November 13, 2012
Does a drafted public make better policy?
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.