The following is the final portion of a three-part series on the All-Volunteer US military. The author, US Army Captain Crispin Burke, serves currently as an Observer/Controller at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany. It is the author’s hope to spur debate among Americans, as well as Europeans who have also had recent experience with conscription. Please read also Parts One and Two.
The Constitution and the Draft: A Brief History
America’s attitudes towards standing armies, reserve and militia forces, and the draft have varied throughout the years. Nevertheless, the US has typically been more averse to standing armies and drafts than Europe.
During the drafting of the US Constitution, in the late 18th Century, two political factions, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, disagreed strongly over the role, and even the feasibility, of a standing national army. There is little in the US Constitution which pertains to the composition and establishment of armed forces aside from Article I, Section 8:
The Congress shall have Power To […] raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years […] Congress shall have Power To […] provide and maintain a Navy.
George Washington, writing to the fledgling Continental Congress in September 1776, expressed his reluctance to establish a national standing army, but felt that the Colonies must develop a strong corps of regular volunteers, due to the general ineffectiveness of militia troops, of whom Washington wrote:
To place any dependance upon Militia, is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff. Men just dragged from the tender Scenes of domestick life; unaccustomed to the din of Arms; totally unacquainted with every kind of Military skill, which being followed by a want of confidence in themselves, when opposed to Troops regularly train’d, disciplined, and appointed, superior in knowledge, and superior in Arms, makes them timid, and ready to fly from their own shadows. Besides, the sudden change in their manner of living, (particularly in the lodging) brings on sickness in many; impatience in all, and such an unconquerable desire of returning to their respective homes that it not only produces shameful, and scandalous Desertions among themselves, but infuses the like spirit in others.
Washington believed that, without a competent standing Army, the American Revolution might be doomed, though he did acknowledge a certain “evil” — though very remote — in establishing such an army. This fear is central in America’s traditional relationship with its military.
The United States based many of its democratic principles on those of the Roman Republic — for example, the “Senate“. As such, the Founding Fathers’ greatest fear was rooted in the death of the Roman Republic and the birth of the Roman Empire — the fear that a military commander might use his army to usurp control of the fledgling republic, as Julius Caesar had done. The Anti-Federalists, in particular, attempted to block attempts to create a standing, national army. Prominent Anti-Federalist leaders, writing in the appropriately-named pamphlet, “Brutus”, said:
[Standing armies] are dangerous to the liberties of a people […] not only because the rulers may employ them for the purposes of supporting themselves in any usurpation of powers, which they may see proper to exercise, but there is a great hazard, that any army will subvert the forms of government, under whose authority, they are raised, and establish one, according to the pleasures of their leader.
Federalists, such as Alexander Hamilton, and later, John C. Calhoun, took a more pragmatic view of standing armies. As the fledgling nation still needed protection against the incursion of European powers — the United States would find itself embroiled in war with Britain in 1812 — the Federalists developed a plan which would allow for a small professional army, which could be expanded in times of war through a levee en masse — essentially, a draft — with the regulars forming the experienced cadre upon which the new army could be built.
This model served the United States for over 150 years, with the army using conscription to bolster its ranks during times of great emergencies, such as the Civil War, and the two World Wars. However, the experience of the Second World War, in particular, the rapid pace of mechanized warfare, and the extensive training and industrial might it took to wage such a war, meant that the United States needed to maintain a large, standing army to guard against threats both domestically, as well as in Europe and Asia.
The aversion to massive standing armies is a result of our constitutional heritage, hardened by witnessing the effects of the levee en masse and the experience of European nations during the Napoleonic Wars. The US Constitution, above all, guarantees citizens certain rights, and prohibits the government from infringing upon those rights. Yet, unlike the US Constitution, which is founded in principles advocated by 17th and 18th Century philosophers, European nations tend to have constitutions which are more akin to social contracts. European constitutions, in general, specify certain responsibilities on the part of both the government and the population at large. Thus, drafts are more politically and socially acceptable approaches to raising an army in Europe than in the US, though most European nations are moving away from conscription as well.
Nevertheless, the most damning argument made by US Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling and US Army Captain Matt Gallagher concerns the very real civil-military divide in America, which has only grown larger since the abolition of the draft. This much is true. The American military, primarily the Army, is consolidated on large bases, which are not at all unlike self-contained corporate towns. Most bases include their own housing, utilities, shopping centers, schools, police and fire departments, sporting centers, and recreational facilities. Additionally, towns just outside the gates of large bases tend to cater to the military community. Few large Army bases are located close to major US cities. After all, military bases need plenty of land for troops to train.
Additionally, uniformed services make up less than one percent of the US population, and with many members of the service coming from military families themselves, it’s no wonder that the military is often referred to as a “cloistered community”. Surprisingly, although the US military has nearly 1.5 million service members on active duty (plus another 800,000 in the reserves), anecdotes suggest that many Americans have never met a military service member. And whereas the Vietnam War spurred massive protests, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were hardly even an issue during the 2010 mid-term elections. In fact, a recent poll suggested that the Afghanistan War was the top concern for only two percent of American voters.
The civil-military divide is only exacerbated by a hectic deployment routine: a year’s worth of combat, followed by a year to eighteen months of reset, re-training and re-deploying to combat again. This cycle has been repeated for nearly a decade of war, and it only further adds to the uniformed services’ feelings of isolation. And while some might use the term “warrior class” in near-romantic tones, such an institution should cause citizens of a democracy considerable unease. There are no easy solutions for bridging this gap. However, as we will discover, a draft may not be the best way to go about it.
But Would a Draftee Force be Feasible?
Ultimately, talk of a draft must boil down to the feasibility of such an institution, and it is in the pragmatic details that such a proposal would fail. As it stands, the idea that a draft would magically bridge the civil-military divide in America reeks of utopian fantasy.
Having examined the draft in other countries, we must first select the appropriate conscription model for the United States.
Though the Swiss model is fair — it is based on universal conscription — it is largely a reserve, militia force organized for homeland defense, with few external commitments, compared to those of the US. The need for a massive pool of military manpower is important, considering that Switzerland has been physically located among a number of warring powers — France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and later, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. However, the United States, lacking natural enemies, and maintaining a large, forward-deployed force, hardly resembles the Swiss model.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that the United States did implement a mandatory conscription program. In that case, we must also take into account that over two million males and an additional two million females reach military age annually. Even if only a third of the males alone were conscripted annually (corresponding with the number fit for military service), roughly six hundred thousand new recruits would be brought into the ranks of the US military: more than the number currently serving in the active duty US Army.
Another option, beside the Swiss model of universal conscription, would be the Danish option of a limited draft to supplement recruiting. Yet it is difficult to fathom what such a draft would accomplish. If, as in the Danish model, draftees are only conscripted for simple tasks, and for a limited amount of time, there might be little productive value for such a force. Draftees, in such a system, might perform the same work as contractors, only they would be in uniform for far less time, and would cause an incredible drain on resources. Service members would have to be shipped from their homes, to a new duty station, where they would require uniforms and health care. For menial labor, as many draftees in the Danish system currently serve, contractors are far more efficient, as they lack much of the overhead required for soldiers. Not to mention, in such a system, might draftees performing menial labor be looked upon by their comrades as second-class soldiers? Would draftees, much like the Swiss Army, be excluded from foreign service?
The alarm over class distinction within the ranks is well-founded. While many feel that the draft would bridge the gap between classes in America, practical experience with the Israeli Army would indicate differently. Far from serving as an equalizer, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with universal conscription, actually mirrors the income disparities found in Israeli society. As we have seen, though previous generations of Israelis looked upon battlefield heroism with pride — who could argue against Israel’s wars of survival — modern warfare is far more nuanced. Policing operations in Gaza and the West Bank do not offer the opportunities for battlefield renown. Moreover, in today’ IDF, duty in combat arms branches rarely translates well into effective employment. Thus, according to Eliot Cohen, combat arms positions are being increasingly filled by lower-class, conservative Israelis, while jobs which mirror white-collar work — IT professionals, logistics, and clerks — tend to be filled by more affluent Israelis. Considering that American soldiers are often assigned a military occupational specialty based on their performance on aptitude tests, recruits from better-performing (and often, wealthier) school districts might conceivably place higher on aptitude tests which qualify them for, say, IT work. Those who argue for a draft based on an egalitarian army might want to re-think the long-term ramifications of such a policy.
There is also the assumption that a modern-day draft would be free of the issues which plagued the system during the Vietnam era. However, unless the United States adopts a Swiss-style universal conscription system — bringing in hundreds of thousands of recruits into the military annually — it must select individuals for service in a lottery system. Again, experience in numerous democratic nations has demonstrated that this sort of system rarely finds political traction, and is subject to rampant fraud and abuse.
And while a growing civil-military divide is of cause for alarm, bridging the gap with a draft is hardly the means for doing so. With over two-thirds of Americans unfit for military service, the military would be forced to either accept lower-quality recruits or severely limit the terms of the draft to only a small portion of American society. Even then, with tens of millions of Americans of “military age”, would all be drafted? Would the US military, already numbering 2.3 million (reserve and active component) be even large? Those who argue against an All-Volunteer Force on the prospect of cost alone must also consider not only the cost of expanding the size of the US military, as well as the opportunity cost to the US economy of taking productive youths out of the labor force.
In recent weeks, many American writers, such as former Washington Post correspondent Tom Ricks, have advocated some form of national service program, whether military, or a combination of military and civil service. While a national service program is beyond the scope of this document, it’s safe to say that America’s All-Volunteer Force serves the US best, based on America’s social, political, strategic, and military policy. Though the All-Volunteer Force is not without significant flaws, it’s the best choice for the United States. Nevertheless, we would be wise to take notes of the limitations of such a force. It’s a smaller military, and can be prone to overstretch. It also requires a significant investiture of money and time to grow a well-trained force. Finally, and most importantly, an All-Volunteer Force is often “out of sight and out of mind” for many Americans. Taking steps to rectify this particular issue won’t be easy. But it’s safe to say that a draft isn’t the proper way about it. For now, America’s All-Volunteer Force, despite drawbacks and the stress of two wars, is the right force for America’s defense.