- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Every year between Memorial Day and the 4th of July there is a flurry of interest in reviving the draft. I expect some of my FP colleagues will post seasonal items on the subject — Josh Rogin already has.
This is the hardy perennial of American civil-military debates. And since I have the most parochial of interests in civil-military debates, who am I to complain about civil-military debates that will never end?
So I won’t complain about the re-occurrence, but I do have a complaint about what is missing in the debate. Usually, the draft is presented as a way to close the gap between the military and American society. The gap arises because we ask a few to protect the many, and this creates the potential that each side will become alienated from the other, especially if the few becomes drawn ever more narrowly from a self-selected segment of American society. Sometimes, the draft is also presented as a way to make it more difficult to use the military in a cavalier fashion — not merely to bind the military to American society, but to bind the military, period, or at least bind the hands of political leaders who have the authority to order the military into battle.
However, I have yet to read a compelling case for reviving the draft that is premised on making the military more effective — more capable of defending American national interest, which is, after all, its primary purpose. The reason those arguments are not made in a compelling fashion is because the most likely result of a draft is a less capable military.
Today, the United States is protected by the best trained, best equipped, most capable fighting force in history. That boast has been made for the past two decades and it has been true every year. Indeed, the U.S. military of today is vastly more capable than the draft-era military.
Moreover, it is especially more capable at fighting the way American society has increasingly asked to fight, namely with exceeding care simultaneously to reduce our own casualties and civilian casualties on the battlefield. That is emphatically not how the draft-era militaries fought because they had neither the technology nor the training to do so.
I suspect many of the proponents of the draft would be content with the less capable U.S. military that would result because they believe that the higher goal is to limit the use of the American military. They believe American leaders have been too quick to intervene militarily, so this diminished capacity might not be a bug but a feature of the draft-based force. And given the controversial interventions of the past two decades, they have a point. But there have also been numerous controversial non-interventions (Rwanda, Congo, Darfur, etc.), which those proponents never seem to discuss much. More importantly, there is little evidence that U.S. political leaders have been cavalier about committing U.S. troops to battle. On the contrary, they have agonized about the decision, even in the controversial cases.
There is abundant evidence, however, that when committed, U.S. troops have been extraordinarily capable and proficient. Would that be lost if we reverted to a draft?