Every now and then we hear people talk about wanting to bring
back conscription. Sometimes it comes from conservatives and militarists
who would like to see a larger military force so they can expand
U.S. bases abroad and conduct warfare in more places simultaneously.
We also hear it from liberals, and even a few leftists, who are
under the impression that conscription would be doing a big favor
for disadvantaged youths or would lessen the chances of war by
spreading the burden for maintaining our bloated military establishment
and overly aggressive foreign policy to more middle-class people.
They even make the argument, sometimes, that we need a draft to
keep us from drifting toward Prussian militarism and a Hitler-type
These aren't new arguments. Some of them were used to successfully
convince people to keep the draft that was begun during WWII,
even though the people of this country had historically been suspicious
of conscription and previously had only allowed drafts briefly
during the Civil War and WWI. Many of these arguments were also
used in the early 1970s to try to keep the draft going as we began
to pull out of the war in Southeast Asia. By then, however, Vietnam
had brought back the traditional understanding that conscription
exploits those who are politically and economically disadvantaged
and makes it easier for governments to wage illegitimate wars.
Unfortunately, the memory of this lesson is not as fresh as it
once was, and there are both liberals and conservatives who are
now taking advantage of the post-9/11 climate of fear to make
people think that a draft would be good for the nation.
Right now, our military doesn't really require conscription to
maintain its current force levels, and the Pentagon has found
that using its well-funded recruiting campaign and expanded outreach
to schools can influence young people in a way that would be impossible
with a draft (threatening people with jail if they don't enter
the military is hardly an effective way to win the hearts and
minds of younger generations). However, if the war hawks in this
country continue to have their way, there will be more pressure
to enlarge the armed forces beyond what can be supported with
voluntary enlistments, and the voices calling for conscription
will get much louder than they presently are. This is a good time,
therefore, to review some of the key issues that should be considered:
1. There are those who claim that conscription is needed for
national defense. However, it takes months to move people through
the draft classification system, the induction process and military
training, so it has no usefulness for meeting short-term emergencies.
(The Reserves and National Guard are designed to play that role.)
The draft's main military value is to provide a steady stream
of draftees for a long, drawn-out war or when the size of military
commitments is so large that the force level can't be maintained
with only enlistments. With a draft, the government doesn't have
to rely on people voluntarily stepping forward to fill the military's
ranks, so it can maintain a larger force size and pursue the kind
of unpopular military adventurism that led to more than 10 years
of U.S. warfare in Southeast Asia. Not having a draft doesn't
guarantee the U.S. won't wage illegitimate wars, but it creates
more pressure on the government to justify its actions than if
we gave the president the blank check he would have with conscription.
Imagine what that would be like with a commander-in-chief like
George Bush II.
2. Conscription is an unfair tax. Any government can provide
staffing for public services two basic ways: it can pay people
to do the necessary work, or confiscate their labor and order
them to do it. A draft is confiscation that forces individuals
to give up their freedom and some of the higher civilian income
they could have earned while in the military. Because of the higher
turnover of drafted military personnel, training becomes more
expensive and the government is forced to set wages low for both
draftees and professional volunteers, so all military members
- but especially the draftees - pay a severe personal tax, and
the true cost of the military is not shared equally by all.
3. Contrary to some people's claim, a draft would not protect
us from the dangerous influence of a professional military class.
By nature, the military is not a democratic organization, and
with or without conscription it is the officer corps and politicians
who set and control policy, not the lower ranks. Lower-ranking
military members take a great risk in defying orders; even merely
questioning them can bring reprisals that have much greater consequences
than those faced by employees with civilian jobs.
If the draft were a protection from totalitarianism and dictatorship,
then conscription would not have been relied upon as it was by
past totalitarian governments in Spain, Russia, China, various
Latin American countries, Prussia/Germany and Japan.
4. The argument that a draft will keep us out of illegitimate
wars because draftees would be more likely to resist them is often
heard, but it ignores some important facts:
· Draftees are picked young and have the least understanding
of the political policies for which their lives may be sacrificed.
· They are the most obedient of troops because, above
all, they want to get out of the military, and they know that
if they stay out of trouble, they only have to wait a couple of
years. Volunteers, on the other hand, are in for a longer term
and have much more at stake.
· A historical fact that has been forgotten even by many
liberals is that most of the organized resistance to the Vietnam
War within the armed forces - like the Concerned Officers Movement
and Movement for a Democratic Military - came largely from volunteers,
· A draft was in place prior to the Vietnam War, yet it
took more than 10 years of body bags coming home before resistance
and general opposition grew strong enough to finally force an
end to the war. If the draft was supposed to be an obstacle to
illegitimate war, it didn't do a very good job with that conflict.
5. Some people believe that the problem with the Vietnam draft
was that it disproportionately affected non-white and low-income
people. They say a draft that includes more middle-class, white
people would be more just and would cause greater reluctance to
go to war. There are several problems with this argument:
· Once a U.S. president sends people into combat and body
bags start coming home, it becomes very difficult, politically,
to retreat; those who are intent on making war know that no politician
will ever want to be the one who says that U.S. soldiers died
in vain. This means that if a president wants to launch military
action, he can do so with confidence that both Congress and the
public will back him, at least initially. Draftees would not provide
a braking effect until after there are great losses and probably
years of stalemate (Vietnam is a prime example).
· The U.S. government has learned that the key to avoiding
the kind of civilian and military resistance that occurred with
Vietnam is to keep the U.S. casualty count, length of battle,
and media coverage down to a minimum. That's why the Pentagon
has shifted to fighting wars more with massive air bombardment,
missile attacks and native client forces on the ground. Having
conscription would not be a reason to change this strategy, so
spreading the burden of war with a draft would still not create
the potential opposition that some people predict.
· We will always have a ground combat force that is disproportionately
poorer and non-white. Even with a draft, people with privilege
would be more able to get the medical deferments and conscientious
objector status that would keep them out of uniform, and if they
failed to stay out of the military, their education would put
them disproportionately into noncombat jobs. The most important
thing that we can do today to address racial and class imbalance
in the military is to demand a more equitable economy and an improved,
demilitarized educational system, while also working to shrink
the war budget.
· The logic that we need a draft so that more members
of a particular group can be killed or placed at risk in order
to bring home to the public that war is wrong has serious ethical
implications. Aside from being a form of hostage-taking, it's
like saying people should become drug users to learn about the
harmful consequences of using drugs, or that we should support
another nuclear arms race, because more people would feel the
threat of annihilation and that would then lead to the elimination
of war - or at least nuclear weapons (though that clearly didn't
happen after the 1980s nuclear arms race). If the U.S. government
had the power to send EVERYONE off to kill and/or be killed in
its wars of intervention, it would be a form of equality - but
it would be equality of the grave. Instead, we should demand
that NO one be drafted, and NO one be recruited to fight for the
economic and political exploitation of the rest of the world by
We have wars because people have been brought up with a predominant
value system that encourages people to solve disagreements with
violence. The general population is indoctrinated in this value
system from an early age, and our culture and governmental institutions
reinforce it. Military training is the extreme form of pro-war
indoctrination, which is why people like Napoleon, Hitler and
the militarists of today have wanted to universally subject young
people to conscription. The draft is a quick and effective way
to indoctrinate more people and then send them back to civilian
society to spread the authoritarian value system they have learned.
The Pentagon was forced to give up the draft at the end of Vietnam,
but it has been been increasingly insinuating itself in institutions
of socialization to continue the process of militarization. If
we brought back the draft, it wouldn't remove the military from
our schools or culture, it would just make it easier to put more
people through the militarization process. We'd end up repeating
the post-WWII cycle that led to decades of reactionary politics
and an obedient population that was willing to give the Pentagon
anything it wanted.
Practicing effective self-government and democracy requires that
we instill in individuals a propensity for critical, creative
thinking and a willingness to challenge the "chain of command"
when institutions are not serving their needs. Bringing back the
draft is the opposite of what we should do to achieve those goals.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org)