Why We Still Need the Draft

February 23, 2016

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The recent political fracas over women and the draft is making headlines around the country and has become a campaign issue in the Republican presidential primaries. But this debate raises even more profound questions about the need for — and value of — the draft more broadly. Put simply, Selective Service is the only remaining thread in American society that ties all U.S. citizens to their military. It links the American people to the nation’s wars, and the risks of military service in those wars, through the fundamental responsibility of defending the country when needed. It also continues to serve an often-overlooked but nevertheless important role in protecting American security.

Many Americans are questioning whether the draft remains relevant in the 21st century. Today’s U.S. military is widely considered the most advanced, the most powerful, the best-led, and the most capable military in the world. The all-volunteer force has proved both successful and resilient since it was established in 1973, to include the harshest test thus far of its capabilities — the last 15 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the stresses of repeated deployments to highly demanding combat environments, it remained largely well disciplined and effective. Some members of Congress believe that this remarkable performance means that the United States should abolish the draft. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who recently co-sponsored a bill that would do exactly that, explained his position by saying that the “all-volunteer military has given us the most elite fighting force in the history of the country.”

But those who see the draft as an ineffective or irrelevant artifact of the past are wrong. Three myths dominate their thinking.

We will never again need a draft. Why are we even having this conversation? No one can predict the future of war. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once quipped, since the Vietnam War, the United States has a perfect record of predicting the next war: “we have never once gotten it right.” As we wrote last month, the U.S. military must remain prepared to fight a really big war that might require a much larger force — which could well require a draft. Even though that scenario remains unlikely, the consequences of being unable to wage such a war could prove disastrous. The Selective Service System also helps serve as a deterrent and a symbol of national will. Deterrence is not only a function of current power; it also includes the nation’s potential power when galvanized — military, economic, diplomatic, and even social. Maintaining the mechanism to implement conscription means that in times of crisis, the United States can send an indisputable signal of national resolve by choosing to start a draft, even one of modest size.

Draftees dilute the quality of the force and diminish military effectiveness. This inaccurate perspective is a clear legacy of Vietnam. By the end of that war, the U.S. military was plagued by drug abuse, racial tensions, and serious indiscipline. Many military personnel equate these maladies with conscription — despite the fact that as one of us can personally attest, these problems also plagued much of the first decade of the all-volunteer force. The military’s experience with large draft armies in 1917, 1941 and 1953 further demonstrates that this perspective is simply wrong. Draftees performed remarkably well during those wartime periods, perhaps because they were serving in conflicts widely supported by the American people. We now refer to the draftees who served in World War II as “The Greatest Generation.” There is no reason to expect that would automatically be any different in the future. And even though only 29 percent of those recently surveyed said that the United States should have a military draft, public opinion could shift quickly — especially in the aftermath of an attack on the United States (terrorist or otherwise) that were to kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of Americans (let alone millions).

Wars are way too complicated today for anyone but long-serving professionals. Draftees will be useless or worse, disruptive. Conscription in the future could look very different than the draft calls of Vietnam or Korea, which were designed to provide more infantrymen for the fight. The changing shape of future wars may require conscripting the nation’s best experts at code writing, hacking, and cyber security to rapidly build a world-class cadre of cyber warriors. There might be an immediate need to put financial experts and market analysts into uniform to help protect the nation from potentially disruptive economic warfare. Or the military might need to mobilize social media gurus who can help understand and then undercut the insidious messaging of highly sophisticated adversaries aiming to inflame and radicalize populations at home and abroad. These targeted conscripts might also be drafted to be reservists, splitting time between uniformed and civilian jobs and leveraging skills from both. This 21st-century, cutting-edge human capital is unlikely to be found in today’s military — yet may prove crucial in a future major war.

These points show that the draft has both a current and future practical role in the nation’s defense. Abolishing Selective Service would strip an important arrow from the quiver of American defenses. The prospect of a future draft — even a modest, targeted one — serves as a quiet but important hedge against an unknowable future filled with ever-changing threats to the nation. The United States must always retain an emergency way to respond to existential threats, and if necessary, mobilize parts or all of society in response.

Yet there is an even more profound reason to maintain the Selective Service system: It plays a very important role in linking the American people to military service. Without 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.

The gap between the American people and their military is growing ever larger, which is the less talked-about downside to the success of the all-volunteer force. Relying on self-selected volunteers to carry the nation’s burden of going to war has slowly become an accepted norm, somewhat like the roles of firefighters and police. Most Americans believe it is perfectly acceptable for those who volunteer to fight for the nation to do so — others need not concern themselves, and don’t. They have effectively outsourced war to others — the sons and daughters of military families, rural youngsters from the south and west, high school students looking toward generous G.I. Bill benefits — all volunteers admirably wanting to serve their country.

But this outlook is deeply unhealthy for the nation. It is morally wrong to shift the nation’s only exposure to large-scale mortal risk in defending our society onto only a handful of fellow citizens. That responsibility belongs to all of us. It is a fundamental tenet of the American experiment in democracy that all citizens share the burdens of defending the nation in times of crisis. We let that long-held touchstone of American citizenship disappear at great risk. Once gone, the will and ability to mobilize the larger nation to fight — even when necessary — would be immensely hard to resurrect, both practically and philosophically.

Selective Service preserves a slender thread connecting the American people to the force of arms, to society’s momentous and always-deadly decision to go to war. Maintaining mechanisms for a draft also provides a strategic “shock absorber” so that the country can mobilize parts or all of society in an existential crisis. Absent the possibility of a draft, Americans will grow ever more distant from the military, from the debates by their elected leaders on the use of force, from the need to think about America’s changing role in a dangerous world, and most importantly, from personally sharing the risks of war. The distance today between those who fight and those who ultimately send them to war has grown substantially in the last decade and a half. Maintaining Selective Service is a small but important way to ensure it grows no wider.

 

Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

 

Photo credit: Senior Airman Micky M. Bazaldua, U.S. Air Force

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8 thoughts on “Why We Still Need the Draft

  1. This is an interesting perspective. I agree we need some manner of connecting our citizens in general with the wars typically fought by a very few. Even without the risk of being conscripted, Americans should be extremely interested in how we expend our blood, treasure, and other national resources.

    Unfortunately, no one needs to cancel conscription, because the system is largely dead. It was created at a time when each of the services operated multiple recruiting bases, each at partial capacity. How much growth capacity is there in our boot camps today? How many additional bodies per class can we push through? How many additional slots are available in each drill instructor class (because we will need many more)? These issues will ripple down the line, as most recruits fresh out of basic training require one or more additional schools, which often have limited seats and limited numbers of classes per year (in some cases courses are only taught once or twice per year due to the length of the course). Is there a possibility to ramp up these classes, or will we create bottle necks of partially trained soldiers?

    None of these issues is a true show stopper. During the course of both World War 1 and World War 2, we rapidly built, used, and dismantled multiple training camps and bases, both here and overseas. However, ramping up will create a significant drain on active duty resources that would presumably be needed for a high end, manpower intensive fight. It may be possible to backfill with reservists, either in the fight or in the training camps, but again, we are not structured that way today (i.e., no one is training to be a war-time conscript trainer). Some schools could perhaps be eliminated, credit might be given for similar civilian qualifications and training, etc., but that process should be defined and in place today with the volunteer system (might streamline some training and save costs as well).

    As unpopular as the idea would be, we should probably consider activating the selective service system on a limited basis to fulfill a small portion of required recruiting each year (say about 10%). This would exercise the system, so we can determine where the problems are. We should be prepared to address all of the complaints that will come, concerning college deferments, conscientious objectors, health deferments, tattoos, etc. Given the many things that might disqualify a volunteer applicant, we should also study how many conscripts we have to find, process, and reject to get the 10% of annual numbers we need. Another complaint or source of resistance will be the active and reserve components in place today. Given the way we seem to be tightening up various rules to increase attrition rates (and therefore reduce the number of retirements and high paid individuals), you will have to justify conscripting people who may not want to be there to replace people who really wanted to stay. Someone should start drafting that message carefully.

    1. As a Vietnam War draftee, I must take exception to LTG Barno’s characterization of my service as “diluting the quality of the force and diminish military effectiveness” and that this “ was a clear legacy of Vietnam.”

      I recognize that LTG Barno did not enter active duty until 1976, long after the last draftee (who had not join the regular Army) had been discharged so he never even met let alone served with a draftee. Hence, he has no direct knowledge how draftee’s performed so probably shouldn’t have denigrated their service here.

      As a high school grad 1966 draftee who served as an enlisted man in a combat battalion in Germany before accepting an OCS offer, I attended still have a “US serial number” and was commissioned not yet old enough to drink at the Officers Club. By 1976, I had had a CIB earning extended tour in Vietnam and commanded four different combat companies so I had extensive experience soldering with and commanding both volunteers (RAs) and Draftees (USs) and I would have been hard pressed to tell which was which without referring to a unit roster. With few exceptions, their performance was identical – except for a few memorable exceptions, e.g. one of my company clerks, an MIT electrical engineer grad draftee, was exceptionally competent. A regular Radar O’Reilly.

      I went on to serve as a combat battalion executive officer, a divisional combat battalion commander and a brigade-level commander so also experienced the VOLAR transition and all volunteer force. The conclusion I have come to about Soldiers over my 30 years in uniform is that in the 240+ years of the Army, Soldiers are Soldiers and they have changed very little. They may now be on average a little more educated, as is the entire US population, and they still gripe about everything but when it comes to duty, they perform! During Vietnam, both inductees and enlistees knew they were in it for 2 or 3 years and then they would be out to get on with their lives so while in Service they would just make the best of it. The vast majority did their duty as expected.

      Finally, it appears LTG Baron has fallen victim to what the Washington Post dubbed in their 1986 in depth examination of who actually fought the Vietnam War “The Myth of the Vietnam Vet.” The article stated: “The man who fought in Vietnam is typically depicted as a draftee, unwilling and probably black. In fact, 73 percent of those who died were volunteers and 12.5 percent were black (out of an age group that comprised 13.5 percent of the male population).” It goes on to point out that the average “name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall” was a kid from a middle class Zip Code.

      For a good explanation of the Vietnam War Draft, see my Blog article at: http://old-soldier-colonel.blogspot.com/2015/05/what-did-vietnam-era-age-members-of.html

  2. Any crisis that would be large enough and dangerous enough to cause the majority of our electorate and governing elites to support the idea of a return to the draft would, as part of those same characteristics, not allow us the time needed to do so.

    You’re wasting your time with these ‘logical’ arguments for a draft. In a democracy, all military logic must be filtered through the lens of that nation’s domestic political reality. Barring existential crisis, only what comes through that lens can be turned into operative policy.

    Our only practical way forward militarily is through the furtherance of the RMA, in particular, through its latest terminological incarnation, the “Third Offset Strategy.” In sum: a relatively small but highly elite (and most assuredly all-volunteer) force that’s given the combat power it needs through ever-increasing increments of high-tech weaponry, both human-guided and autonomous, cyber and kinetic, earth- and space-based.

    Period — end of paragraph — end of page — end of chapter.

  3. Yes, the draft remain in place and be effected when needed. But, in the interim, the policy and particulars of the draft should be reviewed and reformed. Specifically, the draft should not be haphazard (i.e.., pulling names from a hat; pulling birthdates/years from a hat; etc). The draft should focus on those personnel (male and female) with the skillset(s) needed by the military. As an example, if the Services need IT specialists, those (college graduates with an appropriate degree; IT certified) with the appropriate qualifications are drafted. The same with mechanics, nurses, doctors, etc. Secondly, only those persons with a given intelligence level are drafted; no more McNamara 100,000; no more 2 years in prison or join a military service; NO MORE RANDOMNESS. Next, we need to relook the draft as being for only 2 years. Why not 3 or 4 years? Such would ensure that, if a draftee requires extensive skill training (i.e. aircraft avionics technician), a draftee has ample time to receive training AND ample time to work in the field in which trained. Lastly, let’s not fool ourselves. The draft should have been restarted for the wars (Afghanistan, Iraq) in which we have and continue to be involved. As noted in this article, many of our military service members have seen repeated tours of duty in the combat zone. In more than a few cases, some were returned to the combat zone and should not have been due to PTSD or due to simply being worn out. Other service members were subjected to Stop Loss and were required to remain on active duty for months/years beyond their respective enlistment requirement. And a draft was/is needed because the deficiency in military personnel was addressed by the government contracting civilians (to include armed personnel/Black Water) to work in the combat zone. By 2007, the number of contractors/non-military US personnel in Iraq exceeded the number of US military personnel. And, finally, without a draft, most Americans (specifically the mothers and fathers of draft age eligible men and women) have no skin in the game of war, and the US Government (including members of Congress) can more easily support and undertake a war. Slapping a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on a vehicle and accusing those who do not support going to war as being unpatriotic is easy when you do not have skin in the game.

  4. As a Vietnam War draftee, I must take exception to LTG Barno’s characterization of my service as “diluting the quality of the force and diminish military effectiveness” and that this “ was a clear legacy of Vietnam.”

    I recognize that LTG Barno did not enter active duty until 1976, long after the last draftee (who had not join the regular Army) had been discharged so he never even met let alone served with a draftee. Hence, he has no direct knowledge how draftee’s performed so probably shouldn’t have denigrated their service here.

    As a high school grad 1966 draftee who served as an enlisted man in a combat battalion in Germany before accepting an OCS offer, I attended still have a “US serial number” and was commissioned not yet old enough to drink at the Officers Club. By 1976, I had had a CIB earning extended tour in Vietnam and commanded four different combat companies so I had extensive experience soldering with and commanding both volunteers (RAs) and Draftees (USs) and I would have been hard pressed to tell which was which without referring to a unit roster. With few exceptions, their performance was identical – except for a few memorable exceptions, e.g. one of my company clerks, an MIT electrical engineer grad draftee, was exceptionally competent. A regular Radar O’Reilly.

    I went on to serve as a combat battalion executive officer, a divisional combat battalion commander and a brigade-level commander so also experienced the VOLAR transition and all volunteer force. The conclusion I have come to about Soldiers over my 30 years in uniform is that in the 240+ years of the Army, Soldiers are Soldiers and they have changed very little. They may now be on average a little more educated, as is the entire US population, and they still gripe about everything but when it comes to duty, they perform! During Vietnam, both inductees and enlistees knew they were in it for 2 or 3 years and then they would be out to get on with their lives so while in Service they would just make the best of it. The vast majority did their duty as expected.

    Finally, it appears LTG Baron has fallen victim to what the Washington Post dubbed in their 1986 in depth examination of who actually fought the Vietnam War “The Myth of the Vietnam Vet.” The article stated: “The man who fought in Vietnam is typically depicted as a draftee, unwilling and probably black. In fact, 73 percent of those who died were volunteers and 12.5 percent were black (out of an age group that comprised 13.5 percent of the male population).” It goes on to point out that the average “name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall” was a kid from a middle class Zip Code.

  5. The draft is unlikely to be needed except for a war against Russia or China maybe a hyphotetical war against India or Brazil.Against small scale terror groups the AVF is good enough.Maybe a war against Iran if it lead to occupation would need a draft.Using the current population and size of Iran plus the fact that is a mountainous country by and large the US would need probably a permanent force of at least 400 thousand stationed there if it wanted to keep things somewhat under control.For any other war they would not be needed.I don’t really believe in the idea that conscripts are not competent for todays high tech military lets not forget someone who is 18 today is born around 1998 he/she would have grown up in a high tech environment at home there is the fact that short of all out war with large countries these persons are not needed.Still the selective service should stay in place just in case since the actual cost is not that high.Compared to the real ‘black holes’ in the federal budget the selective service is largely inexpensive.

  6. Let’s take a look at a couple of other myths:

    1. “It is a fundamental tenet of the American experiment in democracy that all citizens share the burdens of defending the nation in times of crisis.”

    This statement sounds good, but is patent nonsense. Conscription has never been constant through American history, and no draft has been universal. Suffice to say, those with the means and the skills could figure out a way to avoid conscription.

    2. A conscript force will bring the U.S. population closer to its military.

    This is based on the belief that we reach a state where “everyone knows someone who’s served.” But it only happens if we radically expand the existing force — otherwise, we’re still only taking a small slice of those eligible, regardless of how we get them.

    3. A conscript force will provide a natural brake on military adventurism.

    There is no evidence that conscription every had an effect on the uses to which the government put the military. The public outcry over the Vietnam War is oft-cited for this perception. But this was as much or more due to the proliferation of television into American homes, coupled with advances in video and communications technology that allowed rapid dissemination of information and images from the war zone, as it was to draft-age students burning their draft cards.

    “Most Americans believe it is perfectly acceptable for those who volunteer to fight for the nation to do so — others need not concern themselves, and don’t.” There is conflicting data on this. It’s true there are polls and studies indicating that the current crop of 18-35 year olds don’t feel any compulsion to military service, but don’t see anything wrong with employing the military we have. This begs further questions, since the latest practical example we have — after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — saw many people who otherwise had no previous interest in military service marching straight down to enlist. It’s very possible that the current generation of potential draftees sees no reason to seek military service *except* in time of crisis. That’s a much different picture.

    This article, like its predecessors, is product of a vision that wasn’t quite true when we had a draft…it’s less true now.

  7. Sorry, but no. The argument that “Selective Service is the only remaining thread in American society that ties all U.S. citizens to their military” is something that has not been true since the end of WW II. Korea continues to be the “Forgotten War” and the draftees in Vietnam were additive to the schism between the military and the US public courtesy of the media. The link to the people because of a draft remains in the memories, books, and movies of the “Greatest Generation” and in no way relates to the draftees of Korea and Vietnam.
    The American people were very glad to distance themselves from the draft once it ended and many don’t even know what it’s supposed to do besides, for men only, be some number they have to use when filling out a job application and the “association” is that the draft is only for combat positions which remains a fallacy today (and in this article with one exception).
    Since we’re supposed to be ready for some future giant war, it’s ironic the article writers used Robert Gates as their source to “debunk” the first myth. While Gates did say we get it wrong, he also says we will continue to see the type of wars we’ve been fighting for the past 15 years for the next several decades. As for the authors noting that the Selective Service “…serve[s] as a deterrent and a symbol of national will” the last time I looked, our political will and resourcing falls massively short of what we need to actually prosecute a future “large war.” And since the failure of the authors to note how long it would take to actually ramp up to accommodate a potential hundreds of thousands of conscripts, the funding required, the lack of facilities, the weakness of such facilities to enemy attack given today’s capabilities (armed drones anyone?), and the near lack of industrial capability the US had during WW II, which it does not have now, and the weapons systems we do have now take years to build to replace combat losses, what would these conscripts do, follow the Chinese model of 1 in every 5 riflemen have a weapon and when that guy gets shot the next guy picks it up?
    Perhaps the article writers could revisit history when the US, completely unprepared for WW II in personnel trained, equipment outdated, and not enough weapons and equipment to go around for training until production could start up resulted in Soldiers training with broomsticks and cars until rifles and tanks could be made available. And we got our asses handed to us in North Africa and the Pacific until mid- to late-1942. Our guys fought hard, but they were unprepared and a draft now would equal similar results; especially since we don’t have thousands of available instructors to train them or facilities to house them.
    Our adversaries and potential adversaries can read and see the problems the US has with the problems of weight in our recruiting, and potential conscript, population. Recent percentages show only 27% of the available military age civilians could even pass basic training right now (the rest are too fat); throwing everyone in who is underprepared, overweight, and unable to “cope” as a force our adversaries should be wary of is laughable.
    The Russians and the Chinese have a massive pool of 100s of millions to pull from, the US, not so much. Both Russia and China have been rearming, upgrading, and pushing outward while the US “battles the budget as the main enemy;” one of the richest and most powerful nations on the planet can’t fund its military and has to cut it.
    Only the author’s last “myth” even comes close to the real issue: that a draft would not be only for combat positions which uneducated and moronic lawmakers are ignoring. Current lawmakers claiming “we don’t trust…to not draft our mothers and daughters to be sent to die” show an ignorance and level of condescension that boggles the mind. So its ok for mothers, wives, daughters, etc to die in combat positions 9and 200 already have) if they volunteer but not be drafted? Seriously?
    The Selective Service eats about $23 million annually to ensure I have a number to put on a job application but women do not have to worry about it. I’m not seeing the return and since 1973, at roughly $23 million per year, that means nearly $1 billion has been spent resulting in….what? Since the budget is the enemy, why aren’t low hanging fruit like the Selective Service done away with? If the US can, as the authors note, really ramp up to get a draft going, they certainly don’t need this money vampire taking resources and people that could be used elsewhere.
    After all, after WW I (1920-1940) and WW II (1947-1948) the Selective Service was discontinued and later refined and brought back. The Selective Service draft that occurred during Vietnam was so full of exemptions it guaranteed class separation by allowing deferments for rich, college/university/ etc families resulting in poor families taking the draft brunt. JFK exempted married men from 19-26 and while LBJ rescinded that he kept married men with children or other dependents exempt (not something that occurred in WW I or WW II). President Ford eliminated the draft and Selective Service in 1975; however, Jimmy Carter brought it back in 1980 as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
    Since 1908-1986 there were only 20 indictments (19 of which were due to those folks publicizing they had nto registered—which shows a failure in enforcement) for failing to register and the last prosecution was 1986 30 years ago).
    There are also the Federal “Solomon Amendments” that make registration for the draft a condition of Federal student aid, jobs, job training, etc by prohibiting the denial of any “right, privilege, benefit, or employment position under Federal law on the grounds that the person failed to present himself for and submit to registration” that would need to be addressed as well. How is it women can get all this without a Selective Service number but I can’t if I don’t register? It’s a double standard as of right now.