Debate Club: Should the Draft be Brought Back?

Phillip Carter and James Joyner

Legal Affairs

April 18, 2005

“America has a choice,” write Phillip Carter and Paul Glastris in The Washington Monthly. “It can be the world’s superpower, or it can maintain the current all-volunteer military, but it probably can’t do both.” Their solution is a revival of the draft.

Glastris and Carter propose that no college or university be allowed to accept students who haven’t spent at least one year in the military, AmeriCorps, or a homeland security position. Is this a good idea?

Phillip Carter is an attorney with McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP and former Army officer who writes on military and legal affairs. James Joyner is a former Army officer with a Ph.D. in political science who writes on political and military affairs at Outside the Beltway

Carter: 4/18/05, 01:55 PM
America has a choice, as I argued in the March issue of The Washington Monthly. It can be the world’s superpower, or it can maintain the current all-volunteer military, but it probably can’t do both. In a lot of ways, this is a simple economics equation, where the U.S. supply of military manpower cannot possibly meet our current (and future) demands, which are being driven by an increasingly expansive view of American foreign policy. 

First, the supply side. The current all-volunteer force is perhaps the best military ever fielded by any nation in history. However, the current U.S. military has limits, and the war in Iraq has shown this nation and the world what those limits are. Simply, the active and reserve components of the Army and Marine Corps can deploy a finite number of soldiers and Marines in deployable unit packages to a theater of war. Although the total military strength exceeds 3 million, the actual deployable strength equals something closer to 600,000, after subtracting the Navy and Air Force, the military’s institutional overhead, and then adding up only those personnel actually assigned to deployable units (such as an infantry or engineer battalion). This current deployable capacity represents the outer limit of how many troops we could put on the ground anywhere at one time, if we sent every deployable combat arms and combat support unit in the U.S. arsenal. 

Next, the demand side of the equation. A RAND Corporation analysis projected what would have been necessary in Iraq to decisively win the peace as we had won the war there. Using past U.S. deployments as a template, RAND projected that, two years after the invasion, it would take anywhere from 258,000 troops (the Bosnia model), to 321,000 (post-World War II Germany), to 526,000 (Kosovo) to secure the peace. And that’s just Iraq. Today’s U.S. military must also meet actual demands in Afghanistan, the Philippines, South Korea, the Balkans, and Guantanamo, among others—plus be ready to respond to emerging demands in Sudan, Haiti, Korea, China, the tri-border region of Latin America. The current demand for military manpower far exceeds the capacity of the current all-volunteer force. 

So there’s a gap between the supply of military manpower and the demands of the American empire. In “The Case for the Draft,” we explicitly explore several different options to bridge this gap: enlisting more allies; employing more private military contractors; transforming the military to generate more manpower; and simply enlisting more troops. The U.S. has tried all of these options since invading Iraq, and each has inherent limitations. In the article, we also implicitly explore the idea of reducing America’s demand for military manpower—but that solution does not appear ripe for the time being, at least while we’re engaged in Iraq and the larger war on terror. 

That leaves just one solution to raise the forces we need: a draft. Conscription is not the norm in American history; we have turned to it only by exception, when the need was great. Today, the need is great, both for military manpower and for national service more generally. If America wishes to retain its mantle of global leadership, it must develop a military structure capable of persevering under these circumstances. Fortunately, we know how to build such a force. We have done it many times in the past. The question is: Do we have the will to do so again?

Joyner: 4/18/05, 06:47 PM
While you correctly identify some flaws in our current military manning system, your solution would likely do more harm than good. You say the United States “can be the world’s superpower, or it can maintain the current all-volunteer military, but it probably can’t do both.” I would note that we have indeed done both for more than three decades. As you state, “The current all-volunteer force is perhaps the best military ever fielded by any nation in history.” One of the major reasons this is so is precisely because it consists entirely of those who have volunteered for the rigors of military service. 

It’s true that the wars in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq have put a strain on our soldiers and Marines. That appears to be a short term issue. Our commanders have recently expressed optimism that we’ll be able to significantly reduce our troop commitment within a year. Even if that’s not the case, though, our problems can largely be solved through restructuring the force and ending the Vietnam-era mindset of limited troop rotations during wartime. 

As you correctly note, our current force is woefully underutilized because the Army and Marine Corps bear the brunt of the mission. I would add that certain types of units within those Services are in constant demand, notably infantry, military police, civil affairs, and special forces. By cutting down the size of the active Navy and Air Force—and halting procurement of incredibly expensive new weapons systems for those services conceived to fight a superpower threat that ceased to exist fifteen years ago—we could save more than enough money to expand our land forces and increase the pay and incentives to recruit and retain them. (Yes, that will be difficult politically because of the interest groups who will pressure Congress to maintain the status quo, but certainly no more difficult than reinstating the draft.) 

We should also significantly reduce the strain on the force by mothballing some of our armored divisions and heavy artillery assets or reallocating them to the reserves, while beefing up our infantry, MP, civil affairs, and special forces capability on the active side. We’re actually in the process of doing this but the need has been apparent since the Somalia operation and the wheels are moving far too slowly. 

Additionally, we need to rethink the notion that soldiers should be constantly rotated out of hostile fire zones. Before Vietnam, it was understood that, during times of war, soldiers were committed for the duration of the conflict. Many World War II soldiers served for three or more years in a combat zone, fighting their way from Northern Africa through Europe and then on to the Pacific. The idea that professional volunteer soldiers, including reservists, should expect to serve only a few months when there’s a war on defies logic. Certainly, rotation of troops for rest and recreation is necessary. But when there’s a war to be fought, soldiers expect to soldier. 

Now, these things aren’t going to be enough if we keep a huge force in Iraq while also going to war with China, North Korea, Sudan, Haiti, and the tri-border region of Latin America. But, then, neither will would a draft. At best, your solution gives us a cadre of barely-trained privates whose skills will begin stagnating the moment they leave the service. For them to be of use as more than cannon fodder, they’ll need a cadre of sergeants and officers to lead them. We’re not going to get that by forcing people to serve for a year and then sending them home.

Carter: 4/19/05, 01:53 PM
James, you’re right to note that a draft will initially provide the force with a flood of barely-trained privates, seamen and airmen—and that they will need a cadre of sergeants and officers to lead them. It’s also true that such a conscript force will need equipment to fight as well; you can’t simply buy troops, you must also buy their rifles, vehicles, body armor, communications gear, et cetera. All of this will cost a great deal of money. However, over time, a national service draft will produce the sergeants and officers necessary to lead the force. The history of wartime conscription is not a good one, because nations generally throw their draftees into battle immediately after basic training. A standing national service system would avoid this problem by creating a deep bench of reservists with years of experience who could be ready to serve on active duty when their nation needs them—and who would not graduate from Fort Benning or Fort Jackson only to walk right into harm’s way. As the proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today. 

One issue has constantly nagged at me for the past two years of discussion over the draft: the alleged connection between a skilled military and an all-volunteer military. I don’t necessarily believe that one follows the other. In the aggregate, a conscription-based force would actually be more intelligent (using test scores and other proxies as criteria) than today’s all-volunteer military, because it would sweep up many young Americans who today choose college over the military. This has been anecdotally confirmed to me in interviews I’ve done with veterans who served in the draftee-based U.S. military; nearly all can relate the story of a young private or lieutenant with an Ivy League degree, and of the large number of draftees who chose to serve en route to college out of a sense of duty. Today’s U.S. military has a tremendously high level of skill and professionalism, but I believe much of that is due to its sophisticated training and professional education systems, as well as its cadre of officers and sergeants. What if we were to fuse a pool of high-quality conscripts with today’s system of military education? Wouldn’t that produce a force as qualified as the current one, if not better? 

Another issue has nagged at me: the suggestion that draftees simply come in for 2 years and then you lose them. I’m not sure that one necessarily follows the other. First, today’s military devotes extraordinary resources to reenlistment efforts, and I think that some percentage of conscripts (probably less than that of volunteers) would choose to reenlist for at least one more term of service. Second, federal law can be used to shape the terms of enlistment. Title 10 of the United States Code already defines the terms of military enlistments. Today’s soldiers must serve a total of 8 years as their statutory service obligation, regardless of whatever initial active or reserve term they sign up for. A similar term could be introduced for conscripts, such that they remain in the inactive reserves for some time after their service, ready to be called up if need be. I don’t think that conscription necessarily means that we’ll have a “revolving door” problem—only that we’ll have more soldiers going through the door, and a greater challenge to retain the best of them.

Joyner: 4/20/05, 09:15 AM
Phil, I agree that adding a few more Ivy Leaguers to the present force would slightly increase the aggregate intelligence level. That doesn’t seem to be what you and Paul Glastris proposed in your Washintgon Monthly piece. If we’re simply going to force all eighteen-year-olds, or at least those who want to go to college, to fulfill a national service obligation, then it’s not immediately clear why they’d be better than the current crop. Indeed, the current enlisted pool is already smarter and better educated than their non-military counterparts. 

I agree, too, that a pool of trained reservists would be better than a sudden draft during wartime. The plan you outline, though, doesn’t seem to create that. You propose allowing people to either join the military, do homeland security duty, or some sort of AmeriCorps-type service for one or two years before being released from their servitude and allowed to get an education. 

Let’s presume that most people who choose the military will pick the one year option. This strikes me as reasonable since, if they really wanted to join the military, they wouldn’t have to be drafted. If they pick the MPs, they will undergo initial entry training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for 17 weeks, perhaps a 3-6 week follow-on course, and then go on to a unit for the remaining 29-35 weeks. That will give them plenty of time to figure out where the chow hall is, how to paint rocks and pick up loose cigarette butts, plus a reasonable familiarity with basic MP and soldiering skills. If they’re particularly squared away, they’ll achieve the glorious rank of Private First Class. And then they’ll get out and go to college and begin getting fat and losing their skills. 

You say that some percentage of these people will decide to stay in the military. Undoubtedly true. But will the net gain to the nation’s security be enough to justify the infringement of liberty imposed on the vast majority who can’t wait to get out? I’m not convinced. 

You also seem to be moving the bar here. You now say that we could force the draftees to remain committed for eight years, just as we now do for volunteers. Why would anyone who wouldn’t now volunteer for service pick the military option, in that case? If I’m a college bound kid being forced to do something I don’t want to do for a year before I can start school, why would I pick the option that’s actually eight years (with the incidental chance of getting shot) rather than the cushy one year gig stateside? Maybe a few will go for the adventure of soldiering, although they’ll be sorely disappointed once they’ve lived the life of a private. 

The other thing that strikes me as odd about the Carter-Glastris plan is that it’s tied to college admissions. What about those people, like you and I, who actually want to volunteer for the military but who are better suited to service as officers? I don’t know about you, but I would have made one lousy private. After getting a college education and going through ROTC training, though, I was able to give four years of solid service as a junior officer. Had my first exposure to military life been a year of scut work as a private, though, I can’t imagine I’d have gone back in after school.

Carter: 4/21/05, 05:19 PM
So we’re in agreement—a national service draft would raise the intellectual caliber of the military, at least by measures such as high school completion and college attendance. 

The academic consensus, dating back to Morris Janowitz’ groundbreaking studies of unit cohesion and combat effectiveness during World War II, is that smart soldiers make for better soldiers. Soldiers with higher educational levels are more likely to function well under fire and more likely to survive than their lesser educated peers. So acknowledging that a draft would bring in more of these high-caliber young Americans is a very significant conceptual breakthrough, because it means that we might actually build a more capable and survivable force with conscription than with today’s all-volunteer force. 

Now let’s talk about equity. James, do you really think it’s fair that such a narrow slice of America bears such a great burden for our country? The burden of military service today is deep but it is not wide. A smaller fraction of this nation is personally engaged in the war on terrorism than any of America’s major wars. This is a “free rider” problem of epic proportions, and one that I find to be tremendously disturbing. In my opinion, it is fundamentally unfair and immoral for Americans to benefit so much from citizenship in this country without serving in some way—whether it be in their communities, to the nation, or abroad in the military. We ask so much of our young men and women in uniform, and we ask so little of those who choose not to serve. That, in my opinion, encourages people not to serve, especially in wartime when the burden of service includes the risk of death or serious injury. America would do well to correct this fundamental injustice by requiring national service of all its young men and women. 

I have long said that there are dueling immoralities here. On the one hand, it is wrong to make such narrow part of society shoulder the burden of our defense. But on the other hand, it may also be immoral to compel young men and women to kill or be killed in military service. We the people—or the state—must choose between these conflicting imperatives. To date, the president has failed to effectively rally the people behind the war effort, and I believe that the current recruiting slump owes much to this leadership failure. If young Americans do not elect to serve, and we continue to face the war on terrorism, that will require us to place an increasingly heavy burden on those few who do serve. I submit that is immoral. But perhaps more importantly, I believe there is a limit to how much of a burden you can impose on today’s all-volunteer military. If we reach that breaking point, will have no choice but to impose conscription?

Joyner: 4/22/05, 01:23 AM
Phil, I disagree that a draft Army would necessarily be a more intelligent one. It’s conceivable that the enlisted force would be somewhat smarter if we maintain the current standards plus supplement it with more college bound students. On the other hand, as I noted last time, this may come at the cost of would-be officers disgruntled by being forced to endure a stint as a private. Moreover, you’ve already conceded that, “The current all-volunteer force is perhaps the best military ever fielded by any nation in history.” That force is smarter and better educated than the society as a whole now. 

Your “equity” argument is one that has long puzzled me. Do I think it’s fair that a small share of society bears most of the risks of fighting our wars? Is it fair that I get to eat every day without having to endure the hardships of farming? That I get to buy all manner of wonderful products even though I’ve never worked on an assembly line or driven an eighteen-wheeler? I’ve never been a cop or a firefighter or a brain surgeon or high beam construction worker, yet I feel not the slightest twinge of guilt for having shirked my duty in those fields of endeavor. Why is the profession of arms, alone of all lines of work, something that you would compel young people to perform if they want to go to college? 

Is it a lot to ask of a soldier to go back for a second or even third tour of duty in Iraq? Sure. Soldiering is a tough business. It’s important to remember, though, that unlike with your plan, those bearing this burden are those who chose to do so. Indeed, while the war has put a strain on recruiting, it has not hurt retention among the active duty ranks. As surprising as it may be, most soldiers and Marines actually take great pride in doing a tough mission and actually utilizing the skills they’ve devoted their adult lives to learning. 

As an aside, I would point out that it’s simply untrue that our soldiers are disproportionately from the lower classes. Indeed, a chart published last month in The New York Times looking at those who have been killed in Iraq shows that, as with the force as a whole, they’re more likely to be high school graduates and somewhat less likely to come from poverty than their non-military cohorts. 

You’re right that President Bush could have done a better job rallying the public around the war effort. Tony Blair, a much more talented orator, has had even less success in the UK, land of the stiff upper lip. But, if the public’s distaste for the hardships of war makes it hard to get volunteers for the military, what in the world makes you think they’ll support a draft? If they’re unsold on letting those who have chosen to serve do so, I can’t imagine they’ll be more enthusiastic at having their sons and daughters forced to go.

Carter: 4/22/05, 01:24 PM
Thanks for making that point, James, about how we benefit from the work of firefighters, police officers and others without ourselves doing that labor. This division of labor enables a liberal market-based society to flourish. However, I believe there is something different about the work of soldiering that must make it a burden borne by all citizens. It is, after all, the most fundamental duty of a state to provide security for its people. Our military exists to protect this nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic, but particularly those enemies which pose an existential threat to the United States and our way of life. We all derive great benefit from the existence of the U.S. military and its defense of our society. The profession of arms serves this purpose, and enables all of us to go about our daily lives. It’s also an inherently dangerous profession, especially in wartime, much more so than service in civilian police or fire departments. 

Further, the continued existence, viability and vitality of the military is essential to the continued existence of this nation. Our democracy depends on successive generations of young Americans who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way for our security. Say what you will about the importance of municipal services—nothing comes close to the importance of the military in that regard. And so, I think it is both proper and moral to impose a burden of military or homeland security service on young Americans, given the importance of this service and the fact that all benefit from it. 

You and I both know that soldiers put up with a lot of hardship, whether in peacetime or wartime. Unit cohesion plays a major role in enabling those soldiers to persevere; they rely on their leaders and buddies to get them through. A critical component of unit cohesion is something I think of as “shared sacrifice”—the notion that you’re all in it together, facing the same hardships, and bearing the same burdens. When a private serving in South Korea in January looks up and sees his sergeant and lieutenant shivering with him, he’s more likely to persevere. Likewise, when a soldier in Iraq takes pause to look at how his nation supports him, I think he takes comfort when he sees signs of tangible commitments by his nation to the war effort. A national service system would be a tremendous sign of national commitment to the war effort. Simply, it would spread the burden and the sacrifice of military service to all sectors of society—rich, middle class, poor, urban, rural, blue state, red state, et cetera. You cited a New York Times study of casualty hometowns that makes the point that today’s military is diverse. But what’s also true is that certain active-duty communities—Oceanside, California (home of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force), Killeen, Texas (home of the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions) and Fort Bragg (home of the Army’s paratroopers) have together borne half the casualties from the Iraq war. I do not believe that today’s American soldier can look back and see his society supporting him when so few are engaged in the fight, and so few are bearing its cost. 

I also have a great political concern here—that by decoupling our military from the larger population of America, we have enabled our nation to fight wars without having its population engaged in it. In theory, our democracy will not fight unpopular wars because the people who must bear the casualties can impose their will on our elected leaders to end a war they do not support. The Framers vested Congress with the warmaking powers of declaring war, funding war and raising armies, because they wanted the people to have a say in when their nation would spend its spirit, blood and treasure to fight. But when such a small fraction of America shoulders the burden—and pays the cost—of America’s wars, this democratic system breaks down. 

America’s draft apparatus has laid around collecting dust for a generation. It will take a supreme act of political will to bring it back to life. In 1940, President Roosevelt had the political will and foresight to begin a draft when he saw the storm clouds of World War II on the horizon. Some visionaries in Congress, such as Sen. John McCain, have pushed for short-term enlistments and national service in various forms that fall short of the full system we propose. However, I don’t think those plans go far enough. 

Thanks for an engaging and spirited debate, James. I look forward to seeing more public debate on this issue.

Joyner: 4/22/05, 05:45 PM
You’ll get no argument from me that soldiers are a special breed and perform a vital service to the nation. Still, from an empirical standpoint, it’s hard to argue that they are more important to our society than farmers, doctors, teachers, and mothers. And, while soldiering is dangerous, it’s by no means the most risky occupation out there. According to the Labor Department, a lumberjack is more than five times more likely to be killed in the line of duty (118 fatalities per 100,000) than a Marine (21.75). Commercial fishermen (71), pilots (70), structural-metal workers (58), and dozens of other occupations are more dangerous. 

Even if we conclude that soldiering is the most important job that there is because of its unique contribution, it doesn’t follow that we must force people to do it. Indeed, under your plan, people who want to go to college would either have to serve in the military, or tutor disadvantaged kids, or guard our ports, or perform some other public service. Why is amateur teaching or being a security guard an adequate substitute for soldiering, given the special nature of the latter? Surely, a cop or firefighter is more vital to our well being than RIF volunteers. As the 9/11 attacks made painfully clear, they’re on the front lines of the war on terror. 

I agree with you that, “Our democracy depends on successive generations of young Americans who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way for our security.” The key word, though, is “willing.” And we’ve currently got 2.6 million men and women in uniform that have volunteered to do just that, 1.4 million in the active force. For thirty-two years and more wars than I can list without a Google search, our all-volunteer force has been more than adequate. 

A draft would actually diminish the honored position of the soldier while stigmatizing non-soldiers. With an all-volunteer force, we appreciate the sacrifice of those who wear the uniform. If a sizable part of the military were comprised of draftees, though, they would no longer seem special—including those who would have volunteered, anyway. At the same time, those who didn’t wear the uniform would likely be looked down upon as shirkers in an environment where service was mandatory. Perhaps women or the visibly handicapped would escape scorn but any able-bodied man who chose the reading to kids route over the Marines would be considered less than virile under a draft. This, despite the fact that under all but the most exigent circumstances, we would only need a couple hundred thousand more soldiers than we have now and would have to turn down lots of would-be “volunteers.” 

As I’ve argued before, a draft simply isn’t a practical solution to our problems. To the extent we need a bigger force, it’s one that’s ready to fight. A pool of out-of-shape former privates would provide little useful “surge capacity” without a comparable pool of sergeants and junior officers to lead them. Not to mention, as Kevin Drum has noted, a surge capacity in trucks, tanks, personnel carriers, and other materiel and logistics resources to move and equip them. 

It’s been an interesting week debating this topic, Phil. While I don’t agree with your solution, you and Paul Glastris have brought attention to an important issue.

Original debate