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Foreign Follies
July 24, 2012

Conscription Would Significantly Weaken the Military
by Doug Bandow
fitzgerald griffin foundation

SPRINGFIELD, VA —Politicians have been busy taking America into war.  Some commentators want to make the American people pay by conscripting 18-year-olds into the military.

It’s a bad idea.

Throughout most of their history, Americans freely defended their nation from threats both domestic and foreign.  Only in their greatest conflicts—the Civil War, World War I, and the lead-up to World War II—did Washington resort to conscription.

The practice persisted during the Cold War, when the U.S. maintained globe-spanning alliances to protect friendly war-ravaged states from the Soviet Union.  However, four decades ago the Nixon administration inaugurated the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), which successfully deterred the Red Army.  Now Russia is moving in America’s direction by professionalizing its force.

Despite a rough start, the AVF has been a brilliant success.  Quality is far better than under a draft.  A volunteer military can be choosy and set higher standards.  Even when the army was reducing its requirements during the worst of the Iraq years, its quality standards remained well above those of conscript forces.  

Moreover, noted a recent Congressional Research Service report, “starting in 2008 these concerns were alleviated by the more favorable recruiting and retention environment,” which CRS expected to remain “over the next few years.”

The end of the draft also has dramatically improved commitment and morale in the armed forces.  The difference is simple:  recruits who want to serve and succeed are likely to perform better than draftees who want out, the sooner the better.  The AVF also enjoys higher reenlistment rates, which reduce turnover and enhance experience.

Returning to conscription would generate a force that looked a lot more like the force during the Vietnam War than World War II.  Even reluctant draftees in the latter identified with the campaign against Nazi Germany.  Vietnam War conscripts shared no similar commitment to defending Saigon.  Personnel drafted to patrol Afghan valleys on behalf of a corrupt government in Kabul or stop ethnic slaughter in a post-civil war Syria likely would be no more enthused with their respective task.

All told, shifting to conscription would significantly weaken the military.  New “accessions,” as the military calls them, would be less bright, less well educated, and less positively motivated.  They would be less likely to stay in uniform, resulting in a less experienced force.  The armed forces would be less effective in combat, thereby costing America more lives while achieving fewer foreign policy objectives.

Why take such a step?

One argument, most recently articulated by Thomas Ricks of the Center for a New American Security, is that a draft would save “the government money.”  That’s a poor reason to impress people into service.

First, conscription doesn’t save much cash.  It costs money to manage and enforce a draft—history demonstrates that not every inductee would go quietly.  Conscripts serve shorter terms and reenlist less frequently, increasing turnover, which is expensive.  And unless the government instituted a Czarist lifetime draft, everyone beyond the first ranks would continue to expect to be paid.

Second, conscription shifts rather than reduces costs.  Ricks suggested that draftees should “perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon:  paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around.”  Better to make people do grunt work than to pay them to do it? Force poorer young people into uniform in order to save richer old people tax dollars.  Ricks believes that is a good reason to jail people for refusing to do as the government demands?

The government could save money in the same way by drafting FBI agents, postal workers, Medicare doctors, and congressmen.  Nothing warrants letting old politicians force young adults to pay for Washington’s profligacy.  Moreover, by keeping some people who want to serve out while forcing others who don’t want to serve in—creating a veritable evasion industry along the way—conscription would raise total social costs.  It would be a bad bargain by any measure.

Worse, some draft advocates, like Ricks, would join military conscription to civilian national service.  But it is bizarre to equate patrolling city streets in Kandahar with shelving library books in Washington, D.C.  Moreover, it is offensive for any society which calls itself free to consider drafting people to do the latter.  Surely it is better to hire than effectively kidnap, say, guides at national parks.

Moreover, the idea of government-mandated national service is foolish economically.  There are an infinite number of “unmet human needs.”  Years ago one national service advocate helpfully toted up 5.3 million jobs which the government could fill with cheap labor—indeed, with truly universal “service” the government could keep the entire population busy.  Alas, there is an “opportunity cost” of other work forgone.  Forcing someone to pick up garbage in a park instead of attending medical school could end up being very expensive for society.

More fundamentally, compelling service violates government’s essential responsibility to protect individual liberty.  Ricks argued:  “the government could use this cheap labor in new ways,” but the labor does not belong to America’s government, nation, or people.  It belongs to Americans, individually.  People should serve others, but genuine service is good precisely because it is voluntary.  Compulsory compassion is an oxymoron.

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Foreign Follies is copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Bandow. All rights reserved.

A version of this article appeared at Forbes.com on July 16, 2012.

Doug Bandow is the Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Reagan.

See a complete biographical sketch.

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