All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 2000

What Ain’t Broke: The Renewed Call for Conscription

A Draft Would Sacrifice the Very Constitutional Liberties that the Military Is Charged to Defend

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

The draft has been dead for more than a quarter century. Despite a rocky start, the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) now provides America with the highest quality military in its history and the finest armed services in the world. Yet recruiting and retention problems have begun to appear. As a result, there are an increasing number of calls for a return to conscription.

The draft was bad policy during the Cold War. It would constitute amazing foolishness today. Renewed conscription would simultaneously reduce the quality of new servicemen and increase the cost of raising a military. A draft would also sacrifice the very constitutional liberties that the military is charged to defend.

Congress adopted the first peacetime draft in 1940, when war was raging in Europe. Conscription persisted—with but a brief 15-month hiatus—until 1973.

Now, however, a growing chorus on behalf of conscription is being heard.

Memo to Washington: We’re at Peace

That Washington is even discussing a return to a draft is bizarre. The United States is at peace. Washington stands astride the globe as a colossus—its enemies are pathetic and its allies are secure. Together with its allies, America accounts for roughly 80 percent of the globe’s military outlays. Allied states like France are abandoning conscription.

Still, advocates of conscription point, among other things, to poor recruiting results. In 1999 every service aside from the Marines had a difficult time. Moreover, the services are losing pilots and other selected skill grades, such as computer technicians. Critics also lament the expense of recruiting new soldiers.

Yet the military’s problem is not inadequate recruits, but inadequate quality recruits. Major General Evan Gaddis, commanding general of the Army, reports that of roughly nine million males between the ages of 17 and 21, “only 14 percent are the high quality, fully qualified and available prospects all military services want to recruit.” The Pentagon could solve its recruiting problems tomorrow if it simply lowered its standards modestly to those of a conscript military. That would leave the AVF with a far higher quality force than during the draft era. Observes Gordon Sullivan, former Army chief of staff and current president of the Association of the United States Army: “Military commanders prefer high-quality volunteers to mixed-quality draftees.”

The AVF attracts superior personnel for two important reasons. First, the services can reject people who haven’t graduated from high school and so-called Category IVs and Vs—people who score well below average on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. Moreover, a volunteer military draws people who want to be there, creating a dramatically different and more positive dynamic compared to a conscript army.

Career retention has long been a Pentagon concern. However, conscription brings in untrained first-termers, not experienced pilots. And draftees, who don’t want to be in uniform, re-enlist in far lower numbers than volunteers.

Coercion Not Cheaper

Nor is coercion cheaper than voluntarism. There would be some savings in recruiting costs, but even radical pay cuts would save little, since first-term volunteers earn the least in the military. Moreover, any such savings would be offset by increased costs elsewhere, such as more generous re-enlistment pay and bonuses to build and retain a career force. On top of that would be the costs of classification, induction, and enforcement.

In fact, the Reagan administration’s Military Manpower Task Force concluded in 1982 that a return to the draft would actually hike costs by about $1 billion annually. A draft would also generate significant avoidance activities, economic dislocations, and other social costs.

The alleged unrepresentativeness of the volunteer force rankles some. But conscription would fail to deliver a more representative force. The notion that the military is dominated by unqualified minorities and lower-class whites is a ridiculous myth. Compared to the conscript force, the AVF has a few more African-Americans, high- school graduates, above-average students, and members of the middle class, and a few less college graduates, Hispanics, and members of the under-class and upper-class. It is quintessentially middle America.

Despite the endless, and endlessly ferocious, arguments over representativeness, the most important point may be how little conscription would affect the composition of today’s force. Since few draftees re-up, conscription would primarily change the composition of the transient pool of new recruits.

Are there any other reasons to conscript today? One argument is to fulfill all of America’s new commitments: Bosnia, East Timor, Haiti, Kosovo, Macedonia, Somalia, and who knows where else in the future. However, even if there is some merit to what Johns Hopkins University professor Michael Mandelbaum has derisively called “foreign policy as social work,” there is no justification for forcing young Americans to suit up to patrol a new colonial empire. Such conflicts are not worth the bones of a single healthy American rifleman.

The only other argument with any resonance is that conscription would enforce the moral duties of citizenship. Of course, we all do have important moral obligations. But those duties are owed to others in society, not to the state. And they are owed by everyone, not just 18-year-old males (and possibly females). It is all too convenient for well-paid professionals beyond draft age to sit in the comfort of their offices and pontificate about the duty of young people to serve everyone else.

A volunteer military places the defense burden on everyone. Through it society calls upon patriotic youth to join the military, while sending the bill to old and young alike. At the same time, it withholds from government the extraordinary (and dangerous) power to order citizens to fight and die. This is the proper way for a republic dedicated to the protection of individual liberty to defend itself.

Still, there is no gainsaying that the AVF suffers some problems with recruiting and retention. What to do? Most important, Washington should return to a foreign policy appropriate to a republic rather than an empire. Adjusting America’s foreign policy would reduce pressure on the armed forces. With a smaller force less frequently deployed, the Pentagon would need fewer first-termers and careerists, NCOs, and officers. Both recruiting and retention problems would disappear.

It is important never to forget that the military is a means to an end, not the end. The purpose of America’s armed forces is to defend a free society built on respect for and protection of individual liberty. That is ultimately the most important reason to reject conscription.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.