In the World’s Most Militarized Power, Conscription Is a Tool of War

Running an empire isn’t easy. A large military is imperative. How else to wage multiple wars at once? To defeat powers large and small? To police an unruly world? And to garrison the globe?

Unfortunately, creating expansive armed services isn’t cheap. There are missiles to build, air wings to deploy, carriers to sail forth, and armored divisions to ready. Most important, a large infantry is needed. How else to occupy and remake the many failed states which constantly call for Washington’s attention?

Last year the military sought 155,201 new recruits and every service made its quota. In 2019 the number was 171,067 and again the goals were met. The previous year the Pentagon wanted 170,899 new members, but the army fell short by about 7,000.

Manning the armed forces isn’t just a matter of offering sufficient wages. Not everyone is likely to be a good soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine. Skills and smarts are important. Dedication is a must. Fitness is required. Most important is the desire to be part of something as unique as the military. Recruits must essentially turn their lives over to the state.

There’s nothing else quite like military service. Cops and fire fighters risk their lives. But the threats they face are more bounded and predictable. These first responders can choose where to work and live. And if they don’t like what they are assigned to do, they can quit. Life is quite different even in the volunteer military. Sign the form and take the oath? Then you are Uncle Sam’s property, to do with largely as he wishes. And if an emergency occurs, he can hold you in the military indefinitely.

I was a "dependent" and grew up on air force bases around the world. It was a unique existence, highly bureaucratic when on government property or time, but with unique opportunities for travel and experience as well. It isn’t the life for everyone, which is why being a dependent was enough for me. I respect those who serve but never had any interest in joining them.

Roughly four million Americans turn 18 every year, which would seem more than enough to fill the ranks. However, only about 30 percent of them are considered eligible to serve. (Although if Washington was seeking mass cannon fodder for World War III, the military would instantly become much less choosy.) The Pentagon figures that only about 15 percent of those 1.2 million are open to joining the military.

Ironically, the military benefits from bad economic times, which push some people to enlist. But as employment opportunities improve, that source of new accessions dries up. And the international situation also may have an impact, especially on individual services. During the disastrous Iraqi occupation the army had increased difficulty attracting recruits.

Even when the armed forces meet their quotas some critics complained about the means. Over the years the military hiked compensation, relied more on women, and accepted recruits with lower test (AFQT) scores and more behavioral issues (prior criminal convictions or drug use). Oddly, retired Gen. Dennis Laich even seemed upset that volunteers were paid anything. He asked Fortune: "If it’s an all-volunteer force, why do you have to pay somebody to volunteer?"

Another concern is the low number of children of the elite from the All-Volunteer Force. Laich argued: "Let’s face it, National Merit Scholars who would make great enlisted intel analysis or cyber-warriors don’t consider joining the military." (Members of the underclass also are largely absent from military ranks, but that occasions far fewer protests.) Indeed, Washington’s promiscuous war-making has been blamed on fielding a professional military, disconnected from the population.

The result is continuing support for reinstating conscription. For instance, the All-Volunteer Force Forum has taken the lead in pushing the draft. The Military Times reported on a panel discussion held in November 2019, during which Laich and retired Col. Larry Wilkerson spoke. According to them, reported Todd South, conscription was inevitable "because a combination of ever-growing missions for the military and outside pressures on the dollars being spent there will force it."

South added: "Those missions and challenges will include a rise in humanitarian and disaster relief in the face of increased natural disasters linked to climate change and a national defense policy that seeks to meet peer competitors such as Russia and China. Meanwhile, badly needed investments in the economy, environment and education competing with defense dollars, the panel said." Indeed, Laich elsewhere complained that the military employed 10,900 recruiters since they "should be in the force training and leading soldiers. It’s an awfully expensive proposition that adversely impacts readiness and capability of the military as a whole."

Conscription remains an awful idea. None of the arguments survive scrutiny. For instance, contra the presumption of many, a military draft is not cheap. A system of national compulsion would require bureaucracy and enforcement. Young people would engage in a variety of costly and inefficient draft avoidance activities. The opportunity cost of wasting their labor also would be high. That is, the expense of denying society whatever draftees otherwise would be doing. Working in a productive job. Finishing an education. Using skills and talents to the benefit of others. The result would be serious waste of valuable talent and potential.

Moreover, conscription causes the military to spend more money on a less capable force. Overall, draftees are of lower quality, since the AVF is selective and sets minimum standards. Conscripts serve shorter terms, creating costly turnover; rarely invest in military skills, since they don’t plan to stay; re-enlist in far lower numbers, making it tougher to build an NCO corps; perform less well, since they would prefer to be out rather than in; and must be retained even if disruptive, since discharge would be a reward. Moreover, by treating people as a cheap resource, the draft encourages the services to use people badly. These problems would grow especially acute if conscripts again found themselves in another lengthy, unpopular war, such as Vietnam.

Nor would a draft make a war less likely. Conscription provided a steady supply of manpower for Vietnam even as the conflict grew more unpopular. It took years for opposition to that war to reach critical mass. In contrast, a volunteer system allows potential recruits to shut down a conflict by simply refusing to sign up. During the Iraq debacle the military found recruiting to be more difficult for both active and reserve service. Moreover, heavy reliance on reservists spread the burden of the war, multiplying antiwar feelings.

Anyway, with the military requiring less than five percent of those turning 18 annually, few sons or daughters of the elite would end up in uniform, let alone in danger. Those with superior credentials, and especially influential parents, often end up in safer specialties and locations. There is little reason to expect Congress to take its responsibilities more seriously if a few more members had children in uniform.

Sometimes advocates of compulsion seek to make service universal by joining civilian and military programs. For instance, Wilkerson wrote: "It was inevitable that the climate crisis – arguably the most catastrophic crisis the United States, indeed, the world, is facing – arose as one of the several force-defining threats the forum has addressed that might require the country to resume conscription. Millions of young, healthy, dedicated, well- and socially-trained men and women will be required to manage both the domestic and the international threats created by this crisis." Even if the issue is as serious as Wilkerson contended, it makes no sense to round up untrained and unwilling teenagers to deal with the problem. It would be far easier to find and instruct people to fulfill the variegated tasks required through the marketplace, as we routinely do for other essential civilian tasks.

The general argument that a military draft is needed because there are too few personnel for too many tasks treats manpower needs as fixed. They are not. Wars of choice are, indeed, matters of choice, not necessity. So, too, Washington’s globe-spanning alliances. Today American armed forces operate more like the praetorian guard for a global empire than a citizen corps safeguarding a democratic republic. Most of what the U.S. military does is unrelated to protecting America or Americans.

There is no reason that the US military must garrison Europe, which possesses a much greater economy and population than Russia, and South Korea, with 50+ times the economy and twice the population of North Korea. Nor need Washington fight endless wars in multiple Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries with at best tenuous relationships to American security. There is nothing "vital" about these and other commitments that would justify resorting a draft. Conscription should be recognized as an additional expense of the American imperium, and thus another reason to expect other, often populous and prosperous, states to protect their own security.

The government possesses no greater power than conscription, to send people off to fight and die. The only conceivable justification for such a policy would be a dire national emergency, an existential threat, a challenge to America’s very existence. No such circumstance exists today or is likely to emerge in the coming years. Conscription should remain but a bad memory from past terrible wars.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon) and Human Resources and Defense Manpower (National Defense University).