SPRINGFIELD, VA —Politicians have been busy taking America into
war. Some commentators want to make the American people
pay by conscripting 18-year-olds into the military.
It’s a bad idea.
Throughout most of their history, Americans freely defended their
nation from threats both domestic and foreign. Only in their
greatest conflicts—the Civil War, World War I, and the lead-up
to World War II—did Washington resort to conscription.
The practice persisted during the Cold War, when the U.S. maintained
globe-spanning alliances to protect friendly war-ravaged states from
the Soviet Union. However, four decades ago the Nixon administration
inaugurated the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), which successfully deterred
the Red Army. Now Russia is moving in America’s direction
by professionalizing its force.
Despite a rough start, the AVF has been a brilliant success. Quality
is far better than under a draft. A volunteer military can
be choosy and set higher standards. Even when the army was
reducing its requirements during the worst of the Iraq years, its quality
standards remained well above those of conscript forces.
Moreover, noted a recent Congressional Research Service report, “starting
in 2008 these concerns were alleviated by the more favorable recruiting
and retention environment,” which CRS expected to remain “over
the next few years.”
The end of the draft also has dramatically improved commitment and
morale in the armed forces. The difference is simple: recruits
who want to serve and succeed are likely to perform better than draftees
who want out, the sooner the better. The AVF also enjoys
higher reenlistment rates, which reduce turnover and enhance experience.
Returning to conscription would generate a force that looked a lot
more like the force during the Vietnam War than World War II. Even
reluctant draftees in the latter identified with the campaign against
Nazi Germany. Vietnam War conscripts shared no similar commitment
to defending Saigon. Personnel drafted to patrol Afghan
valleys on behalf of a corrupt government in Kabul or stop ethnic slaughter
in a post-civil war Syria likely would be no more enthused with their
All told, shifting to conscription would significantly weaken the
military. New “accessions,” as
the military calls them, would be less bright, less well educated,
and less positively motivated. They would be less likely
to stay in uniform, resulting in a less experienced force. The
armed forces would be less effective in combat, thereby costing America
more lives while achieving fewer foreign policy objectives.
Why take such a step?
One argument, most recently articulated by Thomas Ricks of the Center
for a New American Security, is that a draft would save “the
government money.” That’s a poor reason to impress
people into service.
First, conscription doesn’t save much cash. It costs
money to manage and enforce a draft—history demonstrates that
not every inductee would go quietly. Conscripts serve shorter
terms and reenlist less frequently, increasing turnover, which is expensive. And
unless the government instituted a Czarist lifetime draft, everyone
beyond the first ranks would continue to expect to be paid.
Second, conscription shifts rather than reduces costs. Ricks
suggested that draftees should “perform tasks currently outsourced
at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks,
mowing lawns, driving generals around.” Better to
make people do grunt work than to pay them to do it? Force poorer
young people into uniform in order to save richer old people tax dollars. Ricks
believes that is a good reason to jail people for refusing to do as
the government demands?
The government could save money in the same way by drafting FBI agents,
postal workers, Medicare doctors, and congressmen. Nothing
warrants letting old politicians force young adults to pay for Washington’s
profligacy. Moreover, by keeping some people who want to
serve out while forcing others who don’t want to serve in—creating
a veritable evasion industry along the way—conscription would
raise total social costs. It would be a bad bargain by any
Worse, some draft advocates, like Ricks, would join military conscription
to civilian national service. But it is bizarre to equate
patrolling city streets in Kandahar with shelving library books in
Washington, D.C. Moreover, it is offensive for any society
which calls itself free to consider drafting people to do the latter. Surely
it is better to hire than effectively kidnap, say, guides at national
Moreover, the idea of government-mandated national service is foolish
economically. There are an infinite number of “unmet
human needs.” Years ago one national service advocate
helpfully toted up 5.3 million jobs which the government could fill
with cheap labor—indeed, with truly universal “service” the
government could keep the entire population busy. Alas,
there is an “opportunity cost” of other work forgone. Forcing
someone to pick up garbage in a park instead of attending medical school
could end up being very expensive for society.
More fundamentally, compelling service violates government’s
essential responsibility to protect individual liberty. Ricks
argued: “the government could use this cheap labor
in new ways,” but the labor does not belong to America’s
government, nation, or people. It belongs to Americans,
individually. People should serve others, but genuine service
is good precisely because it is voluntary. Compulsory compassion
is an oxymoron.
Foreign Follies archives
Foreign Follies is copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Bandow. All
A version of this article appeared at Forbes.com on
July 16, 2012.
Doug Bandow is the Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former
Special Assistant to President Reagan.
See a complete biographical sketch.
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