99 Problems But a Draft Ain’t One

December 3, 2013

To paraphrase Jay-Z: the all-volunteer force has 99 problems, but a lack of conscripts ain’t one of them.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank penned a column titled “Save America: Restore the Draft”.  Conscription, in Milbank’s view, is a panacea that would cure all of America’s ills, from social and class divisions to misuse of the military to overly adventurous foreign policy.

Several years ago, I wrote a long Washington Monthly article with Paul Glastris calling for a draft just like Milbank.  But for a variety of reasons, I now agree with my WOTR colleagues Bob Goldich, John Thorne, and others that the draft is a bad idea, and would do more harm than good to U.S. society.  Here’s why:

1.  We don’t need the manpower.  No, really, we don’t.  We, currently have 2.4 million men and women serving in the active and reserve force. According to the 2010 Census, the nation has 30,672,088 men and women between the ages of 18 and 24.  If the U.S. included just men in its conscription cohort (as the Selective Service currently does, but may not in the future given changes to the role of women in the force), that means an eligible pool of 15 million, with some overlap between this pool and those currently serving.  Those numbers dwarf even the wildest estimates of military manpower need, not just for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but virtually anything on the horizon as well.

2.  No problem – we’ll use all that extra manpower to do other things.  Milbank and others acknowledge this manpower surplus. The answer, in their view, is to use conscripts to do other things, from improving America’s decaying roads and infrastructure to providing health care to America’s aging population.  Sounds reasonable enough in concept, until you consider the effects of such a policy on America’s labor markets and businesses.  At best, using conscripts to fill entry-level, low-wage, labor-intensive jobs will distort those labor markets; at worst, using conscripts will destroy those markets.  Using conscripts to fill these roles will undermine those businesses that make a living repairing roads, providing health care, and serving other functions envisioned for draftees.  Last, there may be a legal problem with doing so.  The Supreme Court has turned aside 13th Amendment challenges to conscription for national security reasons; it remains unclear whether the high court would bless conscription for domestic work.

3. OK, so we will only draft the troops we need.  This idea briefs well.  Unfortunately, we have a terrible track record of ensuring equity and efficiency in draft selection.  The perennial question of “who serves when not all serve?” has arisen during each war where the nation has used the draft, usually with unsatisfactory answers.  Most recently, during Vietnam, the Byzantine system of exemptions, lotteries, and disparate treatment for certain groups resulted in gross inequity that was reflected on the battlefield in unit census counts and casualty statistics.  Based on this history, I have zero confidence in our ability to craft an effective, equitable selection system for the draft, let alone one that will allow us to select the right draftees from within a cohort of 30 million 18-to-24-year-olds.

4.  So how about just taking the qualified draftees for military service? Recruiting studies estimate that just one fourth of today’s youth cohort qualifies for entry into today’s U.S. military, for a variety of educational, medical, criminal justice, and other reasons.  Just as it did during World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War, a new draft would likely take suitability and qualification into account when choosing conscripts.  Unfortunately, qualitative conscription criteria frequently evolve into de facto exemptions, as was seen during the Vietnam War, fueling significant equity problems for the force.  And even if the U.S. took just one fourth of the draft-age population, that still comes out to 7.7 million men and women – far more than even the foreseeable manpower requirements of the force. This would  give rise to a need for some sort of selection mechanism to pick the draftees the force wants.

5.  What about using incentives to pull in the right draftees?  A frequent riposte to these equity concerns is the suggestion of some incentive package that will differentiate between classes of service.  Serve at home providing healthcare, and you get some credit for doing so. Serve in the military and deploy into harm’s way, and you’ll earn a more generous package of educational and economic benefits.  This approach has some merit, but it basically just replicates the system we use now to recruit the all-volunteer force.  Such incentives will probably work (for the same reasons that incentives generally work in the labor market), but they will also reproduce many of the same selection dynamics present in the all-volunteer force, and probably undermine the purpose that Milbank and others are after.

6.  But conscription would help bridge the civil-military divide, right?  Fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve today in uniform. The veteran population is declining in size and percentage of society too, as the World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Cold War conscript cohorts fade away.  Consequently, fewer Americans have a personal connection to the military than at any time in several decades.  Conscription would instantly solve this by linking every family with a draftee in the force – or a child at risk of being drafted – to the military.  This would erase the civil-military divide, and in some ways that would be a good thing. However, for all the reasons stated here, among others, the cure for the civil-military divide might be worse than the problem itself. It’s worth remembering that civil-military relations hit a low point at the height of the Vietnam War, in part because of the tensions created by the draft.

7.  Who wants a draft anyway?  Milbank aside, some of those advocating a return to conscription (or its close cousin, national service with a military component) include retired military leaders.  Gen. Stan McChrystal (retired) is the most prominent of these.  Beyond the need to generate more military manpower, their calls for conscription reflect deeper motivations felt within some circles of today’s military.  The first is resentment of civilian society due to the narrow but heavy burden of the last 12 years of war, and a desire to shift more of that burden onto the shoulders of society.  The second is a sense that civilian society is too soft, and perhaps unworthy of the tremendous sacrifice made by our troops, with the best cure being conscription so society can better understand the burdens of service.  Third, the generals see conscription as yet another bulwark against military adventurism. This is  not unlike the way the “Abrams doctrine” (named for former Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams) was supposed to limit such adventurism by putting so much force structure in the reserves as to require their call-up in wartime, a political act that would ideally require widespread national support.  However, all of these motivations put the cart before the horse, putting the nation in service of its military, instead of the other way around.  There are serious equity, support, and care issues raised by the last 12 years of war, and the extent to which we have overused or misused our military.  However, we ought not restructure the military, or militarize society through conscription, to solve these.

8.  Conscription would lead to better decisions on peace and war.  This argument harks back to the halcyon days of World War II, when everyone served, including the scions of powerful families like the Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Bushes. Because all Americans had skin in the game, this argument continues, we made better decisions about war and peace, and better operational decisions within war too.  Further, our political leaders made better decisions because they too understood the burdens of war, based on their own service or that of their relatives.  The problem with this argument is that it’s heavy on nostalgia, but light on evidence.  Arguably, our best wartime presidents have been those with little to no military service: Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.  Veterans in the White House struggled to make policy in both Korea and Vietnam, at a time when military representation in Congress had never been higher. In both wars, the draft did little to help elected leaders make better wartime decisions (although arguably political pressure relating to the draft hastened both wars’ ends).  And, as my colleague Bob Goldich noted on WOTR last week, congressional military experience is a real mixed bag, mostly unrelated to the legislative or policy competence of members.

9.  The morality and immorality of conscription.  The power of the state is an awesome thing.  It compels behavior in all sorts of ways, from paying taxes to driving the speed limit to attending public schools.  In most cases, disobeying the state carries little consequence, perhaps a fine or civil penalty.  We reserve the most draconian sanctions for violation of the most extreme rules, using the power of the state to incarcerate for serious crimes, and reserving the power to kill for the most extreme cases of murder.

Conscription leverages the power of the state to press its people into service, on penalty of criminal punishment. At its most extreme, this coercive power is used to send soldiers into harm’s way, where they must engage in acts of violence, often at great personal risk, again on penalty of criminal punishment.  In moments of existential crisis, the state can more easily justify this use of its awesome coercive power.  In lesser moments, however, it may be immoral for the state to use its coercive powers to compel performance.  America could justify conscription during the Civil War or World War II.  It is not clear that the U.S. can justify conscription today for the continuing war against Al Qaeda, when less coercive and less punishing methods (such as the raising of an all-volunteer force) will suffice. And as a moral matter, the United States likely cannot justify conscription for anything outside the national security realm, such as infrastructure improvement or healthcare, when lesser forms of government action also suffice there.


Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran, directs the veterans research program at the Center for a New American Security.