Drafted Armies are Self-Killing Machines

December 6, 2013

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

I was disappointed in Dana Milbank’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post that called for a return to the draft. Clearly Milbank has never seen war, nor does he have the slightest clue about the corrosive dynamics of impressing young men into life-threatening service against their will. Trust me, I’ve served in two militaries, one drafted and one volunteer. The volunteer version is better for many reasons.

He mentions that the Swiss have retained the draft, but he fails to mention that virtually all other European nations have eliminated conscription. The Swiss retain the draft because they haven’t gone to war since the Renaissance so national service becomes a means for achieving social cohesion rather than defending the country. The Israelis draft because they are a hated minority of five million surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs hostile to their existence.

Let’s be clear. In the past we needed the draft because young American men wouldn’t volunteer to risk death in the Army. No other service drafts, just the Army. There is a huge gap in terms of personal risk between serving in a close combat unit versus doing personal service in a hospital or national park.  As long as this gap remains, a national service program that is part of selective service will never be a fair means for social leveling.

The numbers are telling: Seventy percent of all Americans who died at the hand of the enemy in World War II were infantrymen. From World War II to the present that percentage has actually gone up to eighty percent. In other words, four out of five of all those killed at the hand of the enemy from Korea to Afghanistan come from a population that comprises less than four percent of the uniformed force within the Department of Defense.

During America’s conscription era from 1940 to 1973, fear of dying in infantry combat inevitably perverted the selective service system. Mom and Dad didn’t want Johnny to die so they went to extraordinary lengths to keep him out of a close combat unit. The system became even more perverted when grossly unpopular wars like Vietnam made avoidance of the draft suddenly acceptable among much of the population.

The perversion of the draft laws was tragic for those of us who had to lead these men in combat. The most difficult task in war is to fight close to the enemy. It takes extraordinary strength, endurance, skill and an intuitive sense of a soldier’s surroundings.  Yet in my father’s war, thanks to a corrupt draft, infantry came from the lowest mental categories and were universally smaller and weaker than soldiers drafted for non-combat specialties. Thus it should surprise no one that better trained and acculturated German soldiers had a field day killing Americans with great skill in the hedgerows of Normandy. The same can be said for my Vietnam generation where the ranks of infantry units were too often filled with young men who hated the fact that they lost the lottery. They were too poor or too disadvantaged for their parents to get them deferred or into the National Guard.

The draft might work as a means of social leveling as long as war is not a possibility.  But as soon as the bullets start to fly, the selective service system falls apart. And the consequences of having a draft today would be even more tragic. On the contemporary battlefield there is no room for poorly trained, poorly motivated infantrymen. Less intelligent soldiers get killed in hugely disproportionate numbers. Drafted armies are by their nature amateur armies. Soldiers usually serve for as little as six months to a year before being discharged. As we learned in World War II, an amateur army can become professional over time but the price of learning is measured in blood. It takes years to build a cohesive band of brothers within close combat units. A draft would rush unprepared, under-trained and poorly bonded soldiers into battle only to get them killed. If you think that post-traumatic stress disorder is a problem for a volunteer force, just watch the consequences of putting unwilling, poor quality drafted soldiers under enemy fire.

National service sounds like a utopian concept for social leveling, and it might be if it were applied fairly. It might be applied fairly during peacetime. But this is America. When the bullets start to fly Mom and Dad from the middle and upper classes will find a nice internship for their child in a soup kitchen or a Congressman’s office. But the less well connected will, as always, go to war poorly prepared, untrained and resentful.


Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!

21 thoughts on “Drafted Armies are Self-Killing Machines

  1. Thank you for the thoughful article.

    “Drafted armies are by their nature amateur armies.”

    Yes, certainly. However, I would say that the sample of guys in a drafted army has way better quality potential solders than a sample of guys in a professional army. And I’m speaking now about rank and file. In my experience the soldiers of a professional army tend to come from low-income / low-chance of upward social mobility parts of the society. In contrast, the draft army gets into it’s ranks also superstar athletes and really intelligent people who would never dream about joining the army otherwise.

    So what? I’m saying that having lived among both drafted rank-and-file and professional rank-and-file, I would say that the potential of a team to become super-quality performer is bigger in the drafted army because they’ve got better material. However, like you point out, they are so unmotivated that they undeliver in performance relative to volunteers. Moreover, I think this raises an interesting question about the potential performance of a well-motivated and well-equipped draft army. My hunch is that a motivated draft army, e.g. when defending their home land, might well over-perform professionals with similar equippement.

    1. Pikku, I’ve gotta take issue with your assumptions about active duty forces in the US. I can’t speak for the professional armies of other nations, but currently in the US your assumption that “soldiers of a professional army tend to come from low-income / low-chance of upward social mobility parts of the society” is wholly inaccurate:

      – Members of the all-volunteer military are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods. Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 percent came from the wealthiest quintile.

      – American soldiers are more educated than their peers. A little more than 1 percent of enlisted personnel lack a high school degree, compared to 21 percent of men 18-24 years old, and 95 percent of officer accessions have at least a bachelor’s degree.


      1. Hi,

        you are mostly right. There are obviously a ton of studies about the issue.

        For example, regarding voluntary military in US:

        “The bottom quartile of the socioeconomic distribution was under-represented in the military, largely because of the educational, physical, mental aptitude, and moral46 requirements for service. The top quartile was under-represented primarily because of self-selection. The force was thus manned by the middle range of the socioeconomic distribution, with a mean somewhat below that of the broader society. According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future project, these patterns continued at least through the first two decades of the volunteer force among high school graduates. Enlistment was higher among blacks and Hispanics than among whites, among men from single-parent households, among those whose parents had lower levels of education, and among those who did not plan to attend college.47 High school students with C grade averages were found to be approximately two times as likely to enter military service as their peers with A grade averages.”

        so yes, I agree that it would be incorrect ot say that the US professional army’s rank-and-file consists of mostly not-so-rock-star-type-of-guys. However, I did not say that I was speaking about the US professional army. I was speaking rather about professional armies in general, and the fact (or is it my opinion?) that draft armies do get really high performing soldiers in their ranks who would never enlist in a professional army.

      2. and the source of the citation was http://futureofchildren.org/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=72&articleid=526&sectionid=3615

        obviously like with any dispute there are articles to back whatever point one wants to defend. This 2008 article seemed to have a pretty sopund methodology and argued that:

        “An important predictor to military service in the general population is family income. Those with lower family income are more likely to join the
        military than those with higher family income.
        Thus the military may indeed be a career option for those for whom there are few better opportunities.”


        1. I got ten bucks that says my white trash junk yard dog can kick your high class butt.

          My father was a high school dropout and hitchhiked halfway across the country when he was seventeen and was also one of the first 100 Apache pilots in the US Army. He graduated college with a 3.98 gpa. He is such a good pilot they kept him teaching before and after desert storm.
          Why don’t you stick to what your good at and pay your taxes Earkle. Its dangerous out there.

  2. MG (ret) Scales,

    Cogent and well written piece; more clearly illuminated response to those who believe in the draft as a mechanism which might best ‘level the playing field’ for the disparity between those of us that pick up a rifle in defense of our country and the rest of our citizenry. I did not concur with your article on the requisite nature of technology to current combat (http://warontherocks.com/2013/10/saving-captain-swenson/) but wish to join ranks with you on this issue.

    Milbank posits “Because so few serving in politics have worn their country’s uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest.” There is some truth in this statement, especially when one looks at where to cut our defense budget; “NOT in MY district they all howl!” But to submit that the antidote for this situation is a return to the draft would have disastrous consequences. I did not serve in the draft army, however I have a parallel experience which can better illustrate a more recent, post-Vietnam ‘draft’ conducted by our country.

    My initial enlistment into the army was a four year contract. After completing this I chose to get out – not because I didn’t like it. I felt (feel) that everyone should, in their own way, ‘pay their dinner tab’ for the honor of living in our country. If folks don’t want to raise their hand to jump out of airplanes carrying weapons and blow things up, so be it. There are other ways to serve, this was mine. Contractually I was obligated to our country for a total of eight years, and after being honorably discharged was placed into the category of Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). This allows our nation to carry a reserve of personnel who have gone through training and can be called upon to put the uniform back on if the President deems it necessary. Based upon the actions of Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War, POTUS deemed it necessary. Untold numbers of Infantrymen across the country received a telegram, yes a telegram, at their home of record address ordering that we all report to Ft. Benning for refresher training and follow-on deployment to the Gulf.

    During that time, I and other Non-Commissioned Officers had the distasteful duty of preparing our ‘units’ for combat. There were men among our ranks who wanted to be there and understood the legal, and for some, the moral obligation to get ready to fight. This was not, however, the majority. Many men loathed the idea that they could be recalled to duty (read your contracts gents) and were actively working against all efforts to train. The amount of in-fighting, insubordination, nightly fights in the barracks, and palpable disdain for the idea of being told what to do made the notion of going to combat, much less issuing ammunition to these men, untenable. Luckily, the rapid gains of the Coalition during the Gulf meant that me and my unlucky band of brothers did not have to see combat for that round. The key take away for this example is that these ‘drafted’, already Infantry-qualified men, did not willingly come back into the army, they were told to do so. The detrimental second and third order effects of pressing men into service have to be recognized.

    The opposite side to this coin is the overwhelmingly positive story of those of us serving in uniform after the attacks of 9-11. Enlisting in the military during a time of war, especially in a military occupational specialty designed purely for combat, takes a different kind of person. Unlike those being told to go train, these people are volunteering to train. We must recognize this distinction and realize that the very nature of these men will make unit cohesion, esprit de corps, professionalism, and ultimate lethality of our units far better. I agree that if the draft were to be instituted using a methodology that would honestly reflect equal representation of every segment of society, our choice to engage in conflict(s) would change. However, as you point out, it is unlikely at best that equal representation would be the product of a modern draft.


    “In my experience the soldiers of a professional army tend to come from low-income / low-chance of upward social mobility parts of the society. In contrast, the draft army gets into it’s ranks also superstar athletes and really intelligent people who would never dream about joining the army otherwise.”

    Cannot disagree with your position more. Whose army is it to which you refer? I can tell you that it is not the US military. I find your premise shallow and uninformed at best, and at worst insulting. The Pat Tillmans of today’s US military are the exception; however, that does NOT make other men who have raised their hand to march towards the sounds of guns less exceptional. If a US draft would catch “superstar athletes and really intelligent people” I guess we would all sleep better at night knowing that they would compensate for the non-athletic and dim witted folks who currently comprise the army. If you want to address the athleticism of current US Infantrymen, I would invite you to grab a ruck, body armor and all the other gear and go conduct movement to contact in mountains above 9,000 feet. With regard to “really intelligent” people; peruse an open-source search of all the current technologies employed downrange and see if you are able to not only be proficient with them, but do so under the constant threat of being killed.

    “I would say that the potential of a team to become super-quality performer is bigger in the drafted army because they’ve got better material.”

    What exactly is your definition of ‘super-quality’ in this statement? Let’s look at conventional and then non-conventional forces in the US; none of our adversaries employ a strategic/operational/tactical methodology which goes toe to toe with American combined arms forces. If we were to accepted your flawed premise that the all-volunteer combat forces are not ‘super-quality’, why don’t we open our aperture a bit and look at US and some of our allied Special Operations Forces; there are no ‘drafted’ Green Berets, Rangers, SEALs, AF SOF, UK/Australian/NZ SAS, Canadian SF, etcetera. Your supposition is indefensible when you look at this and combine it with MG Scales’ points on Israeli and Swiss forces.

    “My hunch is that a motivated draft army, e.g. when defending their home land, might well over-perform professionals with similar equippement.”

    When defending ones’ homeland, folks are going to fight harder, no doubt. Israel has nowhere to go and is vastly outnumbered by enemy forces who have historically tried to wipe them off the map; naturally they have a different motivation to fight. It is preferable to clear an objective building from the top down, and there is a reason. But to present an argument that posits poorly trained draftees, who haven’t had the same experience as SOF or professionally trained Infantrymen, would be better able to accomplish missions than volunteers who are motivated to do the job is wrong. I for one, do not want to be on a helicopter bound for an objective with a bunch of draftees on board who are poorly trained shots, don’t know how to use equipment on which volunteers have muscle memory, and have dubious fast-roping skills. .

  3. Sir MG, Dear G and Pikku Takki,

    I think you all have common ground: when it comes to defend homeland & being outnumbered (like Isarael vs neighbours, or like Finland vs Russia), draft is useful to get numbers to support smaller professional spearhead. As you all say, a key thing in that situation is the national social cohesion. So, let´s not say draft is bad per se.

    Naturally, if you are a powerful big nation like US, your situation and the whole foundation, purpose, possible scenarioes etc of the armed forces are different. Please continue your internal debat without too much generalisation.

  4. Gosh, GEN Scales, it’s great that we had an elite, ever-so-bright gaggle of geniuses in the AVF directing the quick and brilliant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq instead of the amateurs who fought World War II.

    You provided nothing empirical in this lamentable essay (I apologize to the noun for tying your piece to it), just a back of the cocktail napkin list of peeves you’d overhear in a backwoods O-Club.

    But, hey, next time I’m stoplossed to hooch with a felony waiver overseas, I’ll thank my lucky stars that we had GOs like you pimping the AVF.

  5. Scales,

    While I generally agree with your assertion that a draft is not only unnecessary, but probably harmful, I take issue with a number of your sub-arguments, finding some of them somewhat disingenuous. Your argument that the US Army during the Second World War fared poorly against the Germans in Normandy because it was a conscript one is especially bizarre, given that their German opponents were also conscripts! Mostly lower-tier divisions, at that. (Perhaps they fought better because of the more than 50,000 German soldiers executed for not doing their job?)
    Likewise, the Canadian Army during this period suffered much the same difficulties that you illustrate for the US. The difference of course, is that the vast majority of Canadian infantrymen were volunteers. Conscription was only implemented in Canada very late in the war, and only a small number of conscripts were forced to serve in combat in Europe. Few Canadians volunteered for the infantry, preferring instead the Navy, Armour, Artillery, Air Defence, or the Air Force. Of those who did end up in the infantry, they were generally of poor quality. The Canadian Army was chronically short of infantrymen throughout the war, and much like their American compatriots, made up over 70% of casualties.
    There are two themes at work here, one is the problem of lack of institutional competence (your comparison vs the Germans), and the other is the relative prestige of the military overall, and the combat arms in particular. Conscription can affect both, but do not do so necessarily.
    The final issue is you disingenuous choice of Switzerland as a conscription rolemodel, offhandedly demeaning their system because they haven’t fought a war this (or last) century. You ignore states such as Finland and Norway, as well as Sweden and Denmark (though those last two are quickly getting rid of it). What do these five countries have in common? They are all small states, with small populations, which require a military far larger than they would otherwise be able to afford. Conscription is a mechanic that allows a large army for cheap, and especially for home defence can be substantially useful if funds do not exist to maintain 4% of GDP on defence spending.
    Your argument over all is correct, it is better to have highly skilled, motivated professionals than disinterested, semi-skilled amateurs, and doubly so when fighting abroad. But the actual problems in past examples of conscription are more complex, and more transferable to volunteer forces than is sometimes let on.

  6. And although it would imply that these missives are edited by people who understand the rudiments of the subject matter, there were several factual errors here.

    The one that really bugs me is the notion that only the Army relied on conscripts. In the 20th century, the Marine Corps also drafted. In 1943, for example, the Corps realized that it needed enough manpower for upcoming intense combat and that it couldn’t get enough volunteers physically and mentally astute enough for the smallest service.

    For those keeping score at home, half of the men who registered under the Selective Service Act in 1942 failed to meet the physical or intellectual standards set for ANY of the services, a sum that reached 65 percent the following year for IV-Fs.

  7. I am generally opposed to taking people’s liberty and money from them for crack pot schemes, although, in this case, I think Dana Milbank is on to something. The only thing he got wrong was that he wants to draft 18 year olds. I can’t support that. But middle aged journalists who posit crack pot schemes, Now there’s an idea I could get behind.

  8. I reject the notion that either a professional or draft army is always or objectively superior as ahistorical. The argument neglects the context which led to and demanded the fighting force of any given war. And let’s be clear, a professional force is neither feasible nor necessary in such conflagrations as WWII, Civil War, or the Revolutionary War. I think, as well, there are more than enough ways to pervert recruitment so as to create a whole host of demographic problems in a professional army. I’m not sure General Scales would be so proud to cite the recruit targeting policies from the 90s, though I suspect they might explain some of the issues in OIF/OEF.

    I submit the problem comes down to this: whether draft or professional, the quality of an army is a reflection of the leadership and training.

  9. I am sorry to say that the logic and history are wrong on so many levels in this article.

    A historical fallacy in your article is that of the the Draft and the impact on Vietnam…
    I understand it might be Scales’ experience, but the vast historical narrative, especially in the Army, is that America was never tactically defeated in battle in Vietnam. If true, than logic follows that drafted infantry, while perhaps sub-par in ideal recruiting standards, performed admirably well – at least to achieve the military objectives set by the Professionals. Failure in Vietnam was not at the hands of the draftees, it was at the hands Professional Generals who could not properly translate political objectives into a coherent strategy, and a political leadership that used the Draft as the blank check mitigate against the activation of national Reserves.
    Scales’ discounts that it was not the draft as much as the way the Army used their draftees that led to many problems in Vietnam. When draftees were used as individual replacements and seen as FNG’s instead of being trained into cohesive units (like in WWII) as part of rotational force generation, perhaps Mom and Dad would feel their Sons were being treated like the national treasures they were instead of fodder to prevent activation of the Reserves/National Guard.
    With regards to its Social/nationalistic benefits, I am always surprised to see that the military perspective is about what Uncle Sam does to “bring up” the civilian. However, I have been embarrassed to see so many a Soldier/ Officer who has never worked a day in their life as a civilian disdain the hard work and sacrifices of the civilian community; a large majority who labor more, and perhaps contribute more to the social good on a daily basis than we in the military do, and for a lot less compensation. I am more concerned about the elitist drift of the volunteer military away from its civilian roots than I am about the civilian drift from the military.
    The GI ingenuity and adaptive thinking so celebrated in our Army (especially in WWII) is arguably NOT an output of our military training and professional education system, but is brought INTO our military from by our American (and immigrant) civilian culture and education system.

  10. I’d like to thank all of our readers who pointed out a few factual errors in the article. It is truly appreciated. The central message of the article, however, stands and I don’t think any critics here in the comments section have contested it.

    1. Mr. Evans,

      Looks like the fires here have already raged, but for the sake avoiding an echo chamber of opinion, I will outwardly disagree with Gen. Scales central theme, while admitting – historical inaccuracies noted above aside – that he makes some valid points.

      But I think we must be reminded of two things.

      The first is that a professional standing military, all volunteer (which in a perfect world I believe to be the ideal), along with a complete complement of reserves and national guard, are meant to act as the skeleton, or backbone of a fully mobilized force should the need arise.

      The other is that there is a nuanced difference between a draft per se, and universal military obligation. It really is the latter that Mr. Milbank yearns for in his column, not the former, but he expresses it with the all-too popular term of “draft.” And while I will let your readers further hash out that point…UMO does not equal a fully mobilized force.

      So there is some more food for thought.

      Very Respectfully,

      Telly Halkias

  11. I agree that the peacetime military should be professional and over equipped. And I agree that instating a draft is a somber affair not to be taken lightly. And I believe that historically the US is too quick to declare war and instate a draft to win it.
    On the other hand, I was raised in a country where we recited the pledge of allegiance every morning, I was also taught that it was every citizens duty to serve if the country called us to.
    When America goes to war, its not the army that votes the declaration into law, its America and then America goes to war not just the army.

    If the hired professionals are big enough that’s fine. Historically though they typically aren’t.
    If they aren’t pile in, because it may not end with them. It did’t end with the Army on September 11th 2001. It didn’t on December 7th 1941 either.

    The US Army is not the Army of the United States government its your Army.

  12. We need a draft. Here’s how it would work, Take the services personnel needs each year and starting at the top and alternating between the Best National Universities and Best Colleges lists in USNews rankings for the year, draft all of the students at each school who completed the sophomore year. Get them all man, woman, child, the halt, the lame, the deaf, blind, dumb, the disturbed, the Democrat. If they’re good enough to get in those schools, the services can use them. Make it for 2 years, pay them say $85/mth in ’68 dollars. Many MOS schools could be shortened with kids this bright. It would have a beneficial effect on the universities and schools, too. Returning vets wouldn’t be so gullible as current college juniors.
    And there’d be fewer wars, too. These kids’ parents would be people of influence and those willing to park in a congressman’s office to get an answer.
    Have GI Bill benefits, however, only for volunteers who enlisted for a 4 yr. enlistment on active duty.

  13. “But as soon as the bullets start to fly, the selective service system falls apart. ”

    Tell that to the draftees of WWI, WWII, Korea or Vietnam. I RA in 1967 to 1970. 2/3 of Vietnam combatants were RA and a substantial portion of them were as disgusted as the 1/3 US with the way the “professional” soldiers conducted the war. Grumbling, RA or US is a fact of life and won’t go away by having an all volunteer military. Duration of conscription and training intensity certainly impact field performance but those requirement are set at the top. Require the same training for both conscripts and volunteers and let’s see the results. As for education levels that is relatively meaningless. The number of college educated draftees during Vietnam was significant. 79% had a high school diploma or better and that was a high school diploma meant you ay have actually learned something and could count change. Having a college deferment didn’t mean a college grad couldn’t be drafted. I am opposed to a draft but that doesn’t obviate the fact that the general’s arguments are garbage.