Playbook for a Military Draft

Stages of mobilization for war. Image from CNAS report based on Department of Defense mobilization plan. Note the absence of a Congressional declaration of war at any stage up to and including total military mobilization.

A new report released 18 June 2024 by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) provides a remarkably candid window into the flawed and dangerous thinking of military strategists who support continual “readiness” for an on-demand military draft, even while they claim — perhaps truthfully — not to prefer a draft, even as Plan B, but only as Plan F for “Fallback” in case of prolonged total war. (Thanks to longtime anti-draft activist Eric Garris of for bringing this report to my attention.)

The CNAS report is intended to show supporters of the current bipartisan mainstream U.S. foreign policy and military consensus why the U.S. should step up planning and preparation for a draft as a tool of deterrence. But for those outside that consensus who think current U.S. policy is already bellicose enough, especially those who assume that opposing draft registration and other steps toward readiness for a draft should be a low priority for antiwar activists because the U.S. will never again (or at least not soon) activate a draft, the CNAS report provides an important lesson in how preparedness for a draft is itself a tool of war, even in “peacetime”.

The CNAS report shows how its authors want to use readiness for a draft, and the circumstances in which they think it should be used.

The fundamental argument of the CNAS report is that a “credible” capability to quickly activate a draft is an important deterrent, especially to other great-power military “peers” and potential adversaries.

As with nuclear weapons, to speak of readiness for a draft as a deterrent is another way to speak of preparation for a draft as a threat. As also with nuclear weapons, that threat is itself a weapon.

Preparation for a draft is used as a weapon when it is used to threaten escalating war to another level of death and destruction, even when that threat isn’t carried out. The “credibility” of U.S. readiness to implement a draft — stressed repeatedly in the CNAS report — is relevant only to the use of that readiness for a draft as a threat.

Proponents of draft registration and readiness for a draft such as the authors of the CNAS report argue that if, and only if, the great-power enemies of the U.S. believe that we are able and willing to activate a draft, we can use that threat of draft-enabled rapid and total military escalation and total war as a tool of diplomatic and military policy.

Resistance to planning and preparation for a draft is thus a way to rein in those policies that are based on the ability to rush into total war, and the threat to do so.

CNAS has been a prominent part of the revolving-door echo chamber of think tanks embedded in the neoliberal-neoconservative consensus on the need for U.S. military hegemony and military threats (“deterrence”) as the basis for U.S. foreign policy.

NCAS had a major role in shaping the recommendations of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS) for the future of Selective Service. Records released in response to my Freedom Of Information Act requests show that the NCMNPS relied heavily on input from NCAS and other selected sources, rather than conducting its own research. The NCMNPS worked more closely with NCAS on issues related to a possible draft than with almost any other nongovernmental organization.

Two of the five witnesses invited to testify at the NCMNPS hearing on the the potential needs for a voluntary or compulsory mobilization and the readiness of Selective Service were from CNAS: Loren Schulman (still at CNAS) and Elsa Kania (now in the Biden administration as Associate Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget).

I was invited to testify before the NCMNPS the next day, at a session which was supposed to provide a forum for arguments against the expansion of Selective Service. I told the NCMNPS that it was time to recognize the failure of draft registration and the unavailability of a draft, to end draft registration entirely, and to modify military policy accordingly:

This Commission’s final question is whether draft registration or a draft are “needed”. The implication seems to be that if a draft might be needed, draft registration should be retained. But that’s getting it backwards. The failure of draft registration should make clear that a draft would not be enforceable or feasible, even as a fallback. If the Selective Service System is an insurance policy, it is one backed by an underwriter that has been insolvent for decades. If U.S. military plans or commitments to endless wars around the world might require a draft, but a draft would not be feasible, that is a reason to scale back U.S. military activities.

Three years later, I learned that this hearing had been a sham. Records kept secret by the NCMNPS, but released by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) after the NCMNPS published its report and disbanded, revealed that long before this hearing the NCMNPS had secretly but unanimously agreed to recommend the continuation of Selective Service registration. The only questions that were still being debated within the NCMNPS were who to subject to registration and a draft, and how to administer the program — not whether it was justified or should be continued. My FOIA lawsuit against NARA for additional records of the NCMNPS, which NARA wants to destroy before anyone can see them, is still pending.

Katherine L. Kuzminski, co-author of the CNAS report and recommendations for Selective Service, was joined onstage at the launch event for that report by Andrew Metrick, a CNAS Fellow, professional wargamer, and author of another CNAS report released in December 2023 on “protracted conflict” — how to prepare to win “forever” wars, especially those against other great powers such as China and/or Russia.

Co-author Katherine L. Kuzminski presents the CNAS report and recommendations for an enlarged Selective Service System and stepped-up planning and preparation for an on-demand military draft, 18 June 2024.

Kuzminski and Metrick argued that a draft is more important in a long war than a short war, but the CNAS report on the draft fails to justify that conclusion on the basis of either history or analysis.

The U.S. has fought by far its longest wars without a draft: forty years of war in Afghanistan (the first two decades on one side, mainly by proxy, and the next two decades on another side, with U.S. boots on the ground), and more than twenty years of the global “War On Terror”.

The CNAS report focuses less on whether a draft would be needed to sustain protracted or forever war(s) than on how quickly total military mobilization could be carried out. That suggests that rapid massive military escalation is actually more of a priority for the report’s authors than sustainable long-term mobilization. That’s consistent with past and present experience around the world. For the U.S. during its war in Indochina, as for Ukraine today, resistance to conscription has proven an obstacle to prolonging large-scale wars.

With respect to the initial speed rather than the sustainability of military mobilization, the report conflates issues with a draft with issues that would apply equally to voluntary mobilization. In particular, the report notes that the military currently lacks the capacity to rapidly train or integrate a massive number of conscripts. That’s true, but it’s equally true that the military lacks the capacity to rapidly train or integrate a massive number of volunteers, such as those who rushed to enlist after 9/11 or those who would enlist if the U.S. were invaded by China and/or Russia.

Do I really think that Chinese troops are going to land on the beaches of Southern California? No, but that was the scenario used for the war-gaming exercise that formed part of the basis for the CNAS report on the draft:

The teams were first presented with a potential crisis scenario in which the PRC conducted a large-scale invasion of Taiwan… The teams were then provided with a breaking update: the PRC had effectively invaded Taiwan, and Congress and the president had enacted the draft… After the exercise, participants were provided with a scenario update: having observed that the United States was mobilizing in defense of Taiwan, the PRC attacks a location in southern California between San Diego and Los Angeles.

The CNAS scenarios are about as realistic as the “Red Dawn scenario” of a simultaneous invasion of the U.S. from Mexico and Canada that Maj. Genl. Joseph Heck, Chair of the NCMNPS, asked me about during the NCMNPS hearing in 2019 on the future of Selective Service:

“What if we’re in a Red Dawn scenario?” My response to a question from Maj. Genl. Joseph Heck, Chair of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, during the NCMNPS hearing on whether Selective Service registration should be continued, expanded, modified, or ended entirely, 25 April 2019. Photo by Jim Fussell.

Joseph Heck: Yesterday, we heard from individuals that talked about the changing threats that we face… So, I want to pose a hypothetical scenario and ask your response. So,… we’re in a Red Dawn scenario where we are being attacked through both Canada and Mexico. There is no Selective Service System. The All-Volunteer Force is insufficient. There’s been a Presidential/Congressional call for volunteers; for people to step up. However, the response has not been enough to meet the threat, the actual threat to our homeland; not an overseas operation. How would you propose to meet the demand?…

Edward Hasbrouck: You talk about the poor record of the government in assessing threats. Now that’s both threats that are missed that we aren’t prioritizing: the existential threats to human survival posed by nuclear weapons, including those of the U.S.; the existential threat to human survival posed by global warming. But those errors in threat assessment also include the false claims of existential threat: the claim that was made that the Vietnamese posed a threat to the U.S. in the Tonkin Gulf, that proved to be false but led to a war in which millions died, and in which the most honorable thing anybody could say about what they did in that war is that they refused to fight; the claim that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posed an existential threat to the U.S., that proved to be false but has led us to 17 years of war in Iraq. So I think what is called for and what history shows we need more of when the government makes this claim of existential threat is more skepticism by the public about it. And when the public says, and votes with their bodies, “We are not prepared to fight that war,” that’s called democracy.

Does anyone at CNAS or anyone else really doubt that there would be more than enough volunteers to fight off a Chinese invasion of the U.S. mainland, not to mention spontaneous popular resistance by both armed and unarmed civilians? Or that if that happened, Congress would declare war?

As for the initial CNAS scenario, should the U.S. be sending draftees to fight a war with China over Taiwan? And should we be putting in place mechanisms, such as planning and preparation for a draft, that make it easier for the Pentagon, the President, and/or Congress to rush into another overseas military adventure more quickly and with less need to wait and see if the public supports the war or will vote with its feet by enlisting to fight it?

Have the U.S. military errors of the fifty years since the draft was brought to an end consisted more of being too slow to commit fully to war as the way to try to resolve disputes? Or from too rapid resort to military engagements that have led to quagmires rather than quick fixes? The CNAS report doesn’t ask this question, so I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

It’s notable that none of the stages of military mobilization contemplated in the CNAS exercise or the Department of Defense mobilization plan on which it was based include a Congressional declaration of war, even in the case of prolonged and total war. They take for granted that all future wars will be undeclared wars.

The question for CNAS was whether the Selective Service System is really able and ready to deliver draftees to the military. The registry of potential draftees hasn’t been audited for accuracy since 1982. Ten thousand members of draft boards have been appointed, but according to NCMNPS staff notes released in response to another of my FOIA requests, Selective Service officials told the NCMNPS that “they assume a significant percentage [of local board members] would resign if the draft were activated”. Presumably, that’s because because they sought appointment to a draft board as an easy way to get a prestigious-sounding “Presidential appointment” to put on their résumé, and wouldn’t be willing to do as much work adjudicating claims for exemptions and deferments as would be required of them in the event of a draft.

In 2021, Congress directed the Department of Defense to conduct a comprehensive mobilization exercise which would “include the processes of the Selective Service System in preparation for induction of personnel into the armed forces under the Military Selective Service Act (50 U.S.C. 3801 et seq.), and submit to Congress a report on the results of this exercise.” The exercise was supposed to be completed by the end of the 2023 Federal fiscal year, and an initial briefing submitted to Congress by the end of March 2024. But in April 2024, in response to one of my FOIA requests, the Selective Service System told me that the Department of Defense had not yet even scheduled, much less conducted or reported on, the mobilization exercise ordered by Congress. Staff of both the Department of Defense and the Selective Service System did take part, however, in the NCAS exercise.

The CNAS report mentions that many people might, if ordered for induction, apply for classification as conscientious objectors in the mistaken belief that this is a way to avoid being drafted, rather than merely a pathway to being assigned to noncombatant or civilian “service” rather than more overtly war-related work. To mitigate this risk, the report’s authors recommend more public education about the obligations of those classified as COs. The NCAS futurists don’t seem to be able to imagine that, faced with the choice of “serving” the state as a soldier or as a CO, some young people might choose to resist any form of forced labor.

The issue currently under consideration in Congress of whether draft registration and eligibility for a draft should be extended to include young women as well as young men is considered in the CNAS report solely as a potential practical obstacle to a rapid draft, not a political issue. The report does, however, correctly (unlike much analysis and commentary that misstates litigation against male-only draft registration as seeking to force women to register) describe the legal situation:

The Supreme Court most recently declined to hear a case objecting to the constitutionality of an all-male draft (National Coalition for Men et al. v. Selective Service System et al.) in June 2021… Notably, the case was not arguing that women should have to register for the draft, but rather that the basis of male-only registration is now unconstitutional… If a draft is enacted (and no longer a theoretical question), such a case would be likely to have legal standing before the Supreme Court. The potential time delays associated with a legal challenge of that magnitude would severely hamper the federal government’s ability to execute a draft adequately and efficiently in an environment where time would be of the essence.

A new lawsuit raising the same issue again was filed in Los Angeles on 14 May 2024, but that may have been after the CNAS report went to press.

Gender justice, or whether the current registration system, or a draft based on it, would violate draftees’ Constitutional rights, are not a concern for the CNAS analysts — only whether litigation might slow down the forced march to total war. And with typically profound but unconscious and unexamined ageism, adding young women to the pool of potential draftees is described by CNAS, as it was by the NCMNPS, as expanding draft eligibility to “all” Americans, even though eligibility to be drafted would still be limited to young people.

The CNAS report notes that displays of resistance to conscription, perhaps by a prominent pop-culture figure, might go viral and lead to snowballing resistance. Were they thinking of draft resisters of previous eras who inspired others, such as Muhammad Ali and David Harris? But this is considered in the report as a potential public relations and propaganda problem, not a significant practical or policy challenge.

There’s no other consideration in the CNAS report of whether potential draftees would comply with induction orders voluntarily, or whether a draft would be workable. The entitlement and the power of the government to enforce a draft is taken for granted, leaving only the question of whether more cannon fodder, drone pilots, or other military personnel might be needed for whatever undeclared wars the powers-that-be deem it necessary for conscripts to fight.

Should we care about draft registration if a draft is unlikely? Yes, we should, and the CNAS report and playbook for a draft shows us why.

Ideologically, draft registration symbolizes, solemnizes, and inculcates the essentially fascist and fundamentally ageist idea that the lives of young people exist to serve the goals of the state, as the state defines them, rather than that the state exists to serve the people and is justified only to the extent that it does so.

Pragmatically, the perceived availability of a draft is one of the weapons in the arsenal of military threats the U.S. government relies on and uses to support its global hegemony.

The draft and draft registration matter, even in “peacetime”.

Ending draft registration and other planning and preparation for a draft should be just as high a priority for antiwar activists as preserving the credibility of U.S. readiness to implement a draft is to war planners like the authors of the CNAS report and their allies in the U.S. government.

Edward Hasbrouck maintains the website and publishes the “Resistance News” newsletter. He was imprisoned in 1983-1984 for organizing resistance to draft registration.