The Zombie Myths of Conscription


Few subjects have sparked as much political upheaval or disagreement as conscription. From draft riots during the Civil War to draft-fueled protests of the Vietnam War, conscription has galvanized political action like few other things in our nation’s history.

So it should be no surprise that the recent suggestion by military leaders to open conscription to women would spark some debate. Even though we haven’t used the draft since 1972, and even though it arguably ranks below nuclear weapons for likelihood of use, conscription arouses great passion because it represents a great clash of American ideals: deprivation of liberty on the one hand versus the need to band together for our common defense.

Enter my erstwhile colleagues Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel. They answer draft critics by arguing that the admittedly remote possibility of potential conscription must be preserved as the last thin thread binding America to its military. They also point to a series of myths about the draft that, in their opinion, are actually arguments in favor of keeping conscription on the table. However, their argument does more harm than good by resurrecting and adding more zombie myths, instead of relying on data and experience to make judgments about the best manpower system to serve our nation.

As far as myths go, both sides of this debate are guilty of trotting out canards to justify their arguments. I tried to puncture a few in a previous WOTR column, and yet, the canards live on like zombies. So let’s look at these latest ones, which echo points made by others, and see if we can ventilate a few zombie myths.

The first myth actually makes sense — to a point: We can’t predict war, so we need a draft as a hedge against uncertainty. Of all the arguments for selective service, this is probably the one that holds the most water. As Barno, Bensahel, and others have noted, America has a nearly unblemished record of failing to predict the next war. Just as we might need to develop new war plans or acquire new gear to fight future wars, so too might we need more troops.

However, it’s useful to think about how conscription fits into this potential scenario. Conscription only becomes relevant if we face a situation requiring tens of millions of additional men and women — and we have the political will to mobilize the nation to face that scenario. Short of Cuban paratroopers seizing middle America or Chinese infantry seizing Hawaii or the West Coast, it’s difficult to imagine that scenario (and even the imaginable scenarios have a very low probability of occurrence). The current model — wherein Americans substitute capital for their labor, buying military manpower instead of conscripting it, and using debt capital to do it — remains far more plausible for all but the most existential threats. Parenthetically, the greatest manpower failure of the past 15 years was not the decision to abstain from conscription; rather, it was the delayed expansion of the Army and Marine Corps to provide adequate forces for Iraq and Afghanistan. The services eventually expanded, but if that decision had been made in 2002 or 2003 instead of 2007, the services likely would have had an easier time shouldering the burdens of these wars. More broadly, this recent history shows that the all-volunteer force can expand to fight wars of this size, and even larger ones, without resorting to conscription, but only if national security leaders correctly set the size of the force.

Next, Barno and Bensahel question the myth of the all-volunteer force ensuring high quality. They suggest instead that a draftee force might actually raise the bar for the military. Here however, the data is decidedly mixed. Educational aptitude and attainment are significantly higher in today’s force than that of Vietnam or World War II — but that likely reflects improvements in society more than the military’s decision to recruit from a particular qualitative stratum. The Pentagon’s demographic data shows a steady upward trend in the quality of the force since 1973, as measured by a number of data points. Today’s enlisted recruits exceed the national average for nearly every benchmark, including educational aptitude, educational attainment, physical fitness, and criminal justice system involvement. However, the difference between today and 1973 may reflect more how bad things were in 1973 than how good things are now — the result of a really awful conscription machine that effectively drafted those who lacked the resources, means, or inclination to seek a deferment. Other data points, such as historically higher rates of courts-martial for the World War II and Vietnam cohorts, suggest that draftees may chafe under the yoke of service more than volunteers, another qualitative issue worth considering given the nexus between discipline and battlefield effectiveness.

Anecdotes abound of Ivy League draftees or draft-motivated volunteers like former Vice President Al Gore or former Washington Post CEO Don Graham — and the draft clearly did bring in many superbly qualified men who might not have otherwise served. However, in the main, the unequitable draft machine built and run for Vietnam brought in recruits who reflected the American average — or were below it in many cases, especially during the Vietnam War’s later years. Today’s military brings in recruits who exceed the American average.

This highlights one of conscription’s greatest dilemmas: how to decide who will serve when not all are needed. Our current cohort of 18–25-year-old men and women numbers roughly 36 million. Some small number of these might be actually unfit for service by reason of medical infirmity (the standards are far looser in times of national crisis than they are today), but the majority would be found fit to serve by a military doctor using 1943 or 1966 standards. Assuming we don’t need all 36 million troops, we will need to devise some system to select those who will be inducted. As a nation we have an abysmal track record of doing so — whether for equity or quality. We should not think we will do any better with conscription today than the marketplace approach that currently selects our all-volunteer force.

Finally, Barno and Bensahel dispute the myth that wars are too complicated today to be fought by conscripts, saying that tomorrow’s wars might require social media ninjas or financial wizards to fight on very different battlefields. Perhaps, but it doesn’t make economic, political, or strategic sense to use the levee en masse for such a narrow set of requirements. Conscription is a machine for mass mobilization, not a press gang for pulling specific persons off the street and putting them into national service. There are far better mechanisms to enlist this kind of specialized talent, including use of more flexible reserve component enlistments, contracting with private sector organizations, and use of civilian agencies that already have these people in a “whole of government” approach.

No argument for conscription would be complete without a civil-military relations argument; Barno and Bensahel do not disappoint, writing that “[w]ithout the possibility of a draft, however remote, the American people will never again have any personal exposure, no intimate skin in the game in the weighty national decision to go to war.” Perhaps — but here too the data is more mixed. We like to think that civil-military relations worked better during World War II because of mass mobilization, when everyone had skin in the game (including the Roosevelts themselves). But perhaps World War II worked better for other reasons, like having a stellar president who conducted civil-military relations well despite having no personal military experience. Vietnam also looms as the great counter-factual that conscription advocates often skip over. Veteran representation in Congress and the executive branch was at its height during the Vietnam War; conscription guaranteed the kind of civil-military link Barno and Bensahel applaud too. And yet, Vietnam unfolded as it did, with the nation seeing little benefit from conscription and massive veteran representation in Congress along the way. Conscription did help fuel antiwar protests, and those protests played some role in ending the war, but that’s different from saying that conscription or deeper civil-military ties lead to better national security decision-making. Indeed, leading civil-military scholars dispute the idea that closer personal ties to the military, or casualty sensitivity per se, have a major impact on support for wars, let alone a positive effect on national security decision-making.

The real argument for maintaining standby conscription via the Selective Service has little to do with civil-military relations or nostalgia for earlier wars when we used the draft. Instead, we keep conscription in the arsenal of democracy for the same reasons we retain other strategic weapons: We may need tens of millions of troops for some future, low-probability contingency that cannot be adequately met by the all-volunteer force. Instead of trading myths back and forth, we ought to focus the debate on hard evidence about ways the all-volunteer force works or fails, as well as hard evidence about the successes and failures of conscription. We ought to also think of ways to modernize this tool in our arsenal, including but not limited to adding women to the pool of available American draftees; updating our antiquated system of registration, selection, and induction; and integrating mass mobilization into Defense Department contingency plans alongside full mobilization of the reserves and other measures. A clear, evidence-based debate on the future of the all-volunteer force and the Selective Service will serve us better than more discussion about myths, particularly those that live on like zombies.


Phillip Carter is a former Army officer and Iraq veteran who directs the Military, Veterans and Society research program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.


Photo credit: Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hamilton, U.S. Army