  If wars need to be fought, volunteers can do the job.


John Thorne is a senior consultant at Diligent Innovations, a defense and national security consulting firm in Washington, DC.  He spent 13 months in Kandahar, Afghanistan because he volunteered to do so.


Image: Young men registering for military conscription, New York City, June 5, 1917, Library of Congress