Bring Back the Draft? A Look at the American Experience With Conscription.

I have misused the king’s press damnably. I have got, in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers, three hundred and odd pounds. I press me none but good house-holders, yeoman’s sons; inquire me out contracted bachelors, such as had been asked twice on the banns; such a commodity of warm slaves, as had as lieve hear the devil as a drum; such as fear the report of a caliver worse than a struck fowl or a hurt wild-duck.

Falstaff, Henry IV, Part I

Former Washington Post Reporter Thomas Ricks, who now works for the liberal Center for a New American Security, a think tank focusing on defense issues and which has provided several top personnel in Defense slots for the Obama administration, thinks that it is now time to bring back the Draft.  He proposes it not because he believes that the Draft would improve the military, but because he believes that it would make the nation less likely to go to war.

The drawbacks of the all-volunteer force are not military, but political and ethical. One percent of the nation has carried almost all the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the rest of us essentially went shopping. When the wars turned sour, we could turn our backs.

A nation that disregards the consequences of its gravest decisions is operating in morally hazardous territory. We invaded Iraq recklessly. If we had a draft, a retired general said to me recently, we probably would not have invaded at all.

If there had been a draft in 2001, I think we still would have gone to war in Afghanistan, which was the right thing to do. But I don’t think we would have stayed there much past the middle of 2002 or handled the war so negligently for years after that.

We had a draft in the 1960s, of course, and it did not stop President Lyndon Johnson from getting into a ground war in Vietnam. But the draft sure did encourage people to pay attention to the war and decide whether they were willing to support it.

I believe that Mr. Ricks is completely wrong-headed, and to understand why it is necessary to review the Draft and American history.

The American colonies had no standing armies and relied upon militias.  This was an inheritance from England, where all adult males in emergency situations had been liable to provide military service. The militias varied wildly in quality depending upon the training and resources dedicated to them, and this meant that the militias were normally not a resource to be depended upon to fight a long war against a formidable enemy.  (All states still have laws on the books regarding militias and usually all adult males are part of the militia.  During World War II several states activated militia regiments to take the place of the National Guard units sent overseas.)

During the American Revolution the states were sometimes requested by Congress to draft men from militia units to participate in campaigns and to fill state quotas for the Continental Army.  The policy proved to be a failure when it came to the Continental Army, being both highly unpopular and ineffective in producing men willing to serve.  The states relied instead upon inducements to enlist, including bounties and land grants.

During the War of 1812 a proposal to draft 40,000 men was voted down in Congress.

In the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy resorted to the Draft and it was highly unpopular, North and South.  Conscription produced few troops in the North, the Union troops being overwhelmingly volunteers with only 2% being draftees and 6% paid substitutes for men who had been drafted.  The Draft was not applied in states that met troop quotas, and states offered high enlistment bonuses to spur recruitment.  The worst riot in US history was the anti-Draft riot in New York City in July 1863 by Irish immigrants.  The Confederate use of conscription, even with national survival clearly at stake, met with wide-spread resistance, often aided and abetted by state politicians, and draft dodging was fairly common.  The South put a high percentage of its adult white male population into the Army, but I think the vast majority of these men would have gone without a draft, and conscription probably did more harm than good to the Confederate struggle for independence.

The first modern Draft was implemented in World War I.  It encountered little resistance except from small minorities of German sympathizers and political radicals.  It helped that the war lasted for little over a year and a half.  US entry into World War I was highly popular and I doubt that the draft was really necessary in order to fill the ranks of the military.

The Draft gvernmental apparatus remained in existence after World War I although the Draft ended. Congress passed the first peace time Draft in 1940, war looming with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  The Draft was fairly unpopular until Pearl Harbor.  After that attack, the US fought World War II more unified than any time in its history, before or since,  and Draft resistance was negligible.  Some eleven million men were inducted during the War, and I think it would have been difficult to raise that many troops by simply relying on volunteers.

The Draft remained in effect until December 1972.  Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a promise to end the Draft and implement an all volunteer army,  the Draft during Vietnam had proven highly unpopular.  Ironically, two-thirds of the men who fought in Vietnam were volunteers.

Since 1973, after a rough transition period in the mid-Seventies, the all volunteer military has proven highly successful, producing a professional, motivated force, with the military normally being able to meet recruitment goals while maintaining high standards for the volunteers accepted.  The days when the military would accept virtually any warm body, no questions asked, are long gone.  I encounter, on a fairly regular basis, parents distressed because their children have attempted to enlist and been turned down for one reason or another.  The return to a volunteer military is a return to the way the nation has defended itself except in times of national crisis on the scale of a world war or a civil war.

The idea of Mr. Ricks that a return to the draft would make the nation more wary about going to war is I think refuted both by Vietnam and Iraq.  Conscription during Vietnam certainly did not make the nation hesitate about embarking on that war.  The initial involvement in Vietnam was broadly popular.  Massive anti-Draft rallies did little to cut short the Vietnam War, as the demonstrations peaked in 1968 and US troops were in combat until the end of 1972.  George McGovern ran on a platform calling for an immediate pull out from Vietnam in 1972 and won only Massachusetts in the election.  The anti-Draft rallies may have solidified support for the war.  Absent those demonstrations, often complete with NVA flags and cheers for enemy troops fighting American troops, it is possible that a withdrawal may have occurred earlier with a majority of Americans concluding that the cost in blood and treasure simply wasn’t worth it.

In Iraq, the war was initially broadly popular as was the case in Vietnam.  The insurgency after the brief conventional war in 2003 quickly soured most Americans on the Iraq war, playing a large role in the Democrats taking Congress in 2006 and padding their majorities in 2008 and taking the White House.  Contrary to Mr. Ricks’ thesis, anti-war sentiment had a major political impact  during the Iraq war, and brought to power anti-war advocates far faster than was the case in Vietnam.

Mr. Ricks’ thesis is also flawed in his belief that an all volunteer force somehow insulates Americans from the reality of war.  Our volunteer force required continual use of National Guard and reserve units throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, unlike Vietnam where relatively few National Guard units were activated.  A symbol of this is a sign commonly seen in National Guard armories:  “One weekend a month my a–!”, an ironic reference to the old National Guard which usually saw service one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer for training, except in national or local emergencies.  Today, any American involvement of any size and duration is going to directly impact communities through out the US when National Guard units are activated, and that immediately gets the attention of both local populations and local politicians.  What Mr. Ricks seeks to accomplish with the Draft, greater American awareness of the costs of American military involvements, is already happening due to the reliance on the National Guard as an immediate component of the regular forces.

Mr. Ricks’ proposal also has a practical problem:  the military already gets all the volunteers it needs.  Even if the politically impossible happened and Congress passed a Draft, there would be no draft calls because the military already is able to fills its ranks with voluntary enlistments.   Unless Mr. Ricks wishes to vastly increase the size of the military, a new Draft would be a dead letter.  I suppose that if the pay and benefits of our active duty military were slashed, we could make military service so unpopular that a draft would be necessary.  We of course would then be substituting a highly professional force of volunteers with troops who desperately do not want to be in the military, which does not strike me as a wise move, to say the least.

Except in the case of the World Wars, conscription throughout American history has proven to be highly unpopular and largely ineffective and unnecessary.  Mr. Ricks’ call for a Draft to act as a brake on American military involvements would simply not accomplish what he wishes it to accomplish, is unnecessary with our current force structure, and is politically impossible.  Other than that, it is a grand idea!

Published in: on April 23, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (12)  
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  1. Short of a massive land war somewhere, although I cannot conceive of such a war in this day, the draft should stay dead. The down side of a professional volunteer military is that it lends itself to more small conflicts, such as the unfortunate, unnecessary war in Iraq. This war could not, and would not, have ever been fought by a draftee army.

  2. I disagree. Certainly, as I noted in my post, a drafted military made no difference in the decision to go into Vietnam.

    • I believe that a draftee made army made all the difference in Vietnam. The draft was in place, and had been since World War II, contributing an ongoing supply of soldiers, myself included. This was not the case for the war in Iraq. Can you imagine trying to re-establish the draft for the war in Iraq? In my humble opinion, it never would have happened. Even those supporting the war in Iraq with a volunteer, professional army, would not support their sons, brothers, fathers, being forced to go and fight for this misguided and ultimately, failed foreign policy.

      • I don’t think it made any difference in getting involved, since there was little opposition to being involved in Vietnam at the start of the War. As for renewing the draft for Iraq, that was not going to happen, due to the outcome of Vietnam, and the opposition to the Draft by the military itself. By the time of Vietnam the Draft kept going because of interia, the unwillingness of the government to up the pay scales of the military to attract sufficient volunteers and because the military was used to having the Draft. Large institutions rarely change until they have to, and the military is no exception. Once they had to make due with only volunteers the military adapted and made it one of the great governmental success stories, perhaps the only one, of the past four decades.

      • That is exactly my point. It does not matter why the draft continued. Its existence made it much easier to get involved in Vietnam and continue to stay in VN once the war became unpopular, including massive protests not only against the war but against the draft as well. Do you believe that most Americans would have supported the re-institution of the draft to fight the war in Iraq? I do not.

      • I don’t see it. I think the Draft or the lack of a Draft made no difference in the decisions to get involved in Vietnam and Iraq. I think absent a huge and immediate threat on the level of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, I can’t imagine the Draft being reinstituted.

  3. Don

    Great post that only begins to touch on the subject.

    I have noticed that liberal groups that support a return to the draft always mention “alternative Service,” apparently mandatory, Since the military does not need that many people.

    But they also support all sorts of “grand projects” that can’t be accomplished if they pay going (or fair or living) wages.

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

    • The idea of a Draft Hank, in my mind, can only be justified in a war where the survival of the nation is at stake. Forcing people to put their lives on hold and be part of the military is antithetical to a free society except in a dire emergency. I have never understood the enthusiasm so many politicians have for some sort of an involuntary national service simply as a matter of course.

  4. The draft was a universal reality in Europan countries affected by the Napoleonic experience – primarily France, Italy and Germany. It was resisted in Austria and in Russia until 1914, because it threatened the class bases of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies; the Prussians, typically, finding a way to maintain both the class-based power structure and the efficient use of the country’s resources. In general, the draft was regarded as an equalizing experience, educating the lower classes into public duty and beliefs and bringing the higher ones to live cheek by jowl with people they might never otherwise meet. (And I can testify that this effect was real; my best friend in the Italian army, in which we were among the last conscript classes, was a young shepherd from the deep south who spoke only his own dialect and had left school at ten to work in the mountains.)

    From the point of view of what Mr.Ricks thinks, I think that the experience of European countries all points one way. Conscript armies are for the defence of national territory. In that cause, they will fight better than professional armies; as Basil Liddell Hart pointed out, no professional army could have borne the kind of losses the British took at the Somme (and, I would add, the appalling disaster suffered by the Italians at Caporetto) without disintegrating, and still fighting till victory. But they are no good for colonial/overseas wars, and for all practical purposes they were never employed there. That is why the British never had a conscript army until 1914 – all their wars were colonial or at any rate overseas. To conquer and police colonies, European powers set up local units with local men officered by European professionals (askaris) or professional long-service units such as the French Foreign Legion or the whole British Army. I think one reason why no European country wanted to help the Americans in Vietnam is that their experience would have told them that to deploy conscripts in an overseas theatre of operations would have been very hazardous.

    • “Conscript armies are for the defence of national territory.”

      That thought would have amused Napoleon Fabio who relied upon conscript armies to conquer most of Europe. The Russians relied upon conscript armies as they advanced through Central Asia and the Caucuses in the 19th Century and held down Poland in Europe. America got quite a few Russian immigrants in the 19th century who were fleeing forced service in the armies of the Tsar. Conscript armies of course made up Hitler’s armies in World War II. Mussolini used conscript troops in his conquest of Ethiopia, a classic colonial war.

      • The Russian army wasn’t conscript until 1914: to the contrary, it was so separate from society that it was to some extent hereditary. And the slow degeneration of Napoleon’s army can be imputed both to its increasingly multi-national character – Dutchmen, Italians and Catalans forced into French uniforms under French officers most emphatically can’t be expected to perform – and to its increasingly obvious enslavement to the crazed designs of one man. What destroyed Napoleon, more than anything else, was the Europe-wide reaction of disgust at the bulletin that, after communicating to all of Europe the slaughter of half a million of their young men in the disastrous Russian adventure, smugly concluded: “The health of His Majesty has never been better”.

      • As for Mussolini’s use of the Italian army, the less said the better. The instrument that had hammered and destroyed Austria-Hungary in World War One, contributing mightily to the allied victory, was humiliated by Greece even before Wavell routed 330,000 Italians with 15,000 Englishmen and a country behind him (Egypt) that could not wait to turn against him. And Hitler convinced Germany’s conscripts that they were in fact fighting for their national territory, even as they invaded countries that had never seen a German; that is largely why they kept fighting almost literally to the last man, even when it had long been clear to everyone that the war was lost.

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