Bring Back the Draft: A Call for Universal National Service

03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jerome Slater Professor Emeritus of political science, SUNY Buffalo

This a coauthored post by William L. Hauser and Jerome Slater. It is a somewhat revised excerpt of our article, "The Call-Up: Conscription Again," in the January-February 2010 issue of World Affairs Journal. William L. Hauser is a retired Army colonel and Vietnam combat veteran who has published widely in the field of American civil-military relations.

The struggle between radical Islamism and Western democracy -- the "war on terrorism" -- is going to be a long one, and may not be manageable with our current all-volunteer forces. To begin, the Obama administration has expanded the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan to include some 50,000 additional troops and advisors; however, even with the hoped-for expansions of the still unreliable Afghan army, it is unlikely that the forces on the ground can achieve the troop-to-population ratio generally acknowledged as necessary for success in counterinsurgency warfare.

Beyond Afghanistan, military intervention by the United States might become necessary elsewhere as a last resort against particularly dangerous states or organizations. But our all-volunteer forces are too small in terms of "boots on the ground," as well as lacking in the educational, cultural, linguistic, and technical skills needed for hi-tech/unconventional operations in foreign lands. Moreover, because of the stresses of Afghanistan and Iraq, it may become increasingly difficult to maintain the quality of our ground forces. Recruitment and retention rates (only temporarily improved because of the recession) have eroded, forcing the armed services to lower their physical, educational and psychological standards, and even to expand the "moral waivers" granted to some volunteers with criminal records. The loss of many highly qualified middle-grade officers is especially troubling.

This combination of challenges cannot be resolved within our current manpower system. They can only be met by reinstituting conscription -- a "draft" -- albeit within a system of mandatory and universal national service, in which all young men and women must serve their country but can choose between military and non-military service. Those who choose military service would have the right to further choose between combat and non-combat service, as discussed below.

There is no doubt that in the current American political environment, resuming conscription would generate strong opposition. Indeed, even the professional military might balk, because senior military officers tend to hold that volunteers make better soldiers, even though better educated men and women generally do not serve. This is a misconception, as any veteran of pre-1973 troop duty (when conscription was ended) will attest, for the talent mix then available allowed for leaner commissioned-officer staffs, greater small-unit initiative in the garrison and in the field, and increased numbers of college graduates for officer candidate schools.

A perhaps equally important issue for the professional military is that of institutional pride. Noncommissioned/petty officers as well as commissioned officers may bridle at the notion that their subordinates are of any but the highest quality. This is also mistaken: for the increasingly demanding and complex missions which they may be assigned, there are simply not enough well educated and highly adaptable soldiers in today's armed forces.

Despite these problems, the benefits of universal national service would be compelling. Conscription will assure that the armed forces reflect the full spectrum of American life, in terms of both socio-economic classes and racial/ethnic groups. Today, scarcely 1% of the nation's eligible population serve in the armed forces, and almost no sacrifice is asked from the rest of society. This is not just a matter of principle, for should Afghanistan (or Iraq) turn out badly, it would not be surprising if veterans' protest groups arise, angry at having been "cheated out of victory" by insufficient national support.

Moreover, collective experience through universal national service would nurture good citizenship, social cohesion, and a sense of civic responsibility, providing our youth -- and future leaders -- with a formative civic experience. Aside from acquiring skills that open doors of opportunity in the civilian economy, everyone who has served in the armed forces or in non-military service, such as the Peace Corps, knows of young people whose character and prospects were enhanced by the hard work, discipline, and collective spirit engendered by such service. Professional educators, in particular, will find veterans to be serious students, as was the case following World War II.

Aside from enhancing our military strength, a renewed draft would serve the national interest in another way. The term "national security," too often understood in a purely military sense, should be viewed more broadly, to include effective diplomacy and the nonmilitary resolution of international disputes. Thus, an additional and especially important benefit of our proposal is that there would be a greater likelihood of sound foreign and military policies if the sons and daughters of America's political and business elites served in uniform--as so many did in the past, but so few do today.

Unlike past U.S. conscription systems, it must be emphasized that our proposal is not for mandatory military service, let alone for mandatory combat military service. Rather, we propose mandatory national service, in which a revived military draft should be just one component in a broader public-service program -- a "domestic Peace Corps," for which the recent three-fold expansion of the Americorps program would provide a template.

Furthermore, even those electing military service should have the additional option of choosing noncombat over combat service. It might be objected that restricting combat service to the regular military and draftees who voluntarily choose that option would -- once again -- render our forces too small for necessary interventions. For several reasons, that is unlikely to be the case.

First, it is reasonable to expect that many draftees would in fact volunteer for combat duty out of patriotic pride as well as a youthful sense of challenge and adventure. Beyond that, because of the exceptional rigors and hazards of combat, those who choose to serve in that capacity should be offered additional rewards, such as the generous after-service education and health care benefits of the post-WWII GI Bill of Rights. Finally, should very large combat forces be necessary in genuine national emergencies -- as jointly specified by the president and Congress--the services would be authorized to supplement combat volunteers with draftees.

Preventing Unwise Military Interventions
We have argued that a program of universal national service with several levels of volunteerism built into it would enhance our military power, decrease popular opposition to mandatory service and the justifiable use of military force, and serve such valuable purposes as public health, public works, and the augmentation of teachers and social workers in disadvantaged regions of the country.

History warns us, however, to be apprehensive not only about insufficient military force but also about unwise interventions facilitated by military power. As the Bush Administration's geopolitically rash invasion of Iraq and earlier administrations' deepening involvement in Vietnam made evident, future presidents might exploit forces at their disposal to engage in or prolong unwise expeditions. It is therefore essential to reinforce congressional and judicial controls over the use of force. This goal could be accomplished through three measures:

  • Returning to the original constitutional division of war-making power. The framers, fearing an unconstrained executive, gave Congress the sole power to declare war. The context of the constitutional debates makes clear that this was not merely to allow Congress to ratify actions already taken, but to give it the real power to decide when the nation should engage in armed conflict. The logic of this power-division remains compelling. The decision to go to war is more likely to be a wise one if it is taken after informed debate and the development of consensus, while the conduct of war must proceed under a hierarchical chain of command headed by the president.

    This constitutional framework has eroded over the past century, particularly in Franklin Roosevelt's unilateral decision to take the nation into World War II (however wise), Harry Truman's order to defend South Korea against North Korean attack (also, however wise), and Lyndon Johnson's decision to escalate our involvement in Vietnam (now widely regarded as unwise).

    The last led to the War Powers Act of 1973, whose purpose was "to fulfill the intent of the framers of the Constitution . . . and insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply." The president now may not unilaterally use force without specific prior authorization of Congress, except in "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces." Even then, he must report his actions to Congress, and Congress can direct him to end hostilities.

    However, since its passage, the Act's constitutionality has been challenged and evaded by subsequent presidents and has been largely unsuccessful in restoring the constitutional division of war-making power. This must change.

  • Exercising the power of the purse. Perhaps the most important of Congress's powers to prohibit, limit, or end participation in wars is to refuse to fund them. Though Congress is often hesitant, fearing charges of "abandoning" our military, enacting a cutoff does not leave forces "without the means to defend themselves," as has often been foolishly or demagogically asserted, but simply compels their withdrawal, as finally happened in Vietnam in 1973. Aside from Vietnam, Congress has used this power to prohibit armed intervention in Angola in 1976, to end direct support of the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s, and to terminate military involvement in Somalia in 1994.

  • Writing a new conscription law. In yet another check on both executive power and unwise military interventions, the legislation establishing conscription should provide that draftees may not be sent into a combat zone without specific prior congressional authorization, except in time-urgent cases of national emergency. In this manner, and unlike the War Powers Act and Congress's power of the purse, both of which require legislators to take political risks in opposing presidential will, the conscription program would essentially be self-enforcing. Should presidents seek to weaken its constraints, they would be constrained not only by the legislature and judiciary, but also by potential draftees and their families and friends--tens of millions of engaged citizens.
  • The Future
    There have been no significant terrorist attacks in the United States since 2001, so it may seem less urgent to have forces capable of expanded operations in Afghanistan or other international hotspots. That would change radically if there were new attacks on our homeland, including the horrific possibility of nuclear or biological attacks. In such circumstances, arguments against conscription would crumble overnight, and there would be a crash program to build up the armed forces, as happened in World War II. It would be far better to have such forces immediately available, together with established constraints against their misuse.

    Moreover, the creation of larger and higher-quality forces -- with a credible capability for large-scale intervention on the ground -- would have a powerful deterrent effect, not only against terrorists themselves but also against states that currently support or tolerate their activities. Consequently, there might be the need for fewer future U. S. military interventions, rather than more.

    Our argument is not based on the premise that we need an expanded military intervention in Afghanistan -- reasonable people disagree about this -- let alone for future interventions somewhere else. Our argument, rather, is a more limited one: in the long-term struggle against radical Islamism or comparable threats to our national security, the United States might well need larger standing forces of considerably improved quality, along with greater protection against executive misuse of those forces.

    If that is persuasive, we should start now, for achieving these objectives will require much time and effort. But if we do, the payoff will be immeasurable, for committing the nation to major military interventions with qualitatively and quantitatively inadequate manpower offers a recipe for disaster.