The Greatest Sacrifice: Why Military Service Should Not Be an Obligation of Citizenship


Earlier this month, War on the Rocks columnists David Barno and Nora Bensahel urged Americans to use Memorial Day as an opportunity to reconsider their obligations to their country. In light of the increasing irrelevance of military service in the lives of most citizens, they argued that it is necessary to “strengthen and reinforce the principle that U.S. citizenship requires serving and defending the nation when called.” The introspection they call for should continue throughout the year and would certainly contribute to an improved civil-military dialogue. However, it is important to understand the historical relationship between the U.S. military and society, as well as to consider current research on the consequences of military service. While Barno and Bensahel are correct to raise concerns about the growing alienation of most of American society from the military, we should be deeply skeptical of the common argument that conscription could help close America’s civil-military divide. The way to revitalize civic responsibility is not by linking it with military service. Conscription – something far less ingrained in America’s historical tradition than Barno and Bensahel allow for – will not redistribute the burden of war as widely across society as many proponents think it will, and it may not make war less likely. Making it an obligation of citizenship may only deepen the divide between those who serve and those who do not or cannot.

Barno and Bensahel do not explicitly call for a renewed draft, but they do argue that this would be more consistent with historical American practices: “For most of U.S. history,” they write, “serving in the military during times of war has been seen as a fundamental obligation of citizenship.” In reality, however, the American norm has been to rely on an all-volunteer force rather than conscription. The United States had a small standing army of volunteers for most of its history. Early wars were primarily fought by calling on troops from state militias, whose nominal mandatory service requirements were drastically affected by exemptions and substitutions — the practice of paying a fee to the government to avoid service or to someone else to serve in your place. Indeed, the founding fathers were torn over the idea of a national standing army. National conscription was tested for the first time only briefly during the Civil War, but its implementation halfway through the war was met with violent demonstrations in which hundreds died.

Barno and Bensahel’s more limited claim that conscription was the norm during wars is true, though only for a specific time period in the 20th century. However, it is far from clear that future wars — even major wars between great powers—will require the same reliance on mass armies populated by conscripts. Advances in technology have reduced demands for mass armies and enabled countries to substitute capital for labor in their militaries. While the draft may become necessary in the event of “a really big war,” registration through the Selective Service System ensures the United States maintains the capability to quickly expand its forces. It seems imprudent to redefine citizenship by implementing a draft while such a scenario is still unlikely.

It is also not the case that the “ultimate sacrifice,” as Barno and Bensahel write, “has almost always been borne by the entire population.” While that might be the ideal, exemptions and substitutions ensured that the costs of military service were far from equally distributed across society. The poor have always been more likely to be drafted, while blacks suffered a disproportionate number of combat casualties during the Civil War as well as in Vietnam. Even after educational deferments were reduced and the lottery system was implemented in the late 1960s, equity continued to be a major issue.

The draft in the United States was never an institution that supported the ideal of a citizen-soldier, or the notion that military service is a civic duty incumbent on all citizens. Its abolition in 1973, therefore, is not responsible for destroying a culture of civic obligation and replacing it with one that emphasizes personal choice. Indeed, Ronald Krebs argues that the transition from a republican conception of citizenship obligation and identification with the state to a liberal emphasis on individual rights took place much earlier, in the years after World War II. If anything, the end of conscription reflected this shift — it did not cause it. Similarly, modern American entitlement programs arose from demands to care for and reward soldiers who served in the mass conscript armies of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Far from representing an obligation of citizenship, conscription in these wars was something that merited unusual compensation, requiring the differentiation of civilians and veterans.

This is not to suggest that soldiers in these wars were not motivated by a sense of civic duty or patriotism. The point is that throughout American history, there has not been a general expectation of military service as an obligation of citizenship.

Would a return to conscription rebuild an ethos of service in America’s citizens? This seems unlikely. As long as conscription is based on selective service — the induction of only some members of an eligible age cohort, as opposed to universal enlistment — inequalities will remain. Yet universal military service seems both unlikely and ill-advised. In the entire current 17–24 year old age cohort — 33.4 million men and women — the U.S. Army Recruiting Command has determined only 9.7 million are physically and mentally qualified for service, and an even smaller number are the high caliber recruits the army strives for. Even if we assume universal service would be performed only by 18 year-olds before they enter college (current Selective Service System numbers report more than 1.5 million 18 year-old men have registered for the draft), it makes sense that the same proportion of registrants would be eligible. This leaves two options: either draft a remarkably low proportion of the total population — denying a large number of people the opportunity to fulfill an “obligation” of citizenship and retaining the ethos of a small “warrior caste” — or drastically reduce military standards to allow all 3 million 18 year-old men and women to serve. Even if a useful purpose could be found for the entire cohort, the American public has demonstrated little willingness to pay for the much larger military this would produce without simultaneously reducing the size of the professional force — a decision that would have further consequences for the quality of the armed forces.

Setting aside the citizenship question, might a return to conscription have positive consequences for American foreign policy and civil-military relations? Barno and Bensahel raise two possibilities. First, they make the oft-repeated argument that it might make leaders more hesitant to go to war, since more people would suffer the consequences. Indeed, there is evidence to support the notion that the draft decreases popular support for war, particularly among individuals who are most likely to be drafted. However, it is not immediately obvious that leaders would be responsive to the public’s preferences. One need only look to Vietnam or Iraq to see examples of leaders continuing to fight broadly unpopular wars.

In addition, some research actually supports a conclusion opposite of that suggested by Barno and Bensahel: Countries that use conscription are more likely to get involved in militarized interstate disputes and operations other than war. This could be because the draft creates a more readily available supply of personnel that can be used in conflict. Some viewed conscription as a cause of World War I and sought to abolish it after the war, with Jan Smuts arguing that conscription was “the taproot of militarism.” This is also supported by research indicating that countries tend be less judicious in how they use conscript soldiers, resulting in greater casualties among conscript armies compared to those constituted only of volunteers. While the research to date has not distinguished between countries that employ only some conscripts compared to those where conscription is more widespread and affects a broader portion of the population, it should at least give us pause before assuming that conscription makes countries more peaceful.

The second advantage of conscription that Barno and Bensahel list is that it would increase American readiness in the event of renewed great power conflict. While numerical military strength would inevitably increase, resolve for a long and bloody conflict might be lower if conscription diminishes popular support for war, thereby reducing the country’s bargaining power. Similarly, this argument elides an important question: If conscription is deeply unpopular, should leaders get involved at all in wars that require conscription to win? The draft is justifiable in the event of an existential conflict; short of that, however, widespread opposition to conscription seems to be a reasonable democratic brake on conflicts that are otherwise deemed to be in the national interest.

Requiring more people to serve in the military cannot solve the problem of frequent or unnecessary use of military force. As Barno and Bensahel would likely agree, this requires deeper evaluation of American resources and national security goals — in essence, grand strategic discipline. Still, there are broader cultural and political problems with the increasing reliance on a small subset of the population to fight the nation’s wars. Some of these problems might best be addressed by making other changes to the military. For instance, cultural changes may encourage individuals from outside the traditional recruitment base — particularly those with skills that might be vital for future warfare — to enlist. Greater incentives and possibilities for lateral entry — the hiring of mid-career civilian professionals at ranks commensurate to their private sector experience — may not only bring valuable skills to the military, but would increase opportunities for civil-military dialogues. In addition, a recent article published in Armed Forces and Society suggests taking steps to reassert nonpartisan norms in the military; this could reduce tensions associated with the distance between the military and society by strengthening a culture of military abstention from politics.

On the civilian side, enhanced civic education may be more effective. A greater effort to seriously educate the population about the military as a profession, its expertise, and its proper role in society could go a long way toward its demystification. This may not necessarily encourage more people to serve, but it would certainly improve the average citizen’s understanding of the military and reduce America’s unhealthy adulation of military expertise. And if the ultimate goal is to revitalize Americans’ desire to serve their country and reconceptualize citizenship as endowing individuals not just with rights but with obligations, then it would be far better to mandate universal service in either military or civilian, public or non-profit sectors. Conceptualizing service to the country as strictly military only reinforces an unrealistic idealization of those in uniform and the dangerous belief that they are the only ones who can solve national problems.

Military service is undoubtedly among the most profound forms of service to the nation. I agree wholeheartedly with Barno and Bensahel’s concerns about the growing gap between those who serve and those who do not. But the answer is not forcing more people to make the great sacrifice that military service entails. The rights associated with citizenship should not be contingent on mandatory military service. While there is much room for more research into the domestic political consequences of military recruitment policies, to equate military service with citizenship is to advocate for a drastic deviation from American historical practice and values, with little if any benefit as a result. Such a shift in the definition of citizenship would only create a further wedge in an already divided society — between those who would inevitably be declared exempt and those who are not, as well as between those who support such a transformational new policy and those who do not. There are other, less divisive — and less risky — ways to address the problems created by over-reliance on a limited military caste.


Max Margulies will begin in July 2018 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Director of the Johnson Grand Strategy Program at the United States Military Academy. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense, the United States Army, or the United States Military Academy.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Kevin Tanenbaum