Small Wars Journal

Why Bringing Back the Draft Makes No Sense

Fri, 07/20/2012 - 5:51am

When retired Army General Stanley McChrystal commented that he believes it’s time to “consider a draft” at the Aspen Ideas festival, he sparked a conversation in the media on the merits of the draft and why it would be good for our military and America. The argument to bring back the draft usually revolves around three key issues: 1) a conscripted military would be more representative of the United States population (and the inherent accusation that it currently does not), 2) the burden of war has unfairly fallen squarely on the shoulders of the all-volunteer military, (the much vaunted “other” 1%) and 3) policy makers would be less willing to wage war if their sons and daughters stood to potentially serve.

While the intentions behind bringing back the draft are mostly good in nature, they are largely based on misconceptions about military service, the state of the all-volunteer military, and who actually serves. Considering there are so few people who serve in the armed forces, it is no surprise that these misconceptions exists. The problem with bringing back the draft is that it would not accomplish the noble goals of those who support its return.

The most important point in arguing against bringing back the draft is that we don’t need it. That is, the armed forces are currently having no problems with recruiting, and in most cases, are recruiting over 100% of their target goals. To bring back the draft, the military would have to do one of two things in order to make room for the conscripts: increase the size of the overall force or partition off a certain quota of positions to be made up of conscripts. Considering the current economic situation and the planned reductions in troop numbers, increasing the size of the overall force is a nonstarter. Given the military’s current recruiting success, partitioning off “slots” for draftees could work only by turning away otherwise qualified recruits. Then, there would still only be a tiny portion of the armed forces that were draftees in a mostly all-volunteer force.

Going further, only about 30% of military aged youth (ages 17-24) are fit to serve. Obesity, physical and mental conditions, drugs, and criminal issues have disqualified the majority of the potential pool for a draft. If we were to bring back the draft, only the “fit” 30% would be eligible for service so long as we maintain the current ascension standards, resulting in a strange “discrimination of the fittest.” Based solely on service eligibility, a conscripted military of only the “fittest 30%” would hardly be representative of America.

The military preys on poor minorities. To tackle some of the assumptions introduced earlier, the ranks of the military are not predominantly filled by the country’s poor minorities. No matter how often this myth is debunked, it continues to persist.  Rather, with the exception of gender, the armed forces are fairly representative of the country. Instituting the draft might bring the demographic percentages closer to true proportionality with the general population if that pool of “fit” Americans eligible for serve is also directly proportional with the general population, which it is most likely not.

The Other 1%. It is true that the burden of fighting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has been largely shouldered by the all-volunteer military, the “other 1%” of Americans who chose to serve in the military during a time of war.  (With a total end strength of about 1.5 million (active), the military makes up less than .5% of the American population.) Except those soldiers who were “stop-lossed” earlier in the wars, deploying multiple times is often a choice made by the professional soldier.  A draft would do nothing to limit the burden of war on the individual. The military does not deploy soldiers as individuals, but as a part of a unit. Units rotate in and out of theater, taking time to reset, train, and prepare to deploy again. During this period, individual soldiers rotate to different units who may be on different deployment schedules, resulting in a soldier who may not have had as much time at home as would be preferred. The only way a draft would lessen the burden on the individual is if the draft were designed to replace these soldiers, and force them to “sit out” a deployment or to get out of the military altogether, which I don’t think is the intent of proponents of the draft.

The Hunger Games. It makes sense to believe that if we had a draft, policy makers would be less likely to engage in risky military adventurism because their own sons and daughters might be called to serve. However, the raw numbers suggest that the probability of this happening is so infinitesimally small that it would be insignificant, except for symbolic value, perhaps.

Instituting the draft in one of the aforementioned ways (increasing the size of the military or partitioning off draft “slots”) would not spread the burden of service uniformly over the population because of the few who are eligible to serve. It would not lessen the burden of service for the individual or make the armed forces more representative of the general population, and it would likely have only a marginal effect on policy makers’ decision making because the chances of their sons or daughters being drafted in a shrinking military filled with volunteers is so miniscule.

The Civlian-Military Divide. Bringing back the draft is often raised as a way to lessen the civilian-military divide. That is, the socio-cultural dissonance felt by members of the military and the civilian population at large (Not to be confused with that “other” civil-military divide, which is about civilian control of the military and policy making). This divide has been identified by prominent members of the military as well as politicians as a growing problem facing the republic. Essentially, members of the military feel that the general public does not fully understand and appreciate the sacrifice of military service. There is also a feeling that the military is at war, but the rest of the nation is oblivious to that and not doing their share. In fairness, no one has identified what a harmonious civilian-military relationship would look like. My guess is that it is a fantasized version of what American life might have been like during World War II, where the citizenry was mobilized behind the war effort.

Addressing the civilian-military divide is important, but forcing a draft onto a military that does not need it will not close the divide. The numbers just don’t add up. Even if the entire volunteer military was abolished and “restarted” with all draftees, that force would still represent less than .5% of the population. And that .5% would come from the small portion of society that is fit for military service.

Essentially, the idea of a draft is more appealing than the reality. It is inspiring to think of a truly democratic fighting force that consists of exact proportions of the American population who are bonded together through training, shared sacrifice, and military service. If this were possible to achieve, than it might be worth examining. The reality is that bringing back a draft would do little to achieve any of the goals of those who argue for its return.








Thu, 01/03/2013 - 12:50am

Don, while your arguments are well-articulated and make sense from a quantitative analysis view, I offer a few counter-arguments in response:

1. "We have enough service members as it is." Personnel levels are cyclic, especially active duty (AC) strength. After every major war/conflict, we tend to cut numbers of the AC, and sometimes the reserve components (RC) are reduced as well. This occurs through Reductions in Force, Qualitative Management Programs, early retirements, and normal attrition through retirement, resignation and ETS. Eventually the cycle swings from overage to shortage, and the services resort to offering huge enlistment/retention bonuses, direct commissions, and flex enlistment standards to accommodate the increased need for bodies. While we happen to be in the midst of cutting end strengths, historical precedent guarantees that trend will reverse itself in 5-8 years.(or whenever we get involved in another war.)

2. "Only 30% of military-age youth are fit to serve": Those stats are probably a 55-year old retread going through MEPS, I was surprised to find myself in better shape than a majority of the young men and women attempting to enlist. On the other hand, Basic Training was designed during the 40s-70s to take unfit individuals and turn them into acceptable troops. For many draftees, boot camp was the positive turning point in their lives. Again, my argument relies on taking the long view of historical trends rather than the snapshot of our current situation, but I believe there's enough anecdotal evidence to support this contention. If the concept of a military draft is expanded to include non-military "National Service", for most men and women aged 18-24, then the societal benefits would also be much greater.

3."A draft would do nothing to limit the burden of war on the individual": If this point is examined solely from the perspective of our current situation, yes, it makes sense. This highlights the crux of my argument for bringing back the draft. Overlaying a draft on the current military structure would definitely not work. It will require a return to a larger RC (National Guard and Reserve), and a shorter active service obligation (1-2 years) for "draftees", followed by a longer inactive reserve commitment. Much like the Swiss Army, men and women would be affiliated with the inactive reserve force until, say, mid-30s. They'd be required to attend a week-long "annual muster" to verify contact info, rifle qualification, and a basic health assessment. Most draftees will elect to return to civilian life after their training and active duty stint as a soldier/sailor/airman, armed with GI Bill education benefits, increased maturity, life experience, and a first-hand appreciation for the professional military. But, if (when) the USA mobilizes to go to war, we will have a much larger pool to draw upon. Reserve and National Guard units can be rapidly expanded, gotten battle-ready, and rotate as a unit to replace AC units in the war zone(s). This will lessen the frequency of combat deployments for our AC troops, should we as a nation elect to repeat something like our OEF/OIF experience.

I could go on, but I'm sure you get my point. Our entire military organization would have to change, but in doing so our society's connection to our armed forces would be much stronger and deeper than it is now. Think of it as the military version of "The 12th Man"...


Fri, 07/20/2012 - 4:03pm

Don, This is a repost of a comment I left directly on your blog:

*Quote from your blog*

"I’ll concede that if people want to bring it back for the symbolic notion of reaping what you sow – a lá ‘The Chocolate War’, or ‘The Hunger Games,’ then fine. Even though the actual chances for that person to be drafted is infinitesimally small."

Its hardly "symbolic notion", it has a tremendous political impact.

This "infinitesimally small" chance is much more significant than you're giving it credit for. The switch to the All Volunteer Force was carried out to reduce political backlash over Vietnam war, and it worked well. Though the chance of being drafted is quite small, the fact that many people, who would otherwise be uninterested in fighting wars, would now bear some liability for military service. The parents of middle and upper middle class children everywhere would immediately focus a lot more scrutiny on US Foreign Policy to understand why exactly their son or daughter might need to fight and die in the deserts and mountains of South West Asia.

Despite its unpopularity, there has been no appreciable political backlash to OIF, as there was during the Vietnam conflict. Why? There is no incentive structure in place to engage all those people who think there children would be better off say, going to college, rather than volunteering for military service. They may think the war in Iraq is a terrible idea, but since they have no skin in the game, really, how hard are they really going to fight for someone else's kid? If their neighbor's kid wants to go to war, let them!

As for your the rest of your piece, my problem is not with the evidence for the argument that the military is fairly representative of the US population in terms of ethnicity. In terms of socio-economic level, I would really like to see the methodology of the Heritage Foundation report cited by the WSJ piece you linked to. For one thing, what income quintile(s) do(es) the other 64% of "enlisted military recruits" fall under? My experience as a trained observer for the Marine Corps, with considerable experience working across the Marine Corps, and with the Army and Navy, suggests to me that most of that 64% would be in the second lowest income quartile. But of course that's just anecdotal, I should probably just go find the Heritage Foundation report. I do wonder why that 64% wasn't referenced in the WSJ piece though..

If the Federal Government proposed a draft for the purposes of addressing personnel issues faced by civilian agencies—say, the general understaffing at the Forest Service; the lack of A (or B or C) students on staff at the TSA; the preponderance of autistics on staff at NASA; &tc.—I suspect that the majority of people would immediately say, “There are better ways of dealing with those problems.” Is the military any different?