Draft Debate Redux

In reviewing the reaction to Rep. Charlie Rangel’s proposal to bring back the draft, attorney and retired Army JAG Geoff Corn is struck by “how aberrational the idea of using a draft to fill military ranks has become.”

He contends that debate on the issue is stymied because people defer to the military leadership’s unbacked assertion that an all-volunteer force is simply more professional. Further,

But beyond the question of the impact on military effectiveness, there seem to be other aspects of reliance on an all-volunteer forces to wage a long-term military campaign that receive little meaningful consideration. These include, among others, creating a stronger national “stake in the venture” of war-making; enhancing the sense of connection between the military and civilian cultures; and creating a wider pool of civic and political leaders with a first hand appreciation of military service. Whether a return to a draft would be a good or bad thing for the military and for the Nation is certainly subject to debate. However, one has to wonder why there seems to be so little willingness to engage in such a debate.

Phil Carter and I debated the topic in a “Debate Club” series in Legal Affairs in April 2005.

The crux of my argument on the military efficacy issue was this:

At best, [a draft requiring one year of military service] gives us a cadre of barely-trained privates whose skills will begin stagnating the moment they leave the service. For them to be of use as more than cannon fodder, they’ll need a cadre of sergeants and officers to lead them. We’re not going to get that by forcing people to serve for a year and then sending them home.

As the the societal benefit argument, which I think has real merit, my question is this:

[W]ill the net gain to the nation’s security be enough to justify the infringement of liberty imposed on the vast majority who can’t wait to get out?

As to the argument that it is unfair to burden only volunteer soldiers with the burdens of defending the country:

[The] “equity” argument is one that has long puzzled me. Do I think it’s fair that a small share of society bears most of the risks of fighting our wars? Is it fair that I get to eat every day without having to endure the hardships of farming? That I get to buy all manner of wonderful products even though I’ve never worked on an assembly line or driven an eighteen-wheeler? I’ve never been a cop or a firefighter or a brain surgeon or high beam construction worker, yet I feel not the slightest twinge of guilt for having shirked my duty in those fields of endeavor. Why is the profession of arms, alone of all lines of work, something that [we should] compel young people to perform if they want to go to college?

There is also the issue of sociological impact:

A draft would actually diminish the honored position of the soldier while stigmatizing non-soldiers. With an all-volunteer force, we appreciate the sacrifice of those who wear the uniform. If a sizable part of the military were comprised of draftees, though, they would no longer seem special—including those who would have volunteered, anyway. At the same time, those who didn’t wear the uniform would likely be looked down upon as shirkers in an environment where service was mandatory. Perhaps women or the visibly handicapped would escape scorn but any able-bodied man who chose the reading to kids route over the Marines would be considered less than virile under a draft. This, despite the fact that under all but the most exigent circumstances, we would only need a couple hundred thousand more soldiers than we have now and would have to turn down lots of would-be “volunteers.”

Ultimately, while there are legitimate arguments in favor of resuming conscription, the likely strategic and social benefit does not justify the enormous infringement on individual liberty.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.