Matthew Yglesias comes out against both mercenaries and the all-volunteer force on the grounds, “The defense of a democratic society should not be managed through market forces.”
I disagree with the premise that our military is essentially a mercenary force, motivated primarily by money. Indeed, going back at least to the time of Machiavelli, it has been understood that soldiers motivated by fealty to the nation are far superior to the mercenary*, who sells his loyalty to the highest bidder. While, certainly, volunteer soldiers have to be compensated at a higher rate than those who have no choice but to be there, most of those who choose to serve–and certainly to make a career of service–do so primarily for reasons of loyalty to the country, a sense of comradeship with their fellow soldiers, and a sense of duty. I’m continually amazed when I run into former colleagues who’ve stayed in the military, or other officers that I meet from time-to-time, how stunningly uncynical most of them are. The ones who choose to make a career of it are, by and large, a different breed than even those of us who served but got out after a short while.
While I’m not unsympathetic to the arguments for mandatory national service and grant that there are some philosophical reasons for wanting all to share the burdens of service, a conscript army is just impractical for modern times. Soldiering is an increasingly complicated business that takes years to perfect. Conscripts cycle through the system too quickly to be of much value. Samuel Huntington recognized half a century ago that the military is a profession in every sense of the word. That’s far more true today than it was then.
*I use the term in the traditional context–those who will go anywhere and kill anyone for money.