American Culture

Bring Back the Draft–the All-Volunteer Military Should be Retired

The United States gave up universal conscription in 1973. The Draft, as we all knew it, had been in effect since 1948, when President Truman and Congress re-introduced it. It was the main source of troops during the Vietnam conflict, which also ended up killing it. But I’ve always believed the main problem with the draft was the Vietnam War itself, not the principle. And this is true even though I was drafted as potential fodder for that colossal waste of people and resources. And I believe it’s time to bring the draft back—and it’s not just for reasons of giving young men and women something to do in economic hard times, although that’s a side benefit. The US military should not be a social engineering project, although it becomes one occasionally as a by-product of more direct concerns. In any event, there are more compelling arguments for bringing back the draft, arguments that I think go to the heart of whether America will survive as one nation, or will continue to fracture along the seismic fault lines that are becoming all too evident. We need to get rid of the all-volunteer army.

A number of countries have given up universal conscription over the past decades. It’s been a trend for a while now. Most European countries have—the UK gave up National Service in 1960. Most NATO countries have given it up, in fact, although there are a number of countries that continue to require a period of national service from its citizens (copied more or less verbatim from Wikipedia, in the interests of full disclosure): Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Guyana, Israel, Iran, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Taiwan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. Israel includes women in its national conscription. There are also a number of countries, such as France, where the legal framework for conscription remains in place, but is not exercised. A couple of these countries (Russia, Israel) have some history of piling into other countries uninvited, but not too many, actually.

Interestingly, this discussion is now taking place in Germany, where the Defense Minster recently has suggested doing so in order to cut the military’s budget. This has generated a fair degree of controversy, since it turns out that, across the political spectrum, there is a fair amount of support for keeping universal conscription. This may be one of the reasons (although there are many others, obviously, including the fact that Germany chooses to remember its history) why Germany does not look to start unnecessary wars.

Actually, the legal stuff is in place in the US—President Carter reinstated the Selective Service System in 1980, and all US males are still required to register. It’s just that no one has the will or desire to start using the system again. There were certainly some calls to do so earlier this decade when troop requirements in Iraq started becoming onerous, although these ended up subsiding. Well, let’s give this a think. I certainly believe that there are good reasons for actually starting to draft everyone—and this time let’s really make it everyone, unless there is a genuine physical disability—into a year or two of national service, either in the military of some similar organization (and there are lots of them). In theory, I should be indifferent to where kids actually do their national service—in the military, or in some hospital, or carrying rocks around on some mountainside to prevent landslides. So I’m conflating two issues here, and doing it knowingly—should people be required to do national service, and should people be required to spend time in military service?

But I’m not actually indifferent. The reason why I’m fudging the issue is because while I believe everyone should do a year or two of national service in principle (and I’m happy to have that debate separately), I think it’s vitally important to get rid of the all-volunteer army, and turn it back into a true citizens’ army. It sounded like a good idea at the time, and the US army has responded professionally in many ways to its all-volunteer status (other services historically have been practically all-volunteer anyway—while someone would occasionally get drafted into the Marines in the Vietnam era, it was pretty damn rare). But as a veteran, and a voter, and a citizen, I think it’s time to call it a day. The experiment not only hasn’t worked, but also in some ways it looks as if it’s going wrong, and possibly dangerously wrong.

It’s encouraging that there have been a number of recent calls to reintroduce the draft, ranging across the political spectrum. (And, as an added bonus, it will infuriate the wingnuts—see the highly entertaining comments here, for example.) It should be noted that not everyone agrees—for some counter-arguments, see here. These proposals generally focus on two issues—sufficient manpower (especially in light of current trends in Afghanistan), and equity. Of course, both these arguments have been repeatedly raised during the past decade, and this has never led anywhere. Charles Rangel introduces a bill every year to require a draft, and it never gets out of committee. But that doesn’t alter the strength of the argument—it simply points out how politically unpopular such a move would be.

I can’t speak to the manpower argument—I have no expertise there, but it does seem as if there are sufficient differences of opinion on this point to get some more serious investigations of the issue going. One thing I’m not prepared to do is take the word of the military leadership on this issue. Their credibility is gone.

On the equity issue, though, I have strong feelings, and these parallel those offered by a number of commentators. And it’s a powerful argument. The military experience is a great equalizer. Everyone who goes in gets treated like shit, and there’s a reason for that. Taking boys and making men out of them is not the point, although that occasionally occurs. But the military has its own logic, which often turns out to be the correct logic, amazingly enough. Discipline is a tough thing to teach, but once learned, tends to stick. And for what we want the military to do, discipline is critical.

But it’s broader than that. The US military was the major implementer of, and beneficiary of, the great integration of 1950s and 1960s America. Colin Powell is emblematic of this process. The US military was in the forefront of civil rights enforcement, well before other parts of American society. And it is still, to a great extent, one of the most egalitarian institutions in modern American life. My own experience was the same as everyone else’s—you come from different backgrounds, but you are all in this shit together now, son, and don’t you forget it. You learn to get along in the military in a way that you learn nowhere else. Not a bad message to send to the society as a whole, in fact. As Jerome Slater has argued,

The benefits of universal national service would be compelling. Conscription will assure that the armed forces reflect the full spectrum of American life, in terms of both socio-economic classes and racial/ethnic groups. Today, scarcely 1% of the nation’s eligible population serve in the armed forces, and almost no sacrifice is asked from the rest of society. This is not just a matter of principle, for should Afghanistan (or Iraq) turn out badly, it would not be surprising if veterans’ protest groups arise, angry at having been “cheated out of victory” by insufficient national support.

Moreover, collective experience through universal national service would nurture good citizenship, social cohesion, and a sense of civic responsibility, providing our youth — and future leaders — with a formative civic experience. Aside from acquiring skills that open doors of opportunity in the civilian economy, everyone who has served in the armed forces or in non-military service, such as the Peace Corps, knows of young people whose character and prospects were enhanced by the hard work, discipline, and collective spirit engendered by such service. Professional educators, in particular, will find veterans to be serious students, as was the case following World War II.

Aside from enhancing our military strength, a renewed draft would serve the national interest in another way. The term “national security,” too often understood in a purely military sense, should be viewed more broadly, to include effective diplomacy and the nonmilitary resolution of international disputes. Thus, an additional and especially important benefit of our proposal is that there would be a greater likelihood of sound foreign and military policies if the sons and daughters of America’s political and business elites served in uniform–as so many did in the past, but so few do today.

These are the obvious arguments, and by themselves they’re pretty compelling, I think, although there are aspects of them that will generate argument. But there are other concerns as well, concerns that people either don’t want to talk about too much, or just haven’t noticed. But these concerns are, I think, just as important as the ones assumed above, especially for progressives, or anyone concerned about the divisions opening up in American society. Here are some.

Give control of the military back to the civilian government
Andrew Bagevich has written some interesting and often compelling stuff on US military policy over the past decade or two. Recently, he argued strongly that the military has pretty much disengaged itself from civilian control. Bagevich writes, in regard to the development of US military policy in Afghanistan:

With President Obama agonizing over what to do about Afghanistan, The Washington Post offered for general consumption the military’s preferred approach, the so-called McChrystal Plan. Devised by General Stanley McChrystal, who had been appointed by Obama to command allied forces in Afghanistan, the plan called for a surge of U.S. troops and the full-fledged application of counterinsurgency doctrine—an approach that necessarily implied a much longer and more costly war.

The effect of this leak, almost surely engineered by some still unidentified military officer, was to hijack the entire policy review process, circumscribing the choices available to the commander-in-chief. Rushing to the nearest available microphone, members of Congress (mostly Republicans) announced that it was Obama’s duty to give the field commander whatever he wanted. McChrystal himself made the point explicitly. During a speech in London, he categorically rejected the notion that any alternative to his strategy even existed: It was do it his way or lose the war. The role left to the president was not to decide, but simply to affirm.

The leaking of the McChrystal Plan constituted a direct assault on civilian control. At the time, however, that fact passed all but unnoticed. Few of those today raising a hue-and-cry about PFC Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeak-er, bothered to protest. The documents that Manning allegedly made public are said to endanger the lives of American troops and their Afghan comrades. Yet, a year ago, no one complained about the McChrystal leaker providing Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership with a detailed blueprint of exactly how the United States and its allies were going to prosecute their war.

The absence of any serious complaint reflected the fact that, in Washington—especially in the press corps—military leaks aimed at subverting or circumscribing civilian authority are accepted as standard fare. It’s part of the way Washington works.

This is not how it’s supposed to work. But this is how it’s been working for two decades now, particularly the past decade under the Bush administration. And the military is still at it. Bagevich soldiers on:

Within the past week, complaints dribbling out of Petraeus’s headquarters in Kabul—duly reported by an accommodating press—indicate growing military unhappiness with the July 2011 pullout date. Now, Petraeus himself has begun to weigh in directly. This past weekend, he launched his own media campaign, offering his “narrative” of ongoing events. Unlike the ham-handed McChrystal, who chose a foreign capital as his soapbox, Petraeus sat for a carefully orchestrated series of interviews with The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” each of which gratefully passed along the general’s view of things.

In the course of sitting for these interviews, Petraeus placed down a marker, one best captured by the headline in the Times dispatch: “Petraeus Opposes a Rapid Pullout in Afghanistan.” Or, as The Daily Beast put it, adding a twist of hyperbole, Petraeus told “David Gregory that he has the right to delay Obama’s 2011 pull-out target for troops in Afghanistan.” A bit over the top, but you get the drift.

Dexter Filkins of the Times interpreted Petraeus’s comments as “a preview of what promise[s] to be an intense political battle over the future of the American-led war in Afghanistan.” The operative word in that statement is “political,” with the stakes potentially including not only the ongoing war, but an upcoming presidential election.

At the center of that battle will be a very political general, skilled at using the press and with friends aplenty on Capitol Hill, especially among Republicans. To have a chance of winning reelection in 2012, Obama needs to demonstrate progress in shutting down the war. Yet it is now becoming increasingly apparent the general Obama has placed in charge of that war entertains a different view.

Now, there are lots of arguments that one could have about the relative merits of prolonging our misadventure in Afghanistan. But the more general point here is that the military should not be setting policy, or trying to. But it seems to believe it can do that. Only yesterday, in fact, according to Raw Story,

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Gen. James Conway challenged President Obama’s commitment to begin withdrawing soldiers from Afghanistan in July, 2011, saying his deadline gives the Taliban “sustenance” and encourages them to simply outlast the Americans.

“In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance,” he said, according to published reports. “In fact, we’ve intercepted communications that say, ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.'”

Keep in mind that Obama’s July 2011 deadline was initially set after extensive consultation with military leaders, and if I remember correctly, it was no big deal to hit that target at the time. It was a mutually agreed date. So either Obama was directly lied to by senior military leaders, or they didn’t know what they were talking about. Neither prospect is encouraging. I’m reminded of that old quote from Clemenceau—“War is too important to be left to the generals.” (To which some French general allegedly responded, “War is too important not to be left to the generals.”)

There’s a related point here, one brought up by Spencer Ackerman just the other day—the notion that the US public won’t support long wars may be unfounded. After all, the Afghanistan incursion has been going on for nearly a decade now, and even though there’s apparently significant opposition to remaining in Afghanistan, that doesn’t seem to have any policy or political consequences. Ackerman notes:

Ten years is a long time for a conflict by any contemporary standard. It’s certainly long enough for the target of the actual war to have shifted its strategic circumstances repeatedly. You don’t see anything like sustained popular outrage in response. That’s not to say there isn’t dissent, just to note that it’s not anything that politicians can’t handle, contrary to some of the presumptions of the “America hates a long war” contention. Then there’s the decades of mobilization, manifested in various forms, that the U.S. has experienced since World War II.

I can imagine a variety of explanations for this, foremost among them that the all-volunteer military insulates the public from wide-ranging consequences of military stress. And I’m certainly not making any sort of normative argument for this being good. The U.S. should not be at war endlessly. I’m just not sure why we should continue to tell ourselves that the country won’t tolerate long conflicts, since we have a lot of evidence, and recent evidence, to the contrary.

I tend to agree with Ackerman, but of course this is hard to prove. But it certainly is the case that no one is marching to pull troops out of Afghanistan. And you have to wonder whether that would be the case if the troops were conscripts, rather than volunteers (and their professional help, discussed further down). And I’ve heard the argument that having an army of conscripts didn’t shorten the Vietnam war. Well, maybe, maybe not. That was a different time, and there was the whole anti-Communist thing. But US combat operations in Vietnam didn’t last as long as US combat operations in Afghanistan, now the longest running war in US history. And which some military leaders seem to believe can go on indefinitely. And they could be correct.

Reduce the Christian influence in the military
Some readers may have noticed this recent story about troops being punished by their commanding officer for not attending a Christian concert. It’s not an isolated incident. The US military has become increasingly and dangerously Christianized since the draft was abolished, especially during the past two decades. The reasons for this are complicated, of course, but it has been an undeniable trend. We all remember the embarrassing situations at the US Air Force Academy a couple of years ago. Well, maybe one could pass that off as just being an interesting aspect of Colorado culture. But it’s clearly a broader trend. It’s difficult to see this trend sustaining itself in a military full of conscripts that provide a broader reflection of American society. This trend is probably not unrelated to the next point.

Reduce the red state dominance of US military leadership
I don’t normally rely on data collected an analyzed by right-wing think tanks, but an interesting study by the Heritage Foundation confirms what we probably knew intuitively—the US South provides a disproportionately high number of US military personnel. This isn’t necessarily true by state—Montana, Alaska and Wyoming rank the highest. It’s no surprise that New England ranks the lowest by region. There are a number of reasons for this, presumably, including what the Heritage Foundation refers to, without any irony whatsoever, as the “Southern Military tradition.” But these also seem to be states where economic opportunities may be more limited than in wealthier states. They’re mostly red states, as it turns out.

Readers of Evan Wright’s excellent Generation Kill will remember Lieutenant Nathan Fick, the lieutenant from Dartmouth, who would point out, with very good reason, that you actually do want your officer corps to have more than a handful of liberals in it. In fact, this is generally true across the rank spectrum of the military—the entire institution would benefit from actually being a genuine cross-section of American society. For one thing, it might curb the enthusiasm within the US military for ventures it can get into easily but out of only with extreme difficulty—like Iraq and Afghanistan. Anyone who has been in the military is aware of the Southern Military Tradition. It’s the same tradition, presumably, that has led the US south to be the leader in violent crimes in the US. Bringing back the draft has the potential to produce a better officer corps, one less enthusiastic about trying to fight the next war before its time.

We all remember that Timothy McVeigh and his dodgy cohorts all had involvement in secret racist organizations in the military while serving in the first Iraq war. And we continue to hear about these shadowy organizations in today’s military as well. The best way to drive them underground, for good, is the light of day—that is, universal conscription.

Reduce the increasing dependence on private security firms
Maybe even get rid of them entirely. Why has the US military ceded so much of its historic mission to private security firms such as Blackwater (now Xe) and other such firms? A good question, for which I have no immediate and obvious answer. But the trend is now unmistakable. The recent news that the US has finally withdrawn all combat troops was accompanied by stories that private security forces would continue to be required—under the direction of the US State Department, which will likely call for an increase in the number of private security contractors. What on earth is this all about? Why did private security firms have such a large role in the Iraq war in the first place?

As Pratap Chatterjee recently chronicled in The Guardian,

Over $100bn in contracts have been handed out since the events of 11 September 2001. KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton, has received over $35bn alone to build bases, cook food and haul fuel. The spending on private security contractors like Blackwater is estimated by the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting to be worth as much as $10bn.

And of course we’ve seen the kind of bang-up job these guys can do. And they’re not under military control—that’s the best part for them, and the worst part for the military itself. There’s really no excuse for this other than a very cozy relationship between some (usually ex-military) business leaders and lobbyists on the one hand and some politicians on the other. The excellent R. J. Hillhouse spent a number of years following these travesties (but seems to have given up over the past 18 months, sadly). Time to send these guys back to Tennessee or wherever it is they come from.

Highly efficient volunteer army? Where?
This is not exactly a shining record. The only military conflict of the past thirty years the US military has won on its own has been in Grenada. While it probably would have handily won the first Gulf War, there were political reasons why it had to be a multi-country effort—and remember how faulty the intelligence was at the time regarding Saddam’s capacity to make mischief (a recurring problem, apparently)? Reagan pulled US troops out of a misguided role in Lebanon following the 1983 bombing that killed hundreds of US military personnel. He then decided to invade Grenada so that the military would feel better about itself. George H.W. Bush’s military misadventure was the capture of Panamanian dictator and former CIA stooge Manuel Noreiga, a mission that seemed to involve lots of playing of rock music really loud (“Operation Nifty Package”). The first gulf war seemed to go ok, but then ended disgracefully when the US government encouraged the Kurds and the Shi’ite Muslims to revolt against Saddam, and they did. And then we let them get slaughtered by Saddam. Bill Clinton got talked into a misdventure in Somalia, for which Clinton got blamed, although he was just following the advice of his military leaders. And just look at what George Bush, Dick Cheney and a bunch of neo-cons got us into, pretty much on their own–with a whole lot of enabling, it must be said, from a sizable component of the military leadership—those that didn’t agree were shoved aside, remember? An adventure with little hope of ever being able to exit from honorably.

Having an all-volunteer army has not stopped useless and unnecessary military ventures. In fact, it seems that the reverse has taken place. Given the enthusiasm the US military appears to have had the past two decades for risky military adventures, and still seems to have, if the comments about Afghanistan noted above are any indication, it seems that we’re fated to see more of the same in the future. The ultimate rationale for Vietnam, remember, was to stop the spread of communism. Well, that didn’t hold up very well, but at least you understood why people held that belief. The rationale for the recent wars the US military has gotten itself into is considerably less clear, and possibly more insidious. Yes, there is the modern equivalent of The Great Game, this time concerning oil resources. But there also seems to be a genuine messianic trend here, for all of Bush’s protestations that this was not a modern Crusade. The recent (and apparently never-ending) flap over the “9-11 mosque” (which isn’t a mosque, and isn’t on the 9-11 site) suggests that there is a substantial portion of America, including some of its political leadership, that isn’t at all unhappy with the Crusade concept.

What are some of the objections?
There are, of course, objections that can and should be raised. First, at a time when America continues to be increasingly unpopular around the world, which surprisingly seems to have diminished interest in having US troops pile in, what would we be expecting all these new soldiers to do? We can’t really keep them around in the US—but they’d be pretty useful at providing flood relief in Pakistan, or peacekeeping in Myanmar (when we get to that point), or any of a number of possible diplomatic and military missions in conjunction with the United Nations. Not to mention in Afghanistan, should the US still be involved there, which seems possible. This is assuming that the President and Congress get around to establishing some safeguards so that the political leadership of the United States can’t lie the country into another war at some point in the future. I’m not holding my breath, but after the Afghanistan incursion runs its course, that reckoning will need to occur. Understandably, no one in the US is enthusiastic about that process, which is why no one is pushing for it. But it will have to happen.

Second, what would this cost, at a time when the military, like other parts of the US government, is trying to shrink spending? Well, I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone does. But I bet it would cost a lot less than the trillion or two dollars that Iraq and Afghanistan are going to end up costing US taxpayers. I assume some studies have been done on this, and will continue to be done—the issue isn’t going away. For one thing, it will come up the next time some deranged or dishonest president decides a little war might not be a bad thing—say, when President Palin decides to invade North Korea.

Third, the military isn’t set up for universal conscription—there would need to be a significant (and expensive) institutional transition to accommodate universal conscription. Well, yes, this is true, and it seems clear that the current military leadership is not enthusiastic about this prospect. But that’s what the military is trained to do—it gets orders from the civilian government, and then executes them in a professional manner. Of course it would be difficult, and require extensive involvement with states and localities, not to mention the federal government. But the Pentagon has faced bigger challenges before, and has generally met these challenge in an admirable manner—the integration of the military is a case in point.

So these are all valid concerns, both theoretically and practically. But it’s not as if they’re insurmountable.

The late William F. Buckley once wrote a book called Gratitude, in which he called for passing legislation that would require one year of national service for all Americans. Unlike what seems to be a surprisingly high number of modern conservatives who have no military experience, Buckley did his time in the US Navy—and in wartime, too. But it wasn’t only the draft Buckley wanted—he was very serious in his belief in national service of a broader sort. And he was right, in this, at least (and there’s not much I agreed with Buckley on)—what’s wrong with the concept of National Service? (Although most of Buckley’s fellow conservatives hated the book, it should be mentioned). If you are prepared to partake of the benefits of living in a civilized society and culture, you should be prepared to participate in its sustenance, and even defense.

Yes, yes, there are innumerable practical reasons to not want to deal with this issue. Who wants to go into the military? What about the inequalities of the draft during the Vietnam era, when it seemed pretty easy for the affluent or educated to game the system? What if the military doesn’t want to deal with a large infusion of marginally educated and marginally competent civilians? I don’t underestimate the logistical, political and economic complications that bringing back the draft would produce. We should not think of the military as a social engineering project–that’s not its job.

But the incidental social benefits would be high, and I believe would more than offset the problems. It would bring Americans closer to its military. It would de-Christianize the military, particularly the leadership. It would foster more civic activity—getting appointed or elected to the local draft board would become an interesting thing to do, maybe more so than the planning commission. It would help bring the military back under civilian control. And it would be, once again, a great equalizer in American society, as it was during the Vietnam experience, in spite of the tragedy of the Vietnam conflict itself. Bringing back the draft is one of the best tools American society has to rid itself of some dangerous trends. It can’t start soon enough.

The stamp above was issued by the US Postal Service in 1991 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of US entry into the Second World War.

7 replies »

  1. Great analysis. We need to make sure that the children of the privileged elites can’t duck their service – although good luck enforcing a provision like that….

  2. Well, the problem back in my day was that everyone who had strong feelings about the war got a lot of support for ducking for cover. There was no onus attached to avoiding the draft by 1969 or so. But the requirements could easily be tightened to avoid that if itss brought back.

  3. Hey, it’s my damn draft, and I say–draft women! They get their own barracks during basic training, though. Trust me on this.