Bring Back the Draft

Why a return to mass conscription is the only way to win the war on terror.

David Paul Morris/Getty Images
David Paul Morris/Getty Images

In the ongoing struggle between radical Islamism and Western democracy, military intervention by the United States may again be judged necessary as a last resort against particularly dangerous states or organizations. Although presidential candidate Barack Obama made drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq the centerpiece of his national security agenda, so as to focus on the real fight in Afghanistan, President Obama will find that even with a complete withdrawal from Iraq, the United States current all-volunteer forces will be inadequate for accomplishing its worldwide national security goals. Regarding Afghanistan in particular, even the planned reinforcement of 20,000 to 30,000 troops will not begin to match the 1 to 10 troop-to-population ratio generally acknowledged to be necessary for success in counterinsurgency.

Moreover, as a result of the repetitive stresses of Afghanistan and Iraq, the human-resources quality of the U.S. military appears to be declining: recruitment and retention rates (by pre-Iraq standards) are slipping, forcing the armed services to lower their physical, educational, and psychological standards; to soften the rigors of initial training; and even to expand the moral waivers granted to some volunteers with criminal records. Generous inducements have also been needed to retain junior officers beyond the length-of-service payback requirements of their academy or ROTC educations. The economic downturn might help temporarily, but the problem cannot be resolved by continuing the present system. There will have to be a reinstitution, albeit in a significantly modified version, of universal military service — a draft.

Our proposal is to combine a revived military draft with a broader public-service program as already practiced in some European states — a domestic Peace Corps. Indeed, a crucial component of our proposal is that draftees be allowed to choose between military and nonmilitary service. A program structured along those lines would simultaneously increase the political appeal of conscription, defuse the opposition of those who disapprove of the use of military force, and serve such valuable national purposes as public health, public works, and the alleviation of shortages of teachers and social workers in disadvantaged regions of the country.

To be sure, an enlarged military can give rise to its own dangers, particularly an expansion of what some already consider excessive presidential power. It will be essential, therefore, that the creation of larger forces by means of conscription be accompanied by legal safeguards to prevent presidential unilateralism. First, Congress should use its constitutionally mandated role in decisions to go to war. Second, Congress should employ its appropriations powers — the power of the purse — to prohibit, limit, or end U.S. participation in unwise wars or military interventions by refusing to fund them. Third, to reduce political opposition to a revived draft as well as to provide another constraint against presidential unilateralism, a law establishing conscription should include a provision that draftees cannot be sent into combat without specific congressional authorization.

Of course, reinstating the draft will generate opposition from all parts of the political spectrum, on the left by civil libertarians and opponents of any use of force, in the center by classic libertarians and those who would regard conscription as an unfair tax on youth, and even by some on the political right, who (as noted earlier) would correctly perceive that the modified draft proposed here would inherently constrain presidential unilateralism. The professional military, traditionally conservative, might initially resist such fundamental change, though we are confident the professional military will come to value its significant advantages.

The benefits of universal national service, however, far outweigh these resolvable objections. Aside from the strictly military advantages — larger and better-educated armed forces — there would be a number of positive social consequences. Conscription will enable the forces to reflect the full spectrum of American pluralism, in terms of both socioeconomic classes and racial/ethnic groups. It is unacceptable that less than 1 percent of the countrys eligible population serves in the armed forces, with almost no war-relevant sacrifice being asked from the rest of society. It ought to be axiomatic that the hardships and dangers of military service be more widely shared.

A draft could also increase responsibility on the part of political decision-makers. There would surely be a greater likelihood of sound foreign and military policies if the sons and daughters of the United States political and business elites also served in uniform — as so many did in the past, but so few do today.

These arguments would constitute a strong case for reinstating the draft at any time. But at the moment, the United States simply has no other option. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan, crucial in the global fight against Islamist terrorism, simply cannot be accomplished with current force levels. Looking beyond Afghanistan toward the long-term struggle with radical Islamism, the United States is going to need larger standing forces of considerable quality, with the educational, cultural, linguistic, and technical skills needed for modern military operations in foreign lands.

In the event of new terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on the scale of 9/11, let alone the unimaginable consequences if American cities were struck by nuclear or biological weapons, the arguments against conscription would vanish overnight, and there would be a crash program to build up the armed forces, similar to the aftermath of attack on Pearl Harbor. The country would be in a far stronger position if it put these forces in place now, rather than waiting until a catastrophe occurred. Moreover, if the United States had such larger standing forces, they would provide a credible deterrent against states that currently support, tolerate, or ineffectively suppress terrorist groups. Indeed, the reinstatement of the draft is not an invitation for more war; it may be the best chance for peace.

William L. Hauser, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society. Jerome Slater, a U.S. Navy veteran, is a university research scholar and retired professor of political science at the State University of New York, Buffalo.