relationship of citizen to soldier within the United States is a complicated
one. For most of American history, the brunt of federal military power came
from volunteers. Even during the Civil War, when conscription was most
justified since the Revolution, not even ten percent of Union troops were
draftees or the more common paid substitutes. The primary restraint on the
growth of the army was far more the willingness of Congress and delegated
states to fund it than popular will, and between the Constitution’s division of
war powers and the logistical constraints, it was in the chambers of power
rather than by plebiscite that the country decided to use force.
The role and fundamental logic of centralized conscription is to advance the power of the state, by raising armies and molding the populations that serve them. For that reason it failed to reappear until the Civil War. When Madison proposed it in 1814, Daniel Webster opposed it vociferously even months after Britain razed Washington. The archetype of the American citizen-soldier was neither a federal volunteer nor a a conscript but the militia, who fought to defend hearth and homeland. Yes, the 1792 Militia Act compelled military availability, but that compulsion was linked, by the very nature of the militia, to the fact it would only fight in situations of utmost need, such as frontier conflicts, invasions, or rebellions. Indeed, in many cases militias were simply raised locally from geographically-relevant states. Military exigency and political expediency ruled these decisions. When wars could be fought without conscription at either federal or state level, it did so.
While political and military changes eroded the viability of the militia system, this link between conscription and the immediate requirements of defending the nation remained relatively robust, even after WWI. It was notable that the only reason a peacetime draft passed in 1940 was because Congress forced language restricting the use of conscripts to U.S. possessions or the Western Hemisphere.
Many analysts and leaders, from General McChrystal to CNAS’s own David Barno and Thomas Ricks, are arguing that the conscription system which took such prominence in WWII and met its ignominious demise in Vietnam, needs a comeback. Without, as McChrystal put it, “skin in the game,” how can we be surprised when the country goes to war irresponsibly? Several recent academic studies also lend credibility to this argument.
This is a relatively new argument for the draft. In all previous systems the primary goal has been to augment the country’s military power rather than make the sharing of its burden more morally defensible. Equity entered the question only after the primary motivating criteria of mobilizing additional troops was satisfied, and even then frequently equity entailed satisfying legislators rather than a genuinely fair distribution. During peacetime or amidst smaller-scale wars and far-flung expeditions, the U.S. body politic generally saw no moral or political problem with relying on a volunteer force.
Even the authors of the Federalist Papers, in their advocacy for a federal army, generally intended it to rely on volunteers. The draft in World War II grew from fears of voracious Axis powers overwhelming an unprepared military rather than any desire to put “skin in the game,” while during the Vietnam War, Johnson feared the political consequences of mobilizing the National Guard and reserves more than conscription.
There is no doubt the volunteer force demands huge sacrifices from an incredibly small pool of citizens and their families, friends, and communities. There is also no doubt that in times of actual or perceived threat to vital or even existential interest, the U.S. has by majority assented to drafting troops. Yet the draft proceeded because the government invoked military necessity, civic obligation was what compelled reporting to duty, but that duty was always contingent on the circumstances of the war itself and what the government believed they required.
Using the draft to encourage better political behavior from the citizenry seems at odds given the frequently perverse effects past drafts incurred. In World War I, the draft did not meaningfully force reconsideration of the war's wisdom, it enabled the political coalition determined upon fighting it and which had successfully advocated it to continue doing so. The political dissent it invited was met not with reconsideration of the conflict but domestic censorship and crackdowns. The draft is a way to furnish sufficient means to accomplish prior held state aims, and if a majority decides to go to war on the basis of how they perceive the national interest, it is highly likely those conducting the war will look for ways to suppress or mitigate dissent before they look to limit or call off the conflict.
In Vietnam, the draft spread the costs of the war beyond volunteers, absolutely, but it hardly produced a wiser approach to the war. A seemingly small U.S. security engagement grew and the war’s political supporters used the draft to enable its perpetuation. Domestic political dissent and a change of political party in the Presidency failed to alter this. The draft in Vietnam began in 1964 and ended in 1973. Would it have been much shorter, escalated less, with fewer deferments and more franchised draftees?
It is difficult to say. As Horowitz and Levendusky acknowledge in their own paper on the caution-inducing effects of conscription, elite rhetoric has large implications for how a draft might alter political decisionmaking, and other research suggests partisan affiliation may too. Given the makeup of the U.S. Congress, we should take into account that where casualties come from (as well as the party structure in the U.S. generally) may have a large effect on how and when casualties change war support. Attitudinal unpopularity does not always trigger effective behavioral changes to policy.
Given Vietnam’s origins, we also ought to think through the potentially perverse effects of a draft for avoiding perpetual war. Many U.S. conflicts that might trigger a hypothetical future draft do not begin so obviously. Eisenhower was fiercely averse to deploying large amounts of conventional forces, Kennedy wanted advisory and assistance missions to take a larger role in U.S. security policy. Both helped escalate a war that would eventually trigger a draft.
That war had its beginnings in large part due to the development of policies which sought to avoid another Korea - that is, a large scale conventional deployment that would require a draft. His solutions ranged from smaller, stabilizing deployments such as Operation Blue Bat in Lebanon, to increased reliance on high-tech firepower such as nuclear weapons to substitute for U.S. troops, and the employment of U.S. airpower, advisors, and an increasingly paramilitarized CIA.
But in Vietnam, mistaken conceptions of the national interest, sunk-cost thinking and the psychological “Rubicon” all helped grease the slide from involvement in a region where conventional force seemed abhorrent to one where the country nationally accepted it. Despite the draft and public regret for engaging in the war, no combination of political representatives succeeded in preventing the war’s massive escalation (or geographic expansion). Indeed, in Vietnam, the National Guard and Reserve units left at home could engage in public order missions to respond to the growing anti-war movement and racial tension.
Today’s equivalents - the limited footprint wars where airpower, seapower, SOF and covert action bear the brunt of the action - would not be particularly likely to incur draftee casualties, at least initially (and in almost any scenario, for purely pragmatic concerns about cohesion and quality, I am not sure policymakers or commanders would know what best to do with drafted troops). Nor is it entirely clear that the current iteration of U.S. wars would necessarily trigger a draft, or involve very many drafted troops, although this depends on specifics. Nevertheless, even supposing drafted troops were adequately integrated and brought up to quality, a draft combined with a limited footprint model could actually give the military greater space to focus on supposedly short, small wars with low casualty risks and specialized units while still receiving resources to buttress unused capabilities in case they flare up. Not only that, but once casualties begin occurring in a conflict where the U.S. has already decided its national interests are at stake can bring about sunk-cost thinking.
So long as the draft coincides with broadly popular and short wars, it seems to have salubrious effects on civil-military relations and national unity. But when a draft persists in spite of a war with intense or widespread opposition, the political consequences in U.S. history are frequently disastrous for the military and society as a whole, particularly when a draft ends up enabling the country to fight an increasingly unpopular but still politically viable war. Indeed, perceptions of its wrongful or careless use in Vietnam are precisely why the all-volunteer force retains almost religious reverence in the U.S. today. The breach in trust many felt during Vietnam did enormous damage to the military and the country as a whole. Given the way in which conflicts evolve and escalate, and the impossibility of consistently forecasting military failures, the draft is a considerable gamble.
Ultimately avoiding foolish wars is, first and foremost, the duty of a responsible body politic, not an incentive for fearful conscripts. I will be the first to admit there is much to be done there. The country has to start caring more about foreign policy in the first place. It has to hold those who advocate and abet failed wars in office to electoral account. Civilians also need to take seriously the task of broadly debating war with a greater degree of strategic fluency and humility than it often gets. Unfortunately, as discussed in my last post, there are a variety of trends in U.S. strategic history which make “perpetual war” possible, ranging from changing conceptions of geopolitics to relative power and military-technical imbalances to changing U.S. objectives and planning processes.
The ability to draft remains a potentially important tool to provide for the common defense, and our obligations as citizens require us to answer it in those times of need. While it would likely induce more individuals to be cautious, the number of theoretical mitigating factors and the historical cases tell a more complicated story. Ultimately we need a great many more factors to explain why the U.S. began committing forces the way it did after the Cold War than the provenance of its manpower, and reimplementing the draft without fixing the many systemic problems in the way we think about and vote on foreign policy and national security could well turn the next draft into a societal and strategic fiasco rather than a boon for public policy or the military generally. If the goal is to relieve or make more equitable the burden of a prolonged war of vital national interest, then a draft may be appropriate. But I remain skeptical that a draft will produce or substitute for wise public choices rather than exacerbate the deeper or more widespread flaws affecting the country’s wars and decisions to wage them.