Military Draft? Official Denials Leave Skeptics

NYT — Military Draft? Official Denials Leave Skeptics

The Pentagon says no. The Selective Service System says no. And Congressional leaders say absolutely not. Yet talk of reinstating the military draft persists around the country, driven by the Internet, high-profile moves by the military to shore up its forces and fears that all those solid reassurances about no need for conscription could quickly melt away if world events took a turn for the worse.

“The mood of, if not the country but a significant plurality of the country, is highly skeptical,” said the founder of, Barry Zellen, who has seen traffic to his site jump in recent months. “If the world spun madly out of control, where would they get the boots on the ground?” Congressional aides say their offices receive a steady stream of telephone calls and e-mail messages inquiring about the status of the draft. Lawmakers themselves are regularly asked if Congress is preparing to re-establish the system, abolished by President Richard M. Nixon 31 years ago. “Everyone says, `We’ve got young children, and we don’t want them in the draft,’ ” said Bill Ghent, a spokesman for Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware.

At the offices of the Selective Service System, which in 1980 resumed registering men at age 18 in the event the draft was ever resurrected, inquiries arrive daily along with a barrage of requests from news organizations for interviews about the idea of restoring mandatory military service. “People think it is some big government conspiracy,” said Harald Stavenas, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, which gets its share of draft questions as well. But top lawmakers, joined by Pentagon leaders and administration officials, say that there are definitely no plans to resume the draft and that the military is much better off relying on a substantially motivated volunteer force rather than on conscripts. “The idea of bringing back the draft, I think the chances are slim and none — and slim left town,” one member of the House committee, Representative Ken Calvert, Republican of California, said this week after returning from Iraq. “People can relax about that issue.” The senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, agreed. “I don’t think we’re going to need to reinstitute the draft,” Mr. Levin said. “The combination of recruiting and retention is doing fairly well.”

The roots of the anxiety about the draft can be traced to several developments, among them recent steps taken by the Defense Department to bolster forces stretched by service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier this year the Pentagon issued an order requiring some soldiers to remain in uniform beyond their expected dates for leaving the service. This week the military announced that it would recall to the barracks 5,600 former active-duty soldiers with certain skills who have time remaining as reservists. And Congress is moving to expand the size of the Army and the Marines.

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, says unease about the prospect of a draft surfaces frequently in his travels around the country. He says unwillingness to accept official reassurances is attributable to public cynicism about the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq. “I think it is skepticism that we have been misled so many times about this war: weapons of mass destruction, ties to Al Qaeda, a cakewalk,” said Mr. Korb, now at the liberal Center for American Progress. “People are clearly worried and figure, `They are just waiting until the election is over to spring the bad news on us.’ ” He and others said this could appear to those people to be nothing less than logical progression, after the military’s resorting to an extension of tours of duty and the recall of former active-duty soldiers. “I think what is behind the current public discussion is the sense the Defense Department is using coercion to maintain the service of those who might otherwise get out,” said James Burk, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University who studies the intersection of military and public policy issues. “That kind of coercion has a resonance of what the draft is all about.” Neither Mr. Korb nor Professor Burk believes that compulsory service will be reinstituted without mobilization of a scale far beyond anything now needed. But neither do they believe that the buzz will subside. “It will simmer on the back burner and in the chat rooms,” Professor Burk said.

The issue has also been addressed on opinion pages of newspapers around the country. A column in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called a draft a “poison pill” too unrealistic for the president to consider. Another, in The Chicago Tribune, said that with a military whose members are all volunteers, “we lose our sense of shared sacrifice as a nation.” Indeed, many editorials and op-ed articles focus on the idea that a draft would distribute the burden of war across racial and economic divides. In The Washington Post this week, Noel Koch, who as a Nixon speechwriter wrote a legislative message on the draft’s end, said nonetheless that the draft had “shattered class distinctions” in the military, mixing high school dropouts with college graduates, rich with poor.

Seeking to blunt public speculation, the Web site of the Selective Service System carries a long notice saying in part that “both the president and secretary of defense have stated on more than one occasion that there is no need for a draft for the war on terrorism or any likely contingency, such as Iraq.” “Additionally,” the notice says, “the Congress has not acted on any proposed legislation to reinstate the draft.” “The bottom line,” said Dan Amon, a spokesman for the Selective Service System, “is it would take an act of Congress because we could not turn it on ourselves. And there is no mood or sentiment in Congress whatsoever for the draft.”

Polls show there is little public sentiment for it either, no small consideration in the Congressional thinking. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 70 percent of those surveyed were against reinstating the draft, and the opposition was shared almost equally among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The speculation was initially spurred last year when the Selective Service System began trying to fill vacancies on local draft boards. That was accompanied by reports that the agency had received an extra $28 million in its budget. But Mr. Amon said the draft board recruitment effort had been undertaken because of the expiration of the 20-year terms of members appointed after President Jimmy Carter re-established registration in 1980. And the $28 million was the agency’s regular budget, cut to $26 million by Congress, he said.

E-mail messages circulating about a draft also point to legislation pending in both houses of Congress that would require either military or some other national service. But those measures, written by Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York and Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, both Democrats, are much more a political statement than potential law, since they have no Republican support and no chance of passage this year. Mr. Rangel acknowledges that his initial goal in introducing his measure was to stir opposition to the war in Iraq, his point being that privileged Americans — including politicians — would be far less eager to commit troops if their own sons and daughters had to fight alongside those who join the military to get ahead.
He said the inequality in the burden of warfare was being borne out by the “cruel” Pentagon decision to call back former active-duty soldiers. And he said Americans were right to remain vigilant about the possibility of a draft, given the Iraq conflict. “If we are really saying we are going to stay there for as long as it takes and we don’t have international people sharing the sacrifice,” Mr. Rangel said, “sooner or later Americans have to say, `They are now talking about us.’ ”

Many of his colleagues reject that view, saying there are plenty of Americans willing to join the military on their own. “You have drafts when you can’t get the requisite numbers,” said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California. “There is not now indications that you can’t get the requisite numbers. But we watch those numbers every month.”

This simply isn’t going to happen. Period. Aside from the facts that the military leadership doesn’t want conscripts and the public doesn’t want conscription, two trends mitigate against it.

First, a draft would take well over a year to institute. There is simply no way it’ll get through Congress in an election year and, even with Selective Service registration already in place, it would take a minimum of months to get draft boards and the system set up. We’d need additional capacity at basic training centers as well. Then, the people drafted would take months to train. Even then, all you’d have are junior personnel–privates and lieutenants. What we’d do with them is unclear, since there wouldn’t be a commensurate surge in mid-level leaders. (We’ve got more than enough generals.)

Meanwhile, the demand for soldiers will be on the downturn. Within a few months, as our forces in Iraq are gradually going to be replaced by Iraqis. There is no other large-scale operation on the horizon. So, by the time we got usable soldiers out of a draft, the need for them would likely be over.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Military Affairs, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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.


  1. DC Loser says:

    I’m not as optimistic about your last paragraph about no other major operation on the horizon. Iraqisation may or may not work out in the end, too early to tell. The fact that Arab countries are now offering troops to the new Iraqi government is an optimistic sign. But if things don’t work out there, how much you wanna bet we’ll be back. And if Bush gets another term there’s no telling what his plans are regarding Syria and Iran, and there’s always Korea hanging over our heads. So maybe it’s a little early to break out the champagne bottles.

  2. Ebbsylon says:

    The elite on the Right won’t allow a draft. No reason for their kids to die as long as the poor and lower middle class have few career choices better than the military. I figure the miniscule number of children of the elite Right who are in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than their macho rhetoric, is the real testimony to the morality of the mission.

  3. Boyd says:

    You’ve managed to collect a nice group of folks that have no clue what they’re talking about, James.

    Before we ever need a draft, we have to increase what’s known as the “end strength.” You have to have empty slots for the conscripts to fill. And the end strength hasn’t been increased appreciably.

    And even then, you have to fall short on your recruitment goals, which hasn’t happened so far.

    But go ahead and keep talking, guys. It’s amusing to read such a baseless, vapid, fact-, experience- and reality-free discussion.

  4. Ebbsylon says:

    Paul —

    Don’t waste your time with Boyd. He’s a Rove-programmed blowhard who hasn’t posted an original thought yet. Your analysis was reasoned and unencumbered by idealogy — the kind these boards are supposed to promote. Thank heavens for Americans like you who still think for themselves.

  5. Attila Girl says:

    One thing this discussion shows clearly is that the Left loves the draft: they push for it because it will supposedly “equalize” the military (which they envision as being currently occupied by unintelligent, uneducated people). Then they warn each other that the draft is a real danger if we stay with the “military adventurism” (excuse me–“unilateralism”) of the Bush Administration.

  6. Jim says:

    Interesting discussion about the draft. I really hate the line that Ebbyslon uses. How many of the left’s icon’s kids are in the military? When is the last time you heard of any of Douglas’ kids in the Army? Secondly what does class really have to do with. I was the son of upper-middle class parents but I still spent 8 years in the military. Did I have to…no I did it to serve my country. These same people were all in favor of the military when it came to Bosnia.

    Secondly, it seems that most of those in favor of the draft are the left…led by Rangel if I remember right. I have a sneaky suspicion that their calls for the draft serve two purposes. The first is to attempt to mobilize the young against George Bush in the next election. The second is if there is a draft (with the military not really wanting the people) then the majority of the draftees will be provided conscience deferenments of other type of national service: ie the old CCC from FDR.

  7. Ebbyslon says:

    Jim —

    Don’t agree with much you say here, but I think you’re on to something about the Left, kids and Bush. The kids seems to see through his “aw shucks” personality better than we do, and they know his agenda is to make money for himself and his type. It’s a shame, a real shame, because we worked hard to win the disenfranchised Democrats, but we’ve lost them and I blame it on the Elites like Bush and his crowd. Between the old time Left, the working class Democrats which now include minorities who, we have to admit, benefited from the Civil Rights movement we opposed, I fear Kerry will handily defeat Bush. Not that I mind Bush losing — his administration has hurt us here and abroad and it will take decades to undo what they’ve done to us — but a clear margin of victory will make the Democrats the party of choice for the undecideds for years to come. Let’s face it. We’ve benefited from having a lot of people vote with us who are easily swayed by doing what seems popular. Those people will go to the Democrats if Kerry wins big — and I think the kids will play a big role in making that happen.

    Attila Girl —

    Shame on you for equating “uneducated” with “unintelligent.” You’re not one of the Elite Right, are you? Those poor kids in Iraq and Afghanistan are as smart as anyone, I’d bet, and they’re risking their life for you. Shame on you for saying they’re dumb.

  8. Boyd says:

    Ebbyslon, through your ad hominem attack on me you reveal the emptiness of your statements. Paul changes the nature of the argument with a hypothesis rather than dealing with the existing reality.

    And if you want to call me a “Rove-programmed blowhard,” you haven’t been paying attention. I won’t make statements which expose my ignorance about you by pulling stock insults and baseless speculation of your motivations out of my ass. I don’t know what motivates you. I know that we disagree, and I also know that, from your statements, you have no idea how military manpower is managed.

  9. Ebbyslon, your hilarious statement:

    ‘the elite right won’t allow a draft’

    You are tripping. And did you know that last year, at the DoD web site, a call for assembling draft boards was posted for a few hours and quickly taken down because of the hell people were raising when they saw it. If we are going to continue with this pre-emptive policy, there has to be a draft in this country – common wisdom though, says not to call for it until the elections are over. So just wait until after November of this year to kiss your kids goodbye.

  10. Ebbyslon says:

    Christina —

    Good point. If Bush wins, the draft will be re-instituted after the election because we’ll need more troops to support his Oil Lust — and the Elite Right will find a way to get their kids deferred. I can buy that.

    Boyd —

    You almost used “ad hominem” properly. But what I and others have said about you on these boards can’t be take personally by you since you’ve put no personal thought into them. You are a Rove parrot and I’d bet if this were 1969, you’d be a flaming Liberal. Whether you’re good at Risk means nothing. You and your kind are the reason we’ve lost the mainstream. You’re like Fox News — you’ll say anything as long as it supports your world view. Americans are fair-minded and we know a phony when we see one. God bless people like Paul, Jim and Christina. I may not agree with them, but I can tell that what they’re saying comes from their hearts and minds, and not some neo-con’s talking points. From them, I can learn. From you, not so.

  11. Boyd says:

    Ebbyslon, there’s no point talking to you. You’re nothing but insults and lies, at least with those who have a different point of view from yours, so there’s nothing to be gained through conversation. Go ahead and talk to those who already agree with you. It’s a shame that you won’t listen to those who may have a different perspective, nor those who have knowledge you lack.

  12. Ebbyslon says:


    Hate to burst your fantasy bubble, pops, but you’re a guy who posts notes on a web site. You’re not lecturing at the Naval Academy. I’ve learned a lot from people on “Outside the Beltway,” but you’ve got nothing original to say. You voted for Bush, and he’s done nothing but lie, mislead and done what may be irreparable damage to our country. But you’ll vote for him again because you’re programmed to do so. And that is the sorry truth of you and your kind.

    But I’ll stay away, Boyd. This fantasy means a lot to you, and your unwillingness to challenge orthodoxy mean more to you than our great nation.