Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Hating that yellow ribbon (V): Here’s a ‘one percent solution’ for the draft

I’m surprised at all the commenters out there who think that some form of a draft just isn’t gonna happen. (See ranting from Fritzy here — makes me wish the boycott was still on.) I mean, dudes, it has happened. In fact, I can remember it, plain as day — just because your solipsistic self ...


I’m surprised at all the commenters out there who think that some form of a draft just isn’t gonna happen. (See ranting from Fritzy here — makes me wish the boycott was still on.) I mean, dudes, it has happened. In fact, I can remember it, plain as day — just because your solipsistic self wasn’t here doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Going to war overseas with a draftee force has been the norm in the last 100 years of our history, while doing so with an all-volunteer is an anomaly. I guess I’m just a traditionalist.

By David J. Morris
Director, Best Defense office for revising conscription policies

For the first two-hundred years of our nation’s history, the armed forces have fought our wars using conscripted troops, citizen-soldiers drawn from all walks of life. Then in 1968, in response to the turmoil generated by the Vietnam War, then-candidate Nixon proposed abolishing the draft and creating the then-controversial All-Volunteer Force. Of course Dick Nixon got his way and ever since, soldiering has become increasingly professionalized and quarantined from the concerns of daily American life to the point that this October, in the middle of our nation’s longest war, a mere two percent of the population reported that the war in Afghanistan was their foremost concern in the upcoming elections.

If one were of a paranoid bent, in search of Orwellian omens in the wash of current events, a cynical way of understanding how our country ended up addicted to the business of endless war, one need only look at this series of events. Looking for a way to keep the voting public innocent of the horrors of war? A way of taking the electoral sting out of battle, a way of guaranteeing that military policy would be dominated by apathy, cupidity and shallow self-interest, transformed into the province of a self-selected priesthood of experts and bomb-heads, kept forever from the roil and torment of public opinion? Here it is: end the draft. Take the ROTC units out of the fractious Ivy League campuses that fueled the nation’s last antiwar movement (Thanks, Dick). Make soldiering the business of Southern fire-eaters, recent immigrants and the poor looking for access to higher education via the G.I. Bill.

Paranoid or not, this is the America we live in. Welcome aboard. Our Nixonian draft-free USA brought us a country also free of students marches and draft card burnings, free from the whims of any substantial antiwar youth movement, free from any wider examination of American military intervention. And if one needed any further evidence that the military is only nominally part of America, one need only look at its policy toward homosexuals, a policy without conceivable civilian equivalent, a policy which denies Americans the opportunity to serve their country because of a grossly atavistic mentality and a belief by its leadership in a romanticized Norman Rockwell version of American manhood that even Hemingway might have found suspect.

Put another way, the people who run the military are not your typical Americans and haven’t been for a long time and, by and large, these people take great pains to not associate with homosexuals or, for that matter, any others who adhere to different lifestyles than their own. (My first company commander, a captain who had spent half of his Marine career as a recruiter, informed me in a calm voice one evening that, in his opinion “homosexuals ought to be exterminated.”) The question at this point in history is if we want to continue fighting our wars with a force that has become a caricature of the society it is sworn to preserve and if, in fact, the concept of the All-Volunteer Force isn’t just a convenient fiction, something we tell ourselves on the Fourth of July when that old Roman fear comes to haunt us, namely that we have turned the fateful corner from Republic to Empire. That it isn’t just possible that our increasingly cloistered volunteer military is unwittingly serving to undermine our democracy by keeping the general population innocent of the true costs of war, permitting them to cruise along in a sort of gauzy ignorant bliss while the horrors overseas continue unabated.

If there is one profound truth about American military service, it is the fact that in order to defend freedom, one must surrender a great deal of it. Nevertheless, a force whose mission it is to defend a given society must reflect that society’s values in important ways that have become increasingly difficult given the demands of the employment market and the oddities of American youth culture, a culture I might add that looks upon self-sacrifice as foolish and yet glorifies martial values like aggression and teamwork in mega-bestselling video games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. What I am proposing here is not your father’s draft, a lottery where the privileged, the rich and the conveniently-religious got a pass, a crapshoot where the poor and those unschooled in the fine arts of draft-dodging found themselves in uniform. Instead, I propose that 1 percent of the current active-duty force of 1.5 million be draftees — roughly 15,000 Americans, around the same number of federal agents currently guarding the US-Mexico border.

What this 1 percent will do is help return the American military to its democratic foundations, making it a republican institution again, a de facto melting pot where Americans from every corner of our nation can serve together. Farmers and coal miners, mountain men and IT professionals, nurses and ranch hands. This 1 percent will serve as a sanity check on our increasingly militarized foreign policy and as an insurance policy against ill-advised wars, like the one we are in the process of concluding in Iraq. It will make war a real public issue again, help put some “skin in the game” in the sense that it will put blue sky patriots, chickenhawks and professional saber-rattlers on notice: your sons (and daughters, for that matter) that you raised and love like nothing else and would do anything to protect, they are liable to be called up and put in harm’s way.

It takes some effort to remember, but our young century is one that has been dominated by war. At this very moment, there are over one million Americans overseas taking part, in various capacities, in our nation’s wars. Last month, my old unit, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, suffered fifteen dead and fifty wounded in a small town in southern Afghanistan that virtually no American civilian has heard of: Sangin. I’m not exaggerating when I say that an airplane crash in Tulsa that killed and injured half as many Americans would have generated twice as much interest. In a very real, very un-democratic sense, no one at home gives a shit and as a result, the wars go on and on without any real sense of accountability. Ours is not to reason why seems to be the operative philosophy. And life in unbombed America goes on and on, as if nothing at all has happened, a horrific incongruity that leaves many veterans to wonder which is the more obscene: the wars or the public’s shameful ignorance of them. America: land of the free, home of the brave and let’s not kid ourselves: the refuge of those who cannot be bothered. To mis-paraphrase Winston Churchill, never has so much mattered so little to so many.

And yet, it has not always this way. As history tells us, Americans are a people who, when properly challenged, never fail to rise to the occasion. Like ambitious college freshmen, Americans hate to disappoint and in our darkest hours, we have always produced great armies. But in our cynical age, the draft has become a dirty word, a special form of political suicide that no elected official will touch, the logic being that the country will go to war and it will be bloody, yes, but it will be someone else’s blood, from someone else whose family that doesn’t have a voice in Congress. What I’m suggesting here is an enlightened species of conscription, a draft designed not to supply the army with bodies but instead to supply a connection between the body politic and the military establishment, a form of public service not completely unlike those already in place in Germany, Israel and South Korea, a system that distributes more equitably the burden of war to the entire populace. Make no mistake, 15,000 Americans is no trifle, but the American military, as it will eventually prove with the assimilation of its openly-gay members, is remarkably resilient and will when ordered, accept new members into the tribe. (15,000, by the way, is far less than the number of Americans in uniform whose first language is something other than English.)

To be sure, the generals will kick and moan but these draftees could do a lot of the work that is currently being outsourced to civilians: driving trucks, standing guard at the base gate, providing security for diplomatic congregations, all while receiving a decent wage. And if, upon separation from the service, they elect to go to college, they will enjoy the benefit of the most generous scholarship program in American history: the G.I. Bill, which at last count, pays veterans nearly $1,400 a month just to go to class.

David J. Morris, a former Marine officer and the author of Storm on the Horizon: Khafji — The Battle that Changed the Course of the Gulf War (Free Press), teaches at the University of California at Riverside. His work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. And, a few weeks ago, here.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1