Small Wars Journal

Carry a Big Stick or Be Quiet: A Case for Conscription

Tue, 05/30/2017 - 11:36am

Carry a Big Stick or Be Quiet - A Case for Conscription

Robert Murphy

“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

-- Theodore Roosevelt

Each year as they testify before congress, America’s armed service chiefs roll out pleas for the latest technology ‘essential’ to confront a predictable cast of global boogeymen. A pessimist could accuse them of using such testimony to scare congress and the public into supporting their slice of annual defense budgets. A pessimist could justify his position by pointing out the testimony’s conspicuous omission of conscription, essential to victory against any one or combination of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. While the technology of warships, aircraft and combat vehicles trotted out during testimony season is impressive, it can only give America an edge. Nations win wars on an irresistible wave of resources. America must therefore either include conscription into any discourse about confronting Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, or stop talking about confronting them.

America’s approach to warfare has changed for the worse. Current conflicts indicate a disturbing satisfaction with stalemate as a substitute for victory. America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offer abject lessons about a national strategy unready to win a global war, much less isolated regional engagements. The stalemate in both conflicts betrays America’s inability to translate success and sacrifice at the tactical and operational level into anything close to strategic victory. America’s powerlessness to generate the political will for victory emboldens adversaries and exposes significant strategic vulnerabilities.

America cannot win a global war without conscription. Relative to the requirements of a global war, both the Iraq and Afghan theaters are miniscule. At their peak, the wars in Afghanistan (98k, 2010) and Iraq (144k, 2009), waged against organized insurgents, consumed less together than would be required to match, much less defeat the trained and equipped conventional armies that Russia, China, North Korea or Iran could put into the field. Furthermore, neither conflict experienced the types of casualties or associated force regeneration requirements that a conventional war would generate.

The national dialogue over the 2007 Iraq and 2009 Afghanistan surges was instructive. President Bush’s proposal to increase the number of existing active, reserve and National Guard troops met with overwhelming opposition. In order to generate any public support for conscription America must demonstrate that it is constitutional, necessary and that it can competently address the training, equipping and care of its conscripted citizens. America’s elected and military leaders must demonstrate all three. Avoiding the subject altogether is not an option.

Service chiefs must advocate for their services, and their insular approach to congressional testimony is unlikely to change. Although they generally agree on nature of global threats, their recommendations on the means to address those threats are mostly divergent and unsurprisingly parochial. Thus the F-35 fighter, Columbia class submarine, more Stryker brigades are born and sustained, for better or for worse. The only thing harder to find than one service chief’s support for a competing chief’s priority acquisition is any of them raising the topic of conscription.

Congress does not want to hear or think about conscription, and the service chiefs want to secure their slice of the budget pie, so one of the most essential, neglected elements of our national power remains untouched. Few in Congress have the courage to confront a constituency forced to send their sons and daughters into service, an activity they can sidestep as long as the military can advise them that America only needs a new aircraft, ship or brigade full of volunteers.

In 1978, the American Secretary of Defense boldly explored America’s ability to mobilize and deploy forces in time of crisis. Although Nifty Nugget ches78 provided reams of useful data to drive necessary changes, its undertaking also represented an admirable and courageous subordination of political ambition for the sake of national readiness.  Its commissioners had to have known that the results would reflect poorly on readiness. A pessimist could argue that there is no motivation to undertake such a useful effort today given the political risks associated with any inconvenient flaws such an exercise might expose in America’s state of strategic readiness. A pessimist could further argue that such an endeavor is unlikely given America’s apparent satisfaction with the mediocre outcome of its current conflicts and increasing social disconnection from its service members.

Rather than repeating each year’s threat based call for resources, America’s cadre of senior military advisors would serve America better by advocating the inclusion of a Nifty Nugget 78 styled exercise within the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), with special focus on the selective service related questions investigated in 1978, which are as relevant today as they were then. The resulting feedback regarding changes to organizations, authorities, and resources would provide the baseline of a radical shift in American security policy, and reflect an objective, pragmatic approach to strategic readiness. The execution of such an exercise would resonate more powerfully among our adversaries than the combined multinational exercises currently at the core of American security cooperation efforts. Furthermore, it would remind Americans that its government has the constitutional authority to force them into military service. The public interest in national security generated by such a personal link to American policy choices is a critical step towards generating the political will to win a global war.

Whereas public interest is unlikely to orient toward support for conscription, opposition will prove constructive. Voters with a more personal stake in political decisions are theoretically more responsible constituents. The corresponding increased pressure of an engaged constituency forces elected officials to be more judicious about the application of military forces to American interests and may usher in a more pragmatic era of American security strategy. Any reduction in the number of voluntary conflicts in which America participates would be extraordinary, potentially curbing the appetite for tangentially relevant adventures like Grenada, Iraq and Somalia.

As America’s armed service chiefs testify before congress in the coming years, the must resist the siren call of parochial challenges and unanimously paint a responsible place for American forces in global security. They must consistently present global threats in terms and context of the tough strategic issues required to address them. Discussions about potential confrontation with Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, must be attended by a candid and difficult discussion of the human costs associated with them, and America’s preparedness to provide them.

About the Author(s)

Robert Murphy graduated from The Citadel with degrees in History and French. He graduated from the US Army’s Advanced Military Studies program, commanded an infantry company in combat, and served as the special assistant to the Commanding General, US Army Europe. He is a professional strategist.



Mon, 06/05/2017 - 12:45pm

In reply to by Bill C.

That proposes reverse-engineering a world situation from their pre-supposed solution. If I'm going to write fiction, I want to be paid better.

Bill C.

Fri, 06/02/2017 - 4:13pm

In reply to by Warlock


So, let us try to do these folk's work for them.

That is, let us look at what might somehow be conceived of as a "global war;" one which appears to:

a. Emphasize great nation/great power competition and one which appears to

b. De-emphasize/consider as something of a lesser (but included) priority the problem of radical extremism:


Russia’s cyberattacks should be teaching Americans something that those situated in the orbits of China, Iran, and Russia have long known: There are serious political competitions underway for regional and strategic dominance. These extend beyond military battlefields and are a fought across a variety of domains – political, economic, informational, and cultural. Is the United States finally ready to compete? ...

Competitiveness is inherent in the way that military and intelligence agencies think and act, but it is virtually absent in most other government organizations. Typically, those organizations focus on administering systems, running programs, and maintaining relationships as ends in themselves. Yet in virtually every theater of the world, local and regional competitions over ideas, economic systems, and societies affect America’s ability to protect and advance its interests.

END QUOTES (by Nadia Schadlow)

(Nadia Schadlow is now, I believe, a member of the National Security Council and, therein, Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for National Security Strategy. In this job, I believe, she is expected to oversee/manage the writing/authoring of the National Security Strategy of the United States for President Trump?…)


Fri, 06/02/2017 - 10:19am

In reply to by Bill C.

Astute point. And one that really has no credible answer. There's an undeclared assumption that some combination of these or other countries will align themselves together in some sort of "New Axis", and challenge the U.S. militarily on a global scale. There might be a paperback best-seller in there somewhere, but reality just doesn't support the idea.

I'm certain that the requirements of a regional war with a couple of those individual countries would severely test our resources, even if "win" were defined as "bring conditions back to the pre-war status quo". That's a discussion worth having, but I don't see conscription as an effective answer to that problem.

Tell me if I have this right:

The article here appears to address, as the basis for the need for conscription, a "global war" -- one in which such great nation enemies as Russia, China, N. Korea and Iran are specifically, prominently and frequently listed -- but one in which radical extremists appear only to be addressed marginally, to wit: as (a) insurgents in (b) isolated regional conflicts.

If this is indeed the case, then should we not ask, before we get further into a discussion of conscription:

a. What exactly is this "global war" that we are talking about here?

b. What is its specific nature?

c. Given our answers to "a" and "b" immediately above, how are (a) such great nations as Russia, China, N. Korea and Iran to be seen as principal enemies in such a "global war" but (b) radical extremists not so much?



America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offer abject lessons about a national strategy unready to win a global war, much less isolated regional engagements.


America cannot win a global war without conscription. Relative to the requirements of a global war, both the Iraq and Afghan theaters are miniscule.


Thus, to suggest that:

a. If we can articulate this "global war" in a better, more-clear, more-understandable and more-meaningful way,

b. Only then might we find ourselves able to properly discuss -- and properly able to "sell" -- conscription to the American politicians and public?


Fri, 06/02/2017 - 10:02am

In reply to by J Harlan

The Supreme Court dismissed any claim that a draft violated the 13th Amendment out of hand, and went to great pains to explain their decision.

Not having some type of conscription (if only for the reserves or only at the state level)has been the exception rather than the norm.[3]

J Harlan

Thu, 06/01/2017 - 11:06am

In reply to by Tropiccid

Thanks. It's alarming how courts can so easily dress up political decisions as "law". That is why appointing judges is the most important domestic task of the POTUS.


Thu, 06/01/2017 - 12:14am

In reply to by J Harlan

Article 1 section 8.12 is the constitutional basis for conscription, upheld in a number of Supreme Court cases from WWI through Vietnam. Google selective draft law cases for further reference.

J Harlan

Wed, 05/31/2017 - 9:19pm

Surely conscription is illegal under the 13th Amendment.


Thu, 06/01/2017 - 4:01pm

In reply to by Tropiccid

The question is, of course, is what are the conditions that define victory? That's been the rub whenever the conversation turns to end-strength, and how much of what we need. This article open-endedly implies another WWII-type conflict -- global conventional war, where victory is achieved only after complete military and political capitulation by our opponent(s). That's not going to happen by marching BCTs over the beach and into Moscow, Bejing, Pyongyang, or'll end with glowing craters pockmarking the landscape, which requires no conscription at all. So what sort of conflict, to what purpose and end, and with whose help, do we envision? Then we can seriously start talking about what forces we need, and how to build them.


Thu, 06/01/2017 - 10:19am

In reply to by Warlock

I think your proposal regarding the Reserve Component makes a great deal of sense, and whereas your assessment of the IRR is accurate, I think the level of basic skill competency and cultural assimilation is one significant advantage over a conscript or new volunteer. I can't speak to the level of political interest in '68, but I can speak to the level of interest parents have in the well being of their children, having recently commanded an Army basic training battalion. If the rest of America cares as much about their kids as the parents of the 10k+ trainees we took care of in my time in command, which I suspect they do, then I will have to politely disagree with your skepticism. Lastly, and perhaps the biggest point the article conveys, is that it is irresponsible to not examine whether or not we could even pull it off, and even more irresponsible to think, or brief, that we can defeat Russia, China, NK or Iran without it. Unless of course we're just not interested in winning.


Thu, 06/01/2017 - 9:53am

In reply to by Tropiccid

I'm looking at the starting point -- with a conscript force, you're perpetually starting with a force of limited experience. If that's the best we could do, then so be it, but I don't think so. Somehow I cut off the last part of that paragraph, which should have said, DoD would be far better off to increase Reserve Component end strength and make a period of follow-on reserve service a mandatory part of leaving active duty, retaining trained troops who were already motivated enough to volunteer. Currently, first-term enlistees are required to "serve" a term in the Individual Ready Reserve after they separate, but the IRR is really just a recall database -- there are no training or readiness standards.

The belief that conscription will politically energize the populace to the point Congress fears for its jobs is a fantasy cherished by those who overestimate the effects of Vietnam-era draft protests. While I remember that war being an issue within the 1968 presidential election, it's inaccurate to say the election hinged on it -- domestic factors still carried the day. And for Congressional elections, it wasn't a factor at all. Nor was it in Korea. That might change if we had universal conscription, but that's never been the case, even during WWII. Those countries who've gone that route typically cut the conscript service time down to 2 years or less, increasing the churn and inexperience within the force.

And again, we have military personnel policies that are tremendously inefficient. That would be tolerable if the tradeoff was increased effectiveness, but that's not true, either. Congress and the services would do far better to tackle that before revisiting conscription.


Wed, 05/31/2017 - 9:02pm

Your analysis is well reasoned, however, who's to say conscription will last 4 years? Or that even if it does, that the steady influx of personnel over the course of a protracted conflict would not fulfill the sundry noncombat wartime duties currently executed by combat troops, like route security and other force protection duties that consume combat troops? Conscripts in 1939 had to serve until the war was over. It is foolish, in my opinion, to assume that America could somehow regenerate the combat power that will inevitably be lost in the first few months of a conventional war against any of the adversaries that we are currently rattling our saber over, the likes of which we have not faced in decades. It is irresponsible in the extreme to continue to tell the American people that we could 'win' against any of those adversaries with our current end strength, and I sincerely doubt we could stamp our feet and raise, train and equip the tens or even hundreds of thousand of volunteers such a war requires any faster than we could an army of conscripts. I also think you underestimate the level of interest the current generation of children and parents would have in the causes for which they may be forced to die. Any congressman or Senator, faced with the prospect of being voted out of office, would certainly make war a platform in their campaign. You may recall that neither of our current conflicts were a subject matter of any of the presidential debates, despite our clear lack of any path to victory. I submit this was because so few voters were personally affected by them. The absence of any
discussion of the topic, much less an investigation of the viability of our selective service system is grossly negligent

This article grounds itself on two points: 1) If the U.S. finds itself engaged in a conventional war, we'll consume our available manpower faster than our current accession system is set up to replace it (akin to the British Army at the outset of WWI), necessitating conscription to ensure a supply of trained and ready replacements, and 2) conscription will force the American populace to think about national strategy, thereby either making our entry into war less likely, or providing the "will to win". Both arguments are fatally flawed.

Conventional war certainly has the potential to burn through people, equipment, and munitions at frightening rates, perhaps even exceeding the industrial carnage of 20th century warfare. However, conscription simply creates a pool of minimally-trained conscripts won't solve that problem, even if Congress authorizes the increase in end strength. A conscript, even if serving a full 4-year tour, will only be truly useful for half that, in between a year of training and a year of transition. DoD would be far better

As far as the second point, 25 years of post-WWII conscription didn't raise the average American's interest in foreign affairs, and didn't discourage national leadership from sending troops into harm's way. The population's "will to win" isn't driven by having skin in the game, but rather by the public's perception that their leaders have a viable, successful strategy. Discontent is more often driven by the view that leaders are feeding quantities of flesh and blood into the grinder for no discernible results.

DoD and Congress also need to change to current military personnel management systems that encourage high turnover rates in experienced personnel, and a serious reduction in the size of the enormous headquarters and DoD staffs, which could free up existing personnel for other tasks. But most importantly, they need to come up with complete, well-analyzed strategies, rather than the poorly thought-out assumptions we've been using for many years.