Send a message of collective determination
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 powerour peoplereflects 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 contingencywhatever 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 choicethe draftto 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 persevereeven 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
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 Unionwhich became a war on slaveryrequired 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 paradoxsometimes democracies must coerce in order to defeat dictators.