Restoring the Draft No Panacea

Bringing back the military draft would make it easier to meet recruiting goals but the negatives would outweigh the positives, a new Congressional Budget Office study found.

The report, requested by Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, says that drafting people could make it easier for the Army to reach its 2012 goal of 547,000 soldiers. It might also save some money if Congress opted to pay draftees less than volunteers. But the downside, the report claims, would be a less effective fighting force, thanks to a sudden influx of draftees who would remain in uniform for much shorter spells than today’s all-volunteer soldiers.

“Usually, greater accumulated knowledge and skills come with increased experience,” the report notes. “Because most draftees leave after completing a two-year obligation, a draft might affect the services’ ability to perform those functions efficiently.” To maintain the same capability, the CBO suggests, the Army might have to grow, which could eliminate any savings. On the other hand, increased training costs for draftees – with less time in uniform, more have to be trained – could be offset by cuts in advertising and bonuses now used to entice volunteer recruits.

The report says that while 91% of last year’s recruits were high school graduates, only 80% of U.S. residents aged 18 to 24 have attained that level of education. And high-school graduates, the military says, make better soldiers than dropouts. The CBO, which does not make recommendations but only charts options for lawmakers, estimates that somewhere between 27,000 and 165,000 would be drafted each year. That relative small slice – some 2 million males turn 18 each year – could resurrect the problems seen in the Vietnam era when deferments and friendly draft boards kept some well-connected young men out of uniform. Under current law, women could not be drafted.

If it doesn’t make military or economic sense to launch the draft, what about the notion of fairness? Critics have claimed that minorities are over-represented in the all-volunteer military because they have fewer options in the civilian world. The CBO disputes that, saying that “members of the armed forces are racially and ethnically diverse.” African Americans accounted for 13% of active-duty recruits in 2005, just under their 14% share of 17-to-49-year-olds in the overall U.S. population. And minorities are not being used as cannon fodder. “Data on fatalities indicate that minorities are not being killed [in Iraq and Afghanistan] at greater rates than their representation in the force,” the study says. “Rather, fatalities of white service members have been higher than their representation in the force,” in large part because whites are over-represented in the military’s combat, as opposed to support, jobs.

Anyone with even a modicum of interest and a library card or Internet access already knew all that. Certainly, Murtha — a retired Marine colonel with years of experience on the Armed Services Committee — did. One wonders, then, what he hoped the CBO study would accomplish.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brian J. says:

    I dunno, putting the “The Government Studies Impact of Draft” story onto the news wires?

  2. mannning says:

    This report seems quite biased to me. First of all, we need to increase the size of the Army substantially, so the idea of staying under the current authorization must be challenged and overridden.

    Second, there is no absolute that says we must draft for two years only. At three years, a soldier can be effective for 2/3rds of his tour. Third, most of the draftees could be used in stateside or garrison assignments, thus freeing up volunteers for combat duty. If a draftee wanted to sign up for combat, that is, to volunteer, he could be allowed after he had sufficient training, just as the existing volunteers do.

    As for fairness, leave it strictly up to the little balls in the jug. I daresay that with a draft in the offing, many guys would opt for enlisting in order to get their choice of service and career paths. That was the case in the Korean War, I know. Not that it always works out that way…that I know too!

  3. DC Loser says:

    James, taking your point at face value, why not just scrap the entire Selective Service charade right now?

  4. James Joyner says:

    James, taking your point at face value, why not just scrap the entire Selective Service charade right now?

    Presumably, there’s some value in registering people in the event of a WWII-scale war requiring mass mobilization. Then again, since we now assign SSNs even to infants, the idea that the feds can’t find draft age people if it comes to that has long struck me as odd.

  5. Andy says:

    Having a draft would be an important check on the ability of the government to fool us into war.

    I believe that draftees would be less effective and less motivated in fighting a war such as Iraq or Vietnam. On the other hand, in a war of existential importance, I believe that the draftees will fight exceptionally well.

  6. mannning says:

    The bulk of our army is not in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is possible, by using draftees in the US or in garrison duties, to free up as many as 1 or 2 hundred thousand experienced troops for combat zones. This would avoid the question of their willingness to fight and their effectiveness in combat until such time as the draftee decided to turn around and volunteer. (Many Nam officers made the same complaint as Andy; perhaps this idea is the way out, at least temporarily.)

    This unwillingness to fight when called up seems to me to be akin to cowardliness and civil disobedience. Shades of the SDS again. Or, perhaps it is conscientious objection.

  7. Bithead says:

    Look, all this chatter about restoring the draft, had one purpose, and one purpose only… Empowering Democrats, by increasing the resistance to our actions in Iraq. That is the only connection to reality that this push ever had.