Why The Draft is a Forlorn Hope


In the 17th century it was customary to begin assaults on fortified places with a wave called the “forlorn hope,” led by a junior officer who could expect to die in the attempt — or live to see himself decorated and promoted. In a recent editorial, former Marine Lieutenant Benjamin Luxenberg launched a forlorn hope of sorts for America’s draft advocates. Luxenberg’s goal, as expressed in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, is to lead the masses into what he calls “America’s last bastion of social and economic equality” — the armed forces.

The nub of our era’s great problem of inequality, as Luxenberg sees it, is not inequality per se, which he concedes is here to stay, but the lack of noblesse oblige and trust between America’s increasingly immutable classes. The children of the elite, he accurately notes, are unlikely to serve. But, he argues, they are the ones that are fated to lead. “If more of society’s privileged served in uniform,” he dreams, “we would foster leaders from more spheres — military, business, government — who know firsthand the rewards of caring for their fellow citizens.”

There is no “solution” in Luxenberg’s article. There isn’t even a problem. While he seeks to address “inequality,” and his citing of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century notwithstanding (which only proves that he’s been to a bookstore in the last year), he doesn’t engage deeply with the nature of the problem. Although he bemoans a “lack of trust,” he fails to explain who does not trust whom.

Such aimlessness pervades the current raft of articles on the draft and its glories. The problem is that many of the draft advocates see conscription as a panacea, and when you have the solution to everything, problem definition becomes unimportant. John Bridgeland, who is working with retired General Stanley McChrystal to encourage a national service program, is guilty of the grandest flights of fancy. “The World War II generation that served together had higher levels of charitable contributions, volunteering, voting, social trust, trust in one another,” he recently gushed to Dana Milibank of the Washington Post. “Even the gap between rich and poor was at its lowest levels. This greatest generation had an ethic of service that transcended politics and partisanship and belief.”

Bridgeland, who never served a day in uniform, is propagandizing, but his utopian language is not as atypical as one would hope. In a love note to the draft within James Fallows’ recent series on the “tragedy of the American military” in The Atlantic, 1950s draftee Joseph Epstein argues that a new draft can give young Americans “a vivid sense of the social breadth of the country,” which would change “the American social fabric” for the better. The questions of how the American social fabric would change and to what end, of course, remain unanswered — such is utopianism.

The idea that the military draft may have a military purpose in addition to its social one has not entirely escaped the latest commentators. Epstein, for example, insists that a draft “would redistribute the burden of the responsibility for fighting wars, and engage the nation in military conflicts in a more immediate and democratic way.” This, of course, is the answer to all of our ills, because as James Fallows’ centerpiece in that series insists, “[civil-military] disengagement inevitably leads to dangerous decisions the public barely notices,” and is the root of all foreign policy evil. “The next time we go to war,” retired Admiral Michael Mullen told Fallows, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for it.”

Utopianism and vagueness are not all that these articles have in common. A disproportionate number of them emanate from Harvard University — Luxenberg is a Harvard grad student, and Bridgeland a Harvard grad. James Fallows is also a Harvard man, and tiresomely annotates every Harvard alumnus in his article (other schools get no such treatment). Harvardians’ arms-length embrace of the draft has become something of a joke. As Andrew Exum recently quipped on Twitter,

Of course, the problem is not Harvard. That is an institution whose record of service to the nation and martial glory, as measured in the number of Medals of Honor awarded to its graduates, surpasses every other civilian university. The problem is that these authors are excessively self-important.

Fallows is the greatest sinner. In a 1975 article that was both honestly arrogant and honestly regretful, he recalled escaping the draft by lying to draft examiners in Boston during the Vietnam War. He then watched the “white proles of Boston… walk through the examination lines like so many cattle off to the slaughter.” The idea that duty might animate such animals seems inconceivable to him. Or maybe, he can only recognize duty if it is mandated.

Fallows, funnily enough, doesn’t ever call for a new draft in his article, despite sending Epstein out to reconnoiter the terrain (he has called for one in the past). Neither does James Kitfield, in a suggestive recent profile highlighting retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry’s struggles with the limits of the All-Volunteer Force in the National Journal. “Somehow,” Eikenberry carefully, vaguely, and usefully concludes, “we have to find ways to reconnect the American people and their armed forces, so that there is a more direct and visceral understanding of the political, social and economic costs of war.” He is not alone among famous retired generals in rejecting the draft while singing its praises — Mullen mirrors Eikenberry’s studied ambiguity, while McChrystal does not back a draft but a civilian national service program.

In fact, no retired senior military leader or major newspaper’s editorial board has come out in favor of a real return to the draft. That is why former Lieutenant Luxenberg’s assault is a forlorn hope that has — for now, at least — achieved nothing. Such posturing will go on, though. With many of the would-be presidential candidates expressing interest in national service, including Hilary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, and Rob Portman, according to Milibank, there is a draft debate looming.

I, for one, am proud that I am part of a professional force that protects a citizenry free of the burden of soldiering. That force is probably here to stay. The benefits of dismantling it are slim. As Nate Fick argued a decade ago — after Rep. Charles Rangel proposed a draft only to see it crushed in Congress with only two voting in favor — there is no clear military benefit to implementing the draft. And the case that public engagement ensures that we get the political side of war right has always been shaky. The political costs, moreover, are great — in implementing a draft, politicians would be limiting the versatility of the world’s most important force for stability in order to put constituents in harm’s way.

These realities, however, do not matter to everyone. There will be a battle in the newspapers, magazines, and blogs over the draft, and it will be unpleasant for those of us who fear leading conscripts off to war. Sadly, we can expect that it will continue to be characterized by fantastic exaggeration about the ability of the military to solve both America’s problems and the world’s, and by grandstanding by well-meaning people peddling terrible advice. Fortunately, its outcome is predictable. America’s military will remain professional, and its people will remain free.


Second Lieutenant T.S. Allen in an intelligence officer in the United States Army. The views expressed in his work are his own and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense or any other part of the United States Government. Follow him on Twitter @TS_Allen.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army