The Argument: Should America Reinstate the Draft?

Mandatory military service, reviled in the Vietnam era, serves a larger social purpose, according to some.

Charles Rangel and James Lacey, Ph.D.

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


James Lacey
James Lacey, Ph.D., is a Washington-based writer who specializes in defense-related topics and is the professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College.


We need trained soldiers, not a horde of draftees.
by Defense Expert James Lacey

Thanks to Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the recurring question of whether to reinstate the draft has been thrust to the front of the public-policy debate. Those calling for a renewed draft have a variety of arguments at their disposal. These range from the high cost of payrolls and recruiting to building a common experience in our youth that will bind us together as a nation. Under close examination, none of them holds a lot of water.

The best reason for not calling for a draft is that no member of the combined Joint Chiefs of Staff is asking for one. These are the men responsible for protecting our country and ensuring that our armed forces are fully prepared to meet any potential enemy. It is a trust that these men take very seriously. After 10 years of war they are intimately acquainted with the kind of army the nation needs to meet the uncertainties of the future. All of these senior officers came of age in the wreckage of the post-Vietnam military. They saw first-hand the ruinous effects a large draft force can have when there is no national emergency to justify the call to arms. These men built from the bottom up the professional military that has not lost a single engagement in a generation. If they prefer a highly trained professional force over a large influx of half-trained, short-serving draftees the nation would do well to heed their advice.

If the Joint Chiefs do not want a draft, there had better be a good reason to force one on them. The congressman claims that we need a draft to ensure that the burden of any future conflict is shared by all and does not fall primarily on the poor and on minorities. This is an old canard that he trots out from time to time to make his fellow legislators feel guilty about voting to commit military force. Disproportionate military losses among minorities is a myth that began in the Vietnam era and is a total fabrication. Minorities did not die in Vietnam or in any conflict thereafter in any greater numbers than they are represented in the population. And, with the exception of 1966, the exact opposite has been the case. Blacks made up 12 percent of the deaths in Vietnam, 13.1 percent of the U.S. population, and almost 11 percent of our troops in Vietnam. Whites (including Hispanics) made up 86.4 percent of those who served in Vietnam and 88 percent of those who died there. The highest rate of black deaths in Vietnam was 16.3 percent (in 1966)—and almost all of those killed that year were volunteers for elite units, not reluctant draftees.

That still leaves open the question of whether our military is composed mostly of economic refugees. The evidence says no. Virtually every member of the armed forces has a high-school diploma, in contrast to 79 percent of the comparable youth population. Practically all new recruits place in the top three intellect categories (as measured by the Armed Forces Qualification Test), versus 69 percent of their civilian counterparts. New soldiers also read at a higher level than their civilian counterparts. Overall, the U.S. military closely reflects the makeup of our large middle class.

The real moral danger of a draft is that it will provide so many troops that there might be a temptation to waste them in useless engagements. This is what history has demonstrated over and over again. The bloody charges into massed rifles during the Civil War could not have been sustained without a draft to replace those slaughtered. In World War I, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George actually began holding back reinforcements so that his generals could not waste their lives in another big-push offensive. Finally, does anyone think the useless carnage of Vietnam could have continued year after year if we had a volunteer force?

Furthermore, those who are calling for a draft fail to recognize that war has changed dramatically in the past three decades. A high-technology force conducting incredibly rapid operations requires well-trained professionals, not short-term draftees. An army of draftees would be little more than cannon fodder for any advanced force to chew up. Moreover, in the complex counterinsurgency environments of Afghanistan and Iraq, success depends on sending long-serving professionals repeatedly back into situations in which they are intimately familiar. Sending a new crop of annual draftees into these countries would have translated into skyrocketing casualty lists and failure on the battlefield. The thoroughly trained and professional U.S. military is the most dominant battlefield force in the world, capable of winning a stand-up fight against any opponent. Our national policy makers may misuse this force from time to time, but why would we ever put our military preeminence at risk in favor of a mass of half-trained grumbling draftees?

Then there is the cost. If we require every able-bodied male to serve 18 months to two years after he turns 18, then we are talking about inducting more than 1.5 million draftees a year. Equipping and training that force to even a reasonable standard would cost in the area of $3 trillion—and another $1 trillion a year to maintain it. Of course, no one is going to bankrupt the nation to build a military 10 times larger than what we currently need. This means that less than one in five of the eligible draftees would be needed or called.

Given that only a proportion of the eligible males would be called, anyone who thinks that the draft will remain a fair cross section of our society is living in a dream world. More likely the military would become even less representative of society as the rich and middle class would do whatever they had to in order to avoid contact with the “undesirable elements” who would be caught up in a draft. At present, recruiters seeking the highest-quality volunteers turn these undesirables away. As a former recruiting commander, I often lamented how many people we had to interview, physically examine, and test just to get one qualified applicant. Throughout my tenure, the ratio never fell below 14-to-1, though some other districts did a bit better. If the services lowered their standards even minimally, they could enlist their yearly goals by March and close their recruiting offices.

Some, including Rangel, make the argument that if the military cannot use all of the draftees, then they should be enlisted into some other form of national service. Has anyone thought about the size of the bureaucracy that would have to be created to mobilize, train, deploy, feed, house, and monitor several million 18 year olds every year? You would need a second army dedicated to doing nothing but keeping track of teenagers. Besides, what rational being believes that the federal government is the best organization for putting our youth to useful work? In no time at all our children will become pawns for whatever is the political flavor of the day.

As Doug Bandow states in his Cato Institute study of the draft, “A return to conscription would yield a less experienced, less stable, and less efficient military. Inducement, not coercion, is the answer to sagging retention. Studies have consistently indicated that the most effective remedy is improved compensation.” By taking care of our soldiers, using them only for critical missions, and ensuring that they have the best equipment and training available, we maintain a quality force, capable of defeating any enemies we may face in coming decades.

James Lacey, Ph.D., is a Washington-based writer who specializes in defense-related topics and is the professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College.

Pages: 1 2

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now