Why We Need the Draft

Ms. Haldi teaches history and international relations at Lebanon Valley College, is the author of the forthcoming "Why Wars Widen: A Theory of Predation and Balancing" and is a writer for the History News Service.

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Opening the 108th Congress dramatically this month, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) introduced a bill to bring back the military draft. Not your father's draft, but a truly universal draft -- without college exemptions and, yes, with a provision for drafting young women as well as men. Rangel's proposal has inspired heated discussions that recall the dissension over Vietnam-era draft, which all would agree fell short as a national policy.

The draft system of the 1960s and 1970s failed because it was not universal. Women, of course, were exempted. For men, there were college deferments. College or Vietnam? Young men who could afford to do so continued their education, while their compatriots with lesser means often found themselves slogging through an Asian jungle under fire. Young men with political connections, such as George W. Bush, snatched up scarce National Guard commissions that enabled them to avoid the draft by getting part-time training at home.

Almost lost in the clamor following Rangel's proposal was a simple truth: a truly universal draft would strengthen our country, our armed forces and our democracy.

Fairness, or the lack of it, was one of the principal reasons for political failure of the Vietnam-era draft. By the late 1960s, popular perception had it that the disadvantaged were fighting a war that was promoted by privileged politicians and rewarded wealthy industrialists. Whatever the truth, this belief was fed by the inequities of the draft.

Military service is a responsibility that should fall on everyone's shoulders -- rich and poor, black and white. And this includes women. If we women want to claim our rights as American citizens, we must also shoulder our responsibility to protect those rights. It would be disingenuous to argue otherwise.

In the United States, minority and ethnic groups have long understood the positive relationship between military service and political rights. This is why we have seen high service rates by African Americans, from the Buffalo Soldiers of the nineteenth century through World War II, despite segregation. And Irish Americans served in the Union army in high numbers during the Civil War, even though they came to a country where businesses greeted them with "No Irish" signs in the windows. The armed forces were often ahead of civil society, most notably when the Truman administration desegregated the U.S. armed forces beginning in 1948, fifteen years before Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Universal conscription is generally thought of as a way to ensure a steady supply of manpower. The most famous draft in history was the levee en masse of 1793 that provided revolutionary France with manpower to resist the smaller professional armies of Europe. Current U.S. military doctrine does not rely on large supplies of manpower as it did in earlier conflicts, but the U.S. Army has had difficulty reaching even reduced recruitment goals in recent years and is currently stretched close to the breaking point.

There now may not be enough soldiers to fulfill all the assigned missions. If the Bush administration is serious about fighting a war against Iraq while maintaining forces in Afghanistan and on peacekeeping missions elsewhere while facing problems on the Korean peninsula, the United States could rapidly find itself short-handed. We need to be prepared for that possibility. Simply calling up already over-utilized reserve and National Guard units is not enough. We need to reinstitute the draft.

Perhaps if we had a universal draft, the administration would be more circumspect about taking on so many military commitments. Conscription forces the government to be more responsive to the public. The possibility that we, or our sons and daughters, could be called upon to fight might make us, as citizens, shake off our apathy and pay closer attention to the rest of the world. We're likely to ask: is this worth dying for? We're more likely to give this question the consideration it deserves when we may pay the price.

A final argument for universal conscription is that it would foster healthier relations between civilians and the military, which is a vital consideration for any democracy. For the past generation we have had, for all intents and purposes, a volunteer force structure. A declining number of Americans have any experience in our military, a trend that is especially pronounced in our elected or appointed representatives. Few of our leaders have served in the armed forces. They do not know what our military can and cannot do.

This knowledge gap makes it possible for the Pentagon to shape the defense and foreign policy debate by controlling information. Contrast this with the 1950s when a substantial number of citizens -- from President Eisenhower to Jimmy Stewart to your neighbor -- had a working knowledge of the military from service in World War II. Not only have we lost contact with our military capabilities, but we have lost touch with our soldiers, seamen and airmen as well. How many of us know anyone who might be called upon to fight in Iraq?

The argument against conscription, at least from the military, is that volunteers have higher morale and less turnover. On the surface, these are good arguments. The problem lies in the original motivation of the volunteers. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, patriotism and a willingness to fight were not the main recruiting tools used to fill the military ranks. Rather, pay, benefits, training, scholarships and "a chance to see the world" were the carrots dangled by recruiters. How good is the morale of soldiers who didn't sign up to fight and die in the desert, but instead wanted to be trained as a mechanic or to pay for college?

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, didn't our soldiers feel the pull of patriotism regardless of why they signed up? Yes, most of them did. But morale has more to do with the cause we are fighting for than whether we volunteered or were drafted. Universal conscription ensures responsibility. The government must listen to citizens, and citizens must actively participate in government and our military. To put it another way, if we want to be heard, we must serve.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Nate Smith - 10/28/2003

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Nate Smith - 10/28/2003

I think we need the GAY Draft because it is good. I love men.call me at 555-stud!!!; ) i love penis

Nate Smith - 10/28/2003

I think we need the GAY Draft because it is good. I love men.call me at 555-stud!!!; )

PAUL BROWN - 3/29/2003

I am a us marine radio operator doing viet nam era, and I want to go to Iraq, to assist america in any way I can, I am single no family, no wife, and nothing to loose, I would feel better about life if I had a real cause or something to help american troops, as I am still very capable of doing anything military wise, if anything comes up please select me.Paul

Erik - 3/21/2003

You misunderstand. Whether or not people actually CHOOSE military service over other public service is irrelevant.

The idea is this: many--not all--but many people reasonably believe that there are good reasons for mandatory public service. But nothing in this ideas necessitates MILITARY service as opposed to NON-MILITARY public service. That is all.

Jessica - 3/18/2003

Get real. Who would actually CHOOSE combat over community service? That would just be another loophole for people to avoid military service.

Erik Encarnacion - 1/30/2003

We should have a choice: mandatory military service OR community service. Most decent citizens believe we do have SOME degree of obligation to the society that has sustained us (above and beyond merely paying taxes). A choice between mililtary and community service is less antithetical to freedom, since we have still have the choice. Meanwhile, it will provide that "common community bond" that Rangel seeks in conscription.

Alec Lloyd - 1/27/2003

Two points for Mr. Leckie:

1. Are you unaware of the earlier instance reported on this very Web site of the professor who denounced an Air Force Academy cadet as a “baby killer?” It made quite a stir. I submit (from my own collegiate experience) that this is hardly an isolated opinion.
2. How can things get worse? Iran is on the verge of a popular uprising against the mullahs so I doubt “Islamic fundamentalism” is going to spread. The most likely outcome is a “wind of change” sweeping away the corrupt despotisms that populate the region. Such change is inevitable and it may as well happen now. The benefits far outweigh the risks of inaction, let alone the risks action can bring.

Finally, conscription should be used only as a last resort. There is no inconsistency in conservatives opposing it at the present time. If there was a Jihadist fleet off the coast of New Jersey, I’d favor conscription. However, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

It then becomes either a rhetorical device or a tool for social engineering. Right wingers would use it to imbue society with martial patriotic spirit; left wingers r want to use it to foster anti-war sentiment, which strikes me as strange. What kind of politician advocates a policy he KNOWS will makes people unhappy?

As a fallback, leftists propose to offer a “national service” exemption, which is paramount to establishing a national socialist labor system. I see no need for a new command-economy labor market and question what this has to do with improving American military effectiveness.

We are constantly warned of threats to civil liberties in the name of the war effort. Conscription strikes me as the greatest one yet. Strange that so many the self-styled defenders of liberty don't seem bothered by it.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/26/2003

"You ought to also be mindful that the reason for the military's current heavy reliance on reserves and the Guard was General Creighton Abrams' desire to avoid another Viet Nam."

"Heck, why not make it mandatory that anyone with an advanced degree or inherited wealth must serve as a grunt?"

"But back to the draft and ROTC. I know of NO profesors who'd be as strident as our Right and call cadets 'babykillers.'"

A few thoughts. First, the most heavy reliance on reserves stems from reductions of active duty troop strength by a third by Clinton. That allowed him to make the claim (without lying this time) that he had reduced the federal work force (when he considerably expanded the civilian federal work force).

The tongue-in-cheek (?) requirement for the educated to serve as grunts would leave the uneducated in charge. While that would no doubt discourage military adventurism, the downside is we would be incapable of fighting when it truly mattered.

And Mr. Leckie knows of no such professors. Really? And as to race and class based enlisted in Vietnam, the class part applies. The race part is one of those great myths of the left. Never happened. But apparently that doesn't matter.

I like the ROK system. They have shortened enlistment for ROK Marines in order to fulfill their recruitment needs. I agree with Mr. Leckie about some of the benefits of mandatory service. But just as the services have sliding promotion cutoff scores in different fields in order to manage retention, I'd like to see sliding time commitments in order to manage staffing and retention. That way nobody would be forced to perform any one duty, they would choose their duty based on how they perceive the incentives. An "ecologist" might just have to serve six years to a two-year commitment for a grunt, but that's just the cost of freedom, isn't it?

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/25/2003

The other side of the story is how the bottom fell out of the anti-war movment when Nixon went to the lottery system. Once many knew they weren't going to be drafted, they suddenly lost that commitment to ending the war -- or just their potential part in it.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 1/25/2003

I don't know which "'human rights' community" Mr. Lloyd impugns, but certainly the major advocates, Amnesty International, for instance, have been on Saddam's case for years, and both he and Pinochet were our boys. My personal view is that when people in power do terrible things to people who have little or no power, we ought to resist them.

But Saddam's a strange case, indeed. By going to war, threatening to topple one of our prime examples of "blowback," we risk making things worse. That's the problem with going after him. And I have become deeply skeptical of the confidence that any mission against him will be a cakewalk, unless, of course--and this is likely--since our national attention span is so short, we go in, achieve "regime change," and then let the whole of Mespotamia go to hell in a handbasket.

But back to the draft and ROTC. I know of NO profesors who'd be as strident as our Right and call cadets "babykillers." Most progressive academics of my acquaintance are far more reasonable that their Rightist critics, who seem to suffer from what we used to call "projection anxieties." I do think the role of the military in society should be debated, and that the military ought to have voices on its side in campus debate.

Mr. Lloyd and I certainly agree that in a republic we ought to have an ethic that sustains the value of military service. My point, though, is that a "volunteer" military in a consumer society will not encourage the civic ethos I'm certain Mr. Lloyd and I would agree is a good thing.

I also should note that the idea that freedom and compulsory military service are incompatible reads strangely--as it did in an earlier posting--when argued by a "conservative." What happened to the idea of "liberty" and its concomitant public obligations? We are not "free" because we are inextricably bound up in a network of relationships that makes our lives and our work possible--we have meaningful choices in our lives precisely to the extent that we depend upon a community of others. That's the huge flaw in "libertarian" posturing.

Alec Lloyd - 1/24/2003

With respect to Mr. Howard’s post, certainly draftees can make good soldiers. The question is whether there is a military necessity for such an extreme measure. By all indications, there isn’t.

All branches hit their target enlistments early last year. Even raising recruitment goals seems to run little risk of running out of volunteers. The Cold War military of the mid 1980s had around a million more men in uniform, and needed no draft to sustain. With increased use of automation, advanced weapons systems and outsourced logistics, we could use a force of similar size even more effectively.

Rather than make service compulsory, I would prefer to see an ethic supporting it. Professors denouncing cadets as “baby-killers” are hardly going to increase enlistments and if one wonders why there is such alienation, one need look no further than academia’s constant vilification of all things military. The decision on the part of the Gore campaign to aggressively challenge military absentee ballots represents apogee of this contempt.

As for Mr. Leckie’s argument, let’s take it one step further: bring back Pinochet! If Saddam’s massive human rights abuses don’t meet the standard of moral outrage, why bother to have one at all? Perhaps we should go back to “sure he’s evil, but he’s ours” approach. Would that be more consistent? Or would you oppose that, to?

I begin to think that the only tyrants the “human rights” community is willing to tolerate are anti-American one. Ones we can control are beyond the pale, but genocidal dictators seeking nuclear weapons? They’re fine.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 1/23/2003

Thanks to Mr. Howard for a reasonable response.

He's certainly onto something about our having brought our social problems onto the field in Viet Nam. As for the "Starship Troopers" idea, well, I suppose it might draw recruits if we reduced our enemies to Bugs, although we do something like that anyway, and while I won't bother to track it down, I seem to recall a Journal of American History essay a few years back that indeed dealt with pesticide use and images of our enemies. But I doubt that a society of anomic consumers is going to turn out for public service of any kind.

Let me turn devilish for a bit: Why get rid of Saddam Hussein? He was our boy anyhow, we have supported some pretty nasty guys when it was in our apparent interest to sustain them, and maybe Poppy was right. As it is, he doesn't seem much of a threat to anybody, despite the hands coming out of the walls that enclose our conservative leadership and their nattering punditocracy. Are our warhawks ready to keep together an artifiical construct, designed to protect British oil interests after WW1, divided by ethnicity, religion, and class? It's pretty clear things are shaky in Afghanistan and no real commitment appears to be forthcoming to rebuild that country?

Clyde W. Howard III - 1/23/2003

As a veteran of both the army that fought Vietnam (inlcuding a tour of duty in taht sad and sorry place, while Tanker abe was USARV/MACV CG) and the early all voluteer Army period, i think I have some perspective on the issue, if perhaps absed on old memories.

First, my recollection is that we had fewer disciplinary problems, and on the average, higher quality performance, from draftees than from volunteers WITH THE SAME AMOUNT OF SERVICE (emphasis decidedly intended). A lot (but no means all) of the volunteers of the period were sort of no hopers, on the run from social failure or a judge who offered the traditional "Join the army and we drop the charges" choice.

The early all-voluteer army of the mid-1970s had (as did society) severe problems related to social tensions and race. But then this should not be a surprise - armies do reflect, frequently in a distorted and exagerated form, the societies that they serve. The modern all voluteer army is a very rpofessional force, mainly composed of long service personnel - and it needs to be. It reminds me, in many ways of the old (pre-World War One) long service British army, though with much better educated members - and with a good deal less drunkeness and such. Though Kipling's comment that "single men in barracks don't grow into plaster saints" is as true now as it was when he wrote BARRACK-ROOM BALLADS.

The point? Volunteer armies allow high quality training and develope great competence among teh troops, but are necesarrily fairly small and subject to being over-extended. And are at risk of becoming ratehr disconnected from society at large, with the further risk of a "Seven Days in May" scenario becoming possible. National Service armies allow reduced costs in some ways, result in a larger pool of "trained" manpower in case of a big war, and insure that the services are more closely connected with society at large with all taht implies.

Which should we have? I don't know - but I'm inclined to think that perhaps Robert Heinlein may have had (in his novel STARSHIP TROOPERS) an idea worth considering - all national service is voluntary, and does not necessarily involve military service (but once you volunteer, where you go is NOT your choice, but rather is a matter of the "needs of the service"). It also involves some benefit once you have completed it. In Heinlein's scenario, you are only a "full citizen" with the right to vote (and the franchise is about all you get) once you complete your term. Whether the United States would accept that I question.

Should we should go back to a draft? On balance,I am inclined to think not. Should we go to war with Iraq? Well, i think we need (we in the sense of the world) to be rid of Saddam Hussein as a national leader. Whether right now is the time to remove him by military force, I'm uncertain. I am certain taht I am happy to be on the sidelines, where I don't have to make the decsion or implement it. One trip to where the shooting was happening was adeqaute for my lifetime - and I have no enthusiasm for sending any mother's son to war, however (sometimes0 necesarry it can be.

I wasn't drafted - I signed up for ROTC in college, accepted my commission, and served for almost five years then went off active duty, got into law school, and went back on active duty for another several years. My experience spanned the second half of the 1960s and the mid-1970s, so I suppose it is obvious (or should be) taht i have no distaste for military service. But i sure do have a lot of mistrust for American political figures, news organizations, and what teh American public can be led into.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 1/22/2003

The most strident "anti-government" types out there have been and are on the Right, and it might be a good thing if a military draft brought on an "anti-Bush" movement. In fact, the real reasons for my support of conscription revived (without deferments) is that it would create a common civic experience for many young Americans and perhaps greater political participation, and one other benefit might be to leaven the Right-wing character of our officer corps and the arrogance of the civilian conservatives who now run the show.

You ought to also be mindful that the reason for the military's current heavy reliance on reserves and the Guard was General Creighton Abrams' desire to avoid another Viet Nam. Even in that conflict--the longest in our history--the government was slow to respond seriously to antiwar sentiment, and that was partly made possible because a class-and-race-based enlisted force went on the whole willingly, however demoralized it became.

Finally, in my view, the Bush administration is in need of restraint, if not chastening. And the ethical implications of your posting have me curious: Is it better to have a volunteer military, so that you don't have to be disturbed by the consequences of war? So that Bush can do whatever his handlers want him to--which sounds like an authoritarian regime, to me? Or so you don't have to think very hard about the nation's use of lethal force? (Better that citizens watch the Super Bowl or shop at the mall or be absorbed by screaming yahoos on Fox?) And avoid--as a citizen--participating in deciding upon war? I've always thought part of the "conservative" agenda was to replace an active citizenry with happy consumers who won't interfere with Those Who Really Know the Score. Thanks for helping confirm that hunch, in a small way. And hey! Let strangers' kids die so you and yours won't be upset.....Besides, they knew what they were getting into, huh?

As an old-fashioned republican, I happen to feel that we owe an obligation to defend the society that nurtures us--what's happened to all that "Greatest Generation" crowing?--and not be content to let others do our fighting for us. And that as mobilized citizens, we have a stake in any decision to go to war, with all the horror it brings. Heck, why not make it mandatory that anyone with an advanced degree or inherited wealth must serve as a grunt? 'Bet that'd restore some rationality to our anemic "public sphere!"

Gus Moner - 1/21/2003

After reading Mr. Lloyd's comments, I have to agree that it sounds like the meeting of the left and right. Perhaps I wrote too enthusiastically about the national service bit.

I was offering it as an alternative that might fly. I cannot say I support it in my heart. Mr. Lloyd, deserves a ‘well done’ for summing it up so well.

Alec Lloyd - 1/21/2003

This whole argument has a sort of surreal light around it. Truly it is where far left meets far right.

On the one hand, a draft would bring the militarization of society, a veritable “Starship Troopers” mentality, where we are forced to train for wars we don’t intend to fight and induct soldiers we don’t need.

On the other hand, the idea of forcibly shipping people off to teach or fill potholes in the name of “service” has a distinctly national socialist air to it. Big Brother knows what you should do, and will pick your job for you.

This also ignores a key fact: draftees make lousy soldiers. I know its sacrilege to question the combat capabilities of the “Greatest Generation,” but theirs was a war of attrition. We no longer have the same need for low-skill infantry to fight along a 1,000 mile front. Modern combat isn’t a meat grinder, it’s a test of skill and technology. Iraq’s conscripts were obliterated in 1991. I fail to see a reason for us to adopt their military system.

The current pool of volunteers is quite large. If the author doesn’t know any soldiers, I suggest she stop by the local VFW hall. The answer to the growing military/civilian gulf is not to conscript the children of the elites—it is for the elites to find a reason to enlist. I find it hard to believe people will gain a newfound love of their country after wasting two years in the military learning how to do menial tasks.

Both factions supporting conscription are highly suspect: the right wants to use it to inculate a militant patriotism, while the left hopes build a peace movement based on its resentment.

The fallback position of both sides, some sort of “national service” smacks of a make-work scheme worthy of the NSDAP and carries with it the same desire to begin social engineering.

A bad idea any way you look at it.

Mike Tennant - 1/21/2003

The draft is, to put it bluntly, as anti-freedom a measure as one could dream up. Isn't it bad enough that the government makes us virtual slaves by forcing us to work half the year for the bureaucrats and by piling on countless regulations that infringe on our freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to defend ourselves, freedom of association, etc.? Why on earth should we add to that monstrosity the power to force us to kill or be killed?

Conscription is incompatible with liberty and with the U. S. Constitution. The first draft in U. S. history was instituted during the War Between the States, the first war waged by the federal government in defiance of liberty and the Constitution. (That also happened to be the war that brought about the first income tax for good measure.) If the author thinks that the Irish served the Union army voluntarily, I invite her to see "Gangs of New York." The Irish were often handed admittance to the U. S. and induction into the army at the same time, which, naturally, they had not expected.

The author is correct that the U. S. military is overextended, but it does not follow that conscription is the solution. Might a better solution not be to pursue the dreaded "isolationist" path favored by Washington and Jefferson and bring the troops home? If the U. S. military were used for its proper, constitutional purpose of defending the soil of America, there would be no need for the additional troops. In fact, the size of the armed forces could be dramatically reduced. Furthermore, there would be no need for a draft should the country ever be physically under assault, for it is a near certainty that Americans would rise up in great numbers to defend their native land (assuming they hadn't been completely disarmed by the government yet).

Universal conscription hardly seems likely to bring about more circumspection on the part of the government. Why be concerned about where you commit troops when you are assured of a steady supply of free labor? It certainly doesn't seem to have done much to constrain Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, or Johnson.

Apart from any practical considerations, though, the best argument against conscription is simply this: A volunteer force is the mark of a free people. A conscript force is the mark of slavery.

Gus Moner - 1/21/2003

“Fairness, or the lack of it, was one of the principal reasons for political failure of the Vietnam-era draft. By the late 1960s, popular perception had it that the disadvantaged were fighting a war that was promoted by privileged politicians and rewarded wealthy industrialists. Whatever the truth, this belief was fed by the inequities of the draft”.
The truth of the matter is that while the above is true, it remains far from the primary reason for the war’s unpopularity, and any conservative allusion to that is another re-write effort on the history and the facts, indoctrination. The war became unpopular because of the casualties, the slaughter and mayhem, napalm, the corrupt governments in the south and the fact that the north had the popular support. The perception of misguided policies and their consequent failures all added up.
Universal national service, in hospitals, ecology, education and the like could be sold. But the moment inscription into the military begins, we’ll see the beginning of dissention. People have forgotten how much impact our high school mates had on us when they came home in boxes. The resulting grieving and anger of so many families eventually became a cancer on the nation.
If you want to fuel anti-government and anti-Bush movements, bring on a military-only draft.

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