John Kerry says that the
Bush administration is heading towards a draft. Administration spokesmen say
that's just an urban legend. Before going home to campaign, the Republican
House voted against restarting conscription to quiet public fears. In fact, the
draft deserves far more than one "nail in that coffin," as House
Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) put it.
For three decades the U.S. has manned its armed forces with volunteers. America's military has grown steadily more potent. But now
the unexpectedly difficult occupation of Iraq is generating calls for conscription -- which would
sacrifice both America's freedom values and the military's fighting
The military, particularly
the Army, is facing enormous stress. Active duty forces are facing successive
foreign tours; reservists are being treated as substitutes rather than
supplements for active units, serving one and two years in uniform. The
Pentagon is even calling up thousands of members of the Individual Ready
Reserve, former active duty soldiers who are rarely activated.
So some analysts are calling
for a return to conscription. The most obvious argument is to get more bodies
into uniform. Writes former Nixon speechwriter Noel Koch, "If we are to
fight elective wars, as we are told we must, we need more men and women on
Actually, there are plenty
of creative ways to attract more people into the armed services. Increased pay
and benefits, as well as added recruiting resources are obvious steps. The Army
has initiated a new program, offering bonuses and training, to attract
qualified personnel from the Air Force and Navy, which are shrinking.
expeditionary reserve units, designed for occupation duty, would reduce the
strain on folks who signed up believing they would only be activated in an
emergency. Simply lowering quality standards to those of a draft force -- the
All-Volunteer Force allows the Pentagon to be extraordinarily choosy, so today
recruits must score in the top three of five mental categories and possess a
high school degree or equivalent -- would generate thousands of extra
In any case, the demand for
additional manpower is nothing like that in past global wars, hot or cold.
Abundant cannon fodder might have been necessary in World War II, but it would
be of little value today. America
needs a highly trained professional force.
Ironically, a draft would
result in a less effective military, making it less capable of defending America
from real threats. Today the armed services attract a bright, well-disciplined
force of people desiring to serve. Recruits and the services share the desire
for a beautiful relationship: the resulting professionalism has made the
American military the best on earth.
Draftees might be no less
patriotic than volunteers, but they usually aren't as well-qualified or
-motivated. In particular, a draft military must retain the discontented and
ill-suited, since discharge would effectively reward misbehavior. At the same
time, retention rates are low -- fewer draftees decide to make the military a
career--making it difficult to build a quality NCO force.
Moreover, by forcing the
military to value its personnel more, it encourages the services to provide
more intensive training and better weapons. As a result, the U.S.
deploys a superior military and incurs less casualties in doing so.
As the Iraq
war approached Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) contended that conscription would
ensure that Americans "shoulder the burden of the war equally." But
the AVF is a largely middle
If Wall Street is
underrepresented, so is the inner-city. Underclass youth aren't even eligible
to join: the bottom-ranking third of 18-year-olds don't meet the military's
enlistment criteria. The officer corps is overwhelmingly college-educated and
the enlisted ranks are as college capable as their civilian counterparts; in
fact, the former read at a higher grade level. Reservists, who have taken on an
increasingly important combat role, are drawn from all walks of life.
Blacks enlist in slightly
greater numbers -- accounting for 16 percent of new recruits as opposed to 14
percent of civilian youth -- but Hispanics are underrepresented. Nor would
conscription affect the higher reenlistment rates which also boost the numbers
of African-Americans. Moreover, blacks are concentrated in support roles rather
than combat arms.
To speak of "economic
conscription" is to complain not about the volunteer military but about
the lack of adequate civilian options. A draft merely forecloses yet another
alternative, making everyone worse off: some minorities who want to join can't,
some who don't want to join must.
Since the damage to military
quality and social peace is so great, the trump offered by some conscription
advocates is similar to fraternity hazing: I went through it and it was good
for me. No doubt, military service can help "make a man" (and perhaps
a woman) of a soldier, but it is neither the only nor even the best instrument
to do so. Not all former draftees wax lyrical about their time in uniform.
Noel Koch dismisses
"technical arguments that mask political squeamishness," but
technical arguments demolish his argument that a draft would bring "unity
to our rapidly separating parts." Roughly four million young people turn
18 every year; the armed services plan to enlist 180,000 recruits this year. A
draft of five percent of the population, which unrealistically assume that no
volunteers are accepted, would not create social homogeneity.
Some fans of conscription
respond by advocating compulsory national service, as if sorting library books
equates with patrolling Iraq's
Sunni Triangle. Military service is unique, both in its value and danger, and
in the way that it represents service to the national community, rather than to
individuals or particular institutions.
To jail people unless they engage in social work, however worthy, is a frivolous misuse of state power. A government that performs so many of its other functions badly is not qualified to launch a vast new social engineering scheme.
The objection is principle
as well as practical. Soul molding is important business, but it isn't
government's business. The state doesn't do the job well; the government's
agenda won't always be benign.
Most important, that's not
the state's proper role. Government has been instituted to secure individual
rights, not to empower those who would reprogram their neighbors. The state
should step out of the way of the family, church, community, and other
institutions as they seek to shape values. Government should not seek to
override or supplant those institutions.
The military is especially
ill-suited for social experimentation. The armed services are necessary to
deter and win wars. Degrading the military's effectiveness in an attempt to
achieve other social ends unwisely risks soldiers' lives and society's safety.
War is too serious to leave
to social engineers. The government should choose a form of military
organization that delivers the most capable force. That is the volunteer
Moreover, the military
should reflect, not subvert, the freedom values which the state was organized
to protect. That also requires a volunteer military.
We should hope that Iraq
is the last war we fight in our lifetimes. Since, sadly, that is not likely to
be the case, we must ensure that we have the most capable military possible
with which to fight. We should strengthen, not abandon, the All Volunteer
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Human Resources and Defense Manpower (National Defense University). He worked with the Military Manpower Task Force while serving as a Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.