Drafted Armies are Self-Killing Machines


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.