to sate appetites for war, bring back the draft?

April 30, 2012

One rather popular theory among foreign relations pundits about American attitudes towards war is that we’re ready and willing to fight because more than 99% of us don’t have any skin in the game. Since the draft ended and the military became an all volunteer force, they continue, the burdens of conducting warfare switched to a small group of people who are increasingly growing detached from the rest of the country and are being used by chicken hawks as a threat to other nations. What’s the solution to the problem? To abandon the AVF and to reinstate the draft so more Americans share the burdens of war and have a real appreciation for what the military goes through every time their leaders vote in favor of combat. Surely, if millions of Americans went to fight in Iraq and went through the extremes of deployment and the angst of having a family member risking his or her life in a war zone, they would take a lot more time to think about military interventions and focus a lot more on the problems at home than on being the world’s policeman. Hey, all those draftees could go to work as well, updating infrastructure, doing research and participating in various swords to ploughshares projects, constantly reinvesting billions into the economic fabric of the U.S. But will anyone really want to try this idea?

First off, it’s important to point out that no one is saying that the AVF is doing a bad job because despite all the flaws you can find in any large bureaucracy, it proved itself to be highly resilient and extremely potent. The kind of long, drawn out, low intensity, precision, high-stakes wars with shadowy components it fights could only be fought by a small handful of other militaries though probably not as effectively. When political expediency said it should take a back seat in Libya, it couldn’t because it was the only military capable of supporting bombers, drones, and precision weapons needed for the mission. Decades of investment went into creating it and the long years of the Cold War enabled it to defend a long stretch of Europe and Asia, which is part of the reason why the U.S. spends more than all the countries in Europe and Southeast Asia combined. But all that buildup with few enemies to fight has turned it into a bludgeon to be used by lawmakers and activists with a very itchy trigger finger who know that the public at large won’t mind a war in which the only necessary support is vocal, usually made in the form of a magnet on the back of their car. Sure, the public wasn’t happy with the Iraq War, and it has deeply soured on Afghanistan because both became tedious and expensive quagmires. But, says a chorus of pundits, the war in Afghanistan could have ended much, much sooner, and the Iraq War may have never started if millions of Americans had some skin in the game and would have to go and fight.

While I can see their point, this seems like a case of Monday morning quarterbacking. We know today that the vague allusions to WMDs made by Saddam Hussein were a bluff, and while we knew fairly well that evidence for their existence was extremely shaky and came from questionable sources, the fury over the events of 9/11 was still very much in the air. Thousands were signing up for the AVF to fight as a result, and it’s likely that the people who would’ve supposedly stopped the war from starting would’ve reported to the local MEPS ready for basic training or officer school. A more pervasive argument might have been that much more attention would have been paid to the war effort and mismanagement would be met with far louder and swifter howls from all the families whose sons and daughters were drafted, a climate which would’ve pressured the administration to actually listen to sound advice and discredited Dick Cheney’s seething because so many would be quick to point out his deferments and his eagerness to advocate sending drafted soldiers into battle after dodging his call to do his duty. So perhaps the war wouldn’t have been stopped but it would’ve been ran better, with quick changes in strategy and heeding expert advice. Would the draft have been extremely unpopular? Yes. But this is the point. Wars aren’t supposed to be like a game you’d watch on TV. They’re serious business and they’re to be treated as such, and it’s unfair when those who refuse to fight wars, promote them.

So would reinstating the draft stop wars? Very unlikely. Will it be tough to institute? Absolutely. But at the same time, the diagnosis that the military is drifting away from the civilians and the AVF has been shouldering much of the burden for wars of whim and unfairly so, seems to make a lot of sense and has been echoed by Robert Gates when he was the Secretary of Defense during his speeches urging college students and graduates to consider military service. It’s understood that those who volunteer to do so make a choice and can endure the stress placed on them. But at the same time, it’s one thing to volunteer to defend one’s country and protect its allies and interests abroad, and end up fighting for a decade because the government feels free to send you to war and the public more or less tunes out the fact that you and your fellow soldiers are fighting wars started because they could be, with vague plans that don’t define when your mission is over, and largely ignored by a disturbing majority of the public you volunteered to protect. And maybe that public should contribute their time and effort to the defense of its own nation, seeing firsthand what war is, and thinking very carefully about what will happen when another one is declared and whether it’s really a good idea to fight that particular war…

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  • Bruce Coulson

    Bringing back the draft, whatever the merits of the idea, would be political suicide for whoever seriously suggested it or tried to implement it. And in the current environment, are we likely to find any politicians willing to end their careers on a matter of abstract principle, especially since such an act of self-sacrifice would be meaningless unless a large number of other politicians also jumped over the cliff?

    The draft would raise the spectre of massive protests against conflicts that appear to have no bearing on the security or welfare of the average citizen. Neither side of the political divide wishes to see this happen; it would be one of the few matters on which bi-partisanship would be nearly unanimous.

  • Paul451


    Given the extensive (and expensive) use of private contractors for things the military used to do themselves, this could be a middle path for the draft. Ie, draftees are only required to fill support roles, not combat roles. You still might be stationed in a war-zone, you still might die, but you are a cook, cleaner, driver, etc, never a soldier on patrol. A kind of reserve for the Reserves.

    However, a certain percentage of draftees will want to become proper soldiers/marines/etc (judging by Vietnam, where some draftees returned for multiple tours), so after their first mandatory non-combat tour, they would have the option of signing up for the real thing.


    One way for a politician to bring it in would be to first introduce it for unemployed welfare recipients in a certain age range. 18-26? Punishing the chronically unemployed is a classic Conservative tactic, so it might be popular if given the right Fox spin. Then you expand it over the following few years.

    Subtler still would be creating it as a jobs program, a military version of the “Works Progress Administration” and its many variations, which existed during the Great Depression. Instead of drafting people, you offer an unlimited number of full-time jobs for any unemployed person who wants one. Minimum wage unskilled/semi-skilled labour on bases within the US, with higher pay for (voluntary) overseas posting. Millions of jobs with all the benefits that come with it like free health-care for your family, training and qualification, child-care, and perhaps basic housing, or at least shelter, for the homeless unemployed. Program winds down when the US returns to near-full employment and inflation becomes the primary threat to the economy.

  • Bruce Coulson

    It would also necessitate a further cutting of veteran’s benefits; which may be popular among neo-cons, but is a very dangerous step. (re billing the draft for the unemployed).

    The WPA would be a horrible mis-use of government funds which could be better spent hiring corporations to do the same jobs. (sarcasm rant off now)

    The real ‘elephant in the room’ is the fact that Congress has been side-stepping its Constitutional duities for decades. The United States has not been at war, (as defined by the Constitution) since V-J Day. I don’t have high hopes of Congress suddenly waking up to do its job.

  • Greg Fish

    Millions of jobs with all the benefits that come with it like free health-care for your family, training and qualification, child-care, and perhaps basic housing…

    Question is, who would pay for all that? With as big as the DOD is, and with as many contracts as they have out, we’re talking about 2 million jobs or so already in existence. To create 2 or 3 million more jobs may take hundreds of billions we don’t have to fulfill all the obligations involved with military jobs and service.

  • Paul451

    “To create 2 or 3 million more jobs may take hundreds of billions we don’t have to fulfill all the obligations involved with military jobs and service.”

    “Money we don’t have”? The poverty of government is entirely artificial. The US budget is lower due to the recession (and dumb decisions about tax cuts during two wars) reducing revenues. But a country that owns its own currency has as much money as its economy can handle. Since inflation is low, your economy can handle more. By giving the unemployed jobs, you increase business activity through new spending. (As well as reducing the social harm of long-term unemployment.) That increases revenues for the government as the economy recovers more quickly, which eventually pays for the program. (And as I said, once the economy recovers, you wind the program down to avoid inflationary effects.)

    Obviously any kind of jobs program would work, but I was trying to combine it with the WaPo’s reasoning for a new military draft, but without actually having a forced (therefore hated) draft or losing the military advantage of a professional AVF.

    “and with as many contracts as they have out, we’re talking about 2 million jobs or so already in existence.”

    The idea is to turn those $100,000-per-contractor jobs into five $20,000 jobs. The stimulus effect during a recession is much higher at the bottom of the job market. (During a boom, otoh, you want to reduce wage demand by increasing labour efficiency. But you ain’t in no boom.)

    Re: Vet benefits, due to draftees.

    Presumably the single tour draftees would be excluded from long-term veterans benefits, in the same bill that puts the unemployed in the draft.

    “The WPA would be a horrible mis-use of government funds which could be better spent hiring corporations to do the same jobs. (sarcasm rant off now)”

    Hmmm, I suppose then we could replace the entire military with a complete switch to contractors. Eg, the next President wants to invade Iran, he puts out a request for bids for military contractors to conduct the entire war. The contractors would bid higher or lower depending on how much they think they could extract from the target country (looting/oil/etc). Eventually, the government itself won’t need to pay for any wars, once corporations have experience wielding the entire US military, they will conduct wars in their own interests, to gain resources, or replace anti-capitalist governments, etc, based purely on capitalist risk/reward calculations. And without the massive military budget to pay for, the US Govt could drastically lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy, increasing US competitiveness. A wonderful virtuous cycle.


    Aside: Re: Mandatory draft vs Voluntary jobs.
    There’s a program here in Australia called “Work for the Dole”. You might have the same thing, hell we probably got the idea from the US. Long term unemployed are required to do 16hrs a week to quality for the dole. Private companies (and charities and community groups) bid to run the projects that the unemployed work on. What I find interesting is that at 16hrs per week, the current rate of unemployment benefit is $3/hr more than the minimum wage. In other words, the government could replace unemployment benefits by providing a similar number of actual minimum wage jobs for anyone whose income is below a certain level, completely replacing a coercive program with a fully voluntary one at the same cost. (Okay, semi-voluntary, since there’d be no dole.)

    Which makes me wonder, why have a coercive program in the first place? IMO, the “punish the poor” mentality must be so deeply ingrained in conservative politicians that the idea of a voluntary jobs program wouldn’t actually occur to them; while “pity the poor” is so ingrained in the other side, it wouldn’t occur to them either.

  • Jypson

    Without a third world war, I don’t think a draft will ever happen.

    1) Recruiting / Training / Outfitting is very expensive. From my experience, I would say that DoD is looking for a 10 year career out of a service member. This allows them to re-coop the cost of training by keep a service member in their job. They even offer re-enlistment bonus’ to keep them in their job because paying out bonus’ is cheaper then starting from scratch again. I don’t think you could get a way with a draft for more than 3 years which is the minimum for many “unskilled” jobs.

    2) The military ranks are fairly diverse with quality of service members. I worked with some who I was proud to have known, but many more were dirt bags who were only their because they were either given the option of service or prison time; or just had no direction in their life and needed the constant supervision. I feel that a draft targeting youths who are not getting a higher education is going to further the degradation of quality troops. Just look at all of the “scandals” with some “rotten apples” overseas, and these are the people who signed up for the job.

    3) It takes a certain personality to do well in the military, and drafting people just because they are in the right age bracket could lead to some people just not being able to hack it and become a liability to their comrades and fiscal liability to the country.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. I’m no expert, just a view point from someone who has served and who would shudder at the thought of being forced to work with people who absolutely don’t want to be there in a high stress environment.

  • venqax

    Well, obviously there are a lot of problems with this concept, but I’ll pick 3. First, “conscription policy”, as in having a draft or not having a draft, is not fueled by the desire to make wars more or less “popular”. The purpose of a draft has always been to create and maintain a sufficiently large military,whatever “sufficient” was considered to be at the time. At present, we have a sufficiently large military. In fact, we are downsizing it. Most of the problems we—and while I’m not in the military I do work them all the time—have militarily aren’t created by insufficient numbers, but by non-military missions and by the politics of politically correct warfare.

    Second, a conscript military is not a good military. That decrease in military quality you mention as a result of a draft is no small thing to just toss out as another variable to consider among many. It is THE most important variable. To suggest we have a less able military force for any avoidable reason could be seen as unforgivably irresponsible. Remember, soldiers die in wars and the less professional a military is, the higher its casualty rates. Right now, one of the biggest problems we have is that between two-thirds and three-fourths of American young people are unfit for military service due to physical, mental, criminal issues. The AVF turns down far more than it accepts. What kind of military, exactly, do you expect to have and to what extent would it be capable of anything at all with the current rather pathetic population forced upon it? So the idea would be, I guess, that if we had a really bad military, we wouldn’t use it as much. Ostensibly because it wouldn’t be popular, but also in reality because it wouldn’t be effective anyway. That doesn’t seem like recipe for successfully defending ourselves or our interests under any circumstances.

    Last, this whole notion of “constant warfare” and an appetite for war is an overblown bit of far-left and Ronpaulian propaganda. The US has been engaged in 2 wars in the last decade. That’s hardly a Napoleonic scale of martial preoccupation. Even calling them wars is misleading. WW2 was a war, even Vietnam was a war. These have been long, drawn-out anti-insurgencies with occasional, mostly low-intensity combat or “war episodes”. In fact, the argument is powerful that we are currently paying the price for TOO FEW wars in the last few decades. Problems like Iran, the Taliban, Saddam’s Iraq, even Pakistan, have been allowed to fester to the point that more drastic action had to be taken all at once. Similarities are easy to see between the flaccid Clinton and abortive Bush 41 approaches to global threats in the 1990s, e.g., and the 1920’s and 30’s approaches of Western powers to the rising threats of the USSR, Germany, and Japan. If anything, we should be ready to intervene more often, on a smaller scale, than we have up to now, before all-out invasions and protracted commitments become the only policies available.

  • boltedsafe

    Draft the children of those who make more than 500 thousand dollars per year and see how quickly United States wars disappear. No deferments PERIOD, for men or women, even for the sickly, if you can even barely walk you serve.