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Dust-Up

Draft or no draft?

Should the United States institute mass military conscription? All this week, Phillip Carter and Austin Bay debate American military preparedness.

May 2, 2007

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Today, Carter and Bay discuss involuntary service. Previously, they debated the overstretched services and the need for a larger military. Later in the week, they'll discuss the surge and the leaner/meaner model of warfare.

Send a message of collective determination
By Phillip Carter

Despite all of this country's successes with conscription, most notably World War I and World War II, the subject has become taboo. Its mere mention, let alone its serious consideration, are forbidden in American political quarters. This unwillingness to consider using our greatest element of national power—our people—reflects a stunning strategic myopia about our national security and what will be necessary to guarantee it.

My argument for national service starts with a few assumptions. First, this country will need a deep bench of military personnel to fight its current wars and be ready for the next contingency—whatever that may be. Second, there are limits to the military manpower we can purchase with enlistment and retention incentives. Third, we can conscript a force at least as well qualified as today's military (an assumption borne out by studies of the quality of the 1950s and 1960s draft-based army.)

The practical case for the draft reads like a bad menu, where the only dish left is the one which tastes the worst. If we need more troops, we can try to enlist our allies in the effort, but there may be times when we need to stand alone. We can privatize more of the force, as we have done in Iraq, where more than 100,000 contractors support our efforts, but doing so carries significant risks and costs. Further, contractors compete directly with the military for manpower, so this option will hurt our efforts to recruit more troops. America could radically transform its existing military, forcing sailors and airmen into ground combat units, and scrapping much of its institutional overhead. But this would be short-sighted, for we may need these parts of the military for the next war. Fourth, America could simply recruit more troops. And though economists will say one can always lure the next recruit by offering a marginally higher monetary incentive, in practice, there are limits to what we can afford to spend on an all-volunteer force. Which leaves one choice—the draft—to which we have turned before when our military manpower needs required it.

Some oppose the draft on moral grounds, arguing that it is unconscionable to coerce its citizens into military service. Milton Friedman made this argument, among others, to convince President Richard Nixon to end the draft in 1973. However, I believe it is equally immoral to place the burden for our national security on the shoulders of so few. Today's total military force of 2.53 million troops represents just 2.8 percent of draft-aged men and women, and 0.84 percent of society at large. Our democratic processes for deciding on and managing war break down when so few serve, as they do today.

Strategically, our unwillingness to consider conscription telegraphs a message of weakness to our enemies, not unlike that sent by President Bill Clinton during the Kosovo war, when he said "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war". Our enemies believe in their cause enough to die for it in suicide attacks; we cannot afford to send the message that we care enough about this war to "sacrifice peace of mind" and to send our modern-day legions, but not enough to serve ourselves. We must instead send the message that we have the will to win, and the collective determination to persevere—even if that means the draft.

Phillip Carter, an attorney with McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP in Los Angeles, is a former Army officer and an Iraq veteran.
Not now, but not out of the question
By Austin Bay

In this case I'm anti-Milton Friedman and definitely opposed to the gray-haired profs with ponytails reliving their Vietnam resistance youth.

Our Constitution is not a suicide pact. The Bill of Rights is dedicated to the protection of individual rights, but when America's liberal democracy fights for survival there is no question its government has the authority and indeed the right to conscript recalcitrant or unwilling citizens into the military service. Abraham Lincoln's defense of the Union—which became a war on slavery—required conscription. With the Confederacy employing a draft, the Union needed to meet expanding manpower requirements, so in March 1863 Lincoln signed the Enrollment Act of Conscription.

Lincoln's challenged government, however, faced draft riots. Copperhead Democrats weren't certain the Civil War was a just war or a war of necessity. The disgusting New York Draft Riots of 1863 were also anti-black race riots and anti-Lincoln demonstrations; there is no doubt, however that anti-war activists and anti-war newspapers (the anti-war media of that era) used conscription as a political trigger.

The Union draft law was demonstrably flawed; for example, a wealthy man could pay a $300 "commutation fee," though that was intended to be a "price cap" for obtaining an exemption.

Conscription in both World Wars sparked opposition. FDR and George Marshall knew the United States would enter World War II and that would require a massive, industrial-age army manned in part by draftees. In 1935 Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles by instituting a draft.

This isn't dead and useless history. It indicates that no matter how carefully we construct a draft law it will have arbitrary and unfair elements and invite various degrees and types of resistance It's an uncomfortable paradox—sometimes democracies must coerce in order to defeat dictators.

As you know, Phil, I don't consider discussing a draft taboo, especially in a forum like this. We need to keep our minds open to a draft—which is one reason I'm glad you are a public advocate. It's sad that Rep. Charles Rangel's (D-N.Y.) political gamesmanship with the draft issue has for the moment poisoned rational and civil debate on the issue. During the fall semester of 2004 I found fliers outside of my university seminar class alleging a secret Bush plan to reinstitute the draft. What a reprehensible scare tactic. No, I don't blame Rangel for a college flier tacked on a wall. However, when Rangel's own draft bill came up for a vote, he voted against it. Why? I suspect his first concern wasn't military manpower; he wanted a political trigger. The attempt to use "draft fear" to motivate college students to vote for John Kerry flopped—but that gambit's toxins remain.

We both advocate increasing the end strength of our active duty and reserve ground forces. (Again, I'll reference this article of mine from August 2001 as pre-9/11 background.)

I agree with several of your points: Contracting has its limits, allies can be unreliable, and hastily converting naval and air personnel to ground forces is myopic.

That said, I don't see a need for conscription now or in the immediate future. We're not at a point where we have to confront the uncomfortable paradox.

The big reason is demographics. Demographics argue we can meet our current and foreseeable manpower requirements by expanding the volunteer force. I'll paraphrase the statistics mentioned on Monday: In 1990 the Army fielded around 750,000 and the Marines at 197,000. America had a population of 250 million in 1990; today we have 300 million. Quite simply, we have manpower resources our current volunteer system can tap.

Yes, a volunteer military is expensive, but conscription wouldn't necessarily be cheap, even if we adopted a "tiered pay scale" like the one you advocated in your Washington Monthly article. Our training establishments would have to be expanded enormously—a huge capital outlay. This also requires, to a degree, converting elements of the volunteer force.

Based on what I've heard from our military leaders, they do not support a draft. Here's one reason they oppose it: Given the skill requirements and multitude of missions we assign our soldiers, we must have capable, motivated servicemen and women, like those we have in our volunteer force.

But. Yet. However.

I have toyed with the idea of requiring every college or university that receives any type of federal aid money or grant money or scholarship money or student loan money to have a compulsory semester of ROTC—yup, from your local community college on up. Professors who never served in the military—particularly gray-haired sociology profs with pony tails—would be required to take a "military service sensitivity training course" where they will learn how to curb any residual anti-military bigotry.

That's my cheeky acknowledgment of a much more profound concern.

Military experience seeded throughout society adds a special leaven—of common sense and common experience. The burden and privilege of military service needs to be more broadly borne by our society. Military service brings extraordinary benefits to our society and too many of America's economic and intellectual elites shirk military service. Who has the hardest job in a democracy? Answer: a Pfc., when he's tackling an enemy machine gun nest.

If we share in the benefits of democracy we must share in the risks. Cynics dismiss that moral appeal as naïve or as propaganda; they describe our volunteer force as mercenaries. It is, however, a key motivation for many American servicemen and women. In another lens, it is also a genuinely liberal argument for some form of universal service. And I do not dismiss it.

Austin Bay is an author and syndicated columnist. He is also a retired US Army Reserve colonel and an Iraq veteran.