War Stories

The False Promises of a Draft

Why conscription won’t improve the military.

It’s a complex business, calculating how many troops a nation needs. No matter how you do the math, though, one thing is clear: The United States doesn’t have enough.

Should we, must we, bring back the draft to fill the gaps?

We need to do something. Simply to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan (and we’re doing a less-than-adequate job of that), the U.S. Army has mobilized all its available brigades, delayed their rotations back home, and turned the Guard and Reserves’ “weekend warriors” into full-time soldiers. Despite all this, the Army still needs to bring in 4,000 troops from the once-untouchable garrison in South Korea. More desperately, it’s ordering to Iraq members of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the outfit in Ft. Irwin, Calif., that trains all other Army units for desert warfare. This is like melting down the lathe to make more metal.

In short, we are stretched thin. If tomorrow brought another crisis requiring U.S. ground forces, it’s not clear where they would come from or how they would get there.

The prospect of compulsory military service raises fundamental questions—and agonizing dilemmas—for a free and democratic society. On the one hand, should the state have the right to compel its citizens to kill and possibly be killed? (This is very different matter from the compulsion to pay taxes or serve on juries, except to extreme libertarians.) On the other hand, should we, as citizens, be allowed to evade this ultimate obligation by turning it over to the poorer members of society—those who can’t find good-paying jobs except in the military?

Rep. Charles Rangel, the political leader of Harlem and the dean of New York’s Democratic congressional delegation, is proposing a revival of the draft, in part to address precisely this issue of social justice—”to make it clear,” as he said last year, “that if there were a war, there would be more equitable representation of people making sacrifices.” Rangel, who fought in the Korean War, added, with a twist of the knife, “Those who love this country have a patriotic obligation to defend this country. For those who say the poor fight better, I say give the rich a chance.”

Rangel had a second motive for bringing back the draft—to reduce the likelihood of military adventures in the first place. “I truly believe,” he said, “that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that’s involved, the sacrifice that’s involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility.”

It has been widely noted that only one U.S. senator has had a son fighting in Iraq. Might more lawmakers have been more hesitant to vote for that war had their sons and daughters been eligible for call-up?

Rangel’s premises have some validity, but not as much as he apparently thinks.

For one thing, today’s all-volunteer American military is not nearly as poor or as black as it once was.

In 2002 (the most recent year for which official data have been compiled), 182,000 people enlisted in the U.S. military. Of these recruits, 16 percent were African-American. By comparison, blacks constituted 14 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. population overall. In other words, black young men and women are only slightly over-represented among new enlistees. Hispanics, for their part, are under-represented, comprising just 11 percent of recruits, compared with 16 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds.

Looking at the military as a whole, not just at those who signed up in a single year, blacks do represent a disproportionate share—22 percent of all U.S. armed forces. By comparison, they make up 13 percent of 18-to-44-year-old civilians. The difference is that blacks re-enlist at a higher rate than whites. (Hispanics remain under-represented: 10 percent of all armed forces, as opposed to 14 percent of 18-to-44-year-old civilians.)

Still, the military’s racial mix is more diverse than it used to be. In 1981, African-Americans made up 33 percent of the armed forces. So, over the past two decades, their share has diminished by one-third. This decline began in the mid-’80s, when the military decided no longer to accept re-enlistments from soldiers who scored low on the aptitude test.

As a result, the scores have risen since the ‘80s. More than that, the aptitude of U.S. military personnel now exceeds that of American civilians.

Scores are divided into five categories. Categories I and II score in the 65th to 99th percentiles. Category IIIs score in the 31st to 64th percentiles, Category IVs in the 10th to 30th percentiles, Category Vs in the bottom 10th percentile. Here’s how the scores break down, for recent recruits and for civilians:

Category I & II
(65th to 99th percentiles)
41 percent36 percent
Category III 
(31st to 64th percentiles)
58 percent34 percent
Category IV 
(10th to 30th percentiles)
1 percent21 percent
Category V 
(bottom 10th percentile)
0 percent9 percent

On balance, by this measure, those who volunteer for the military are smarter than those who don’t.

Other indicators confirm this impression. The average recruit has an 11th-grade reading level; the average civilian can read at a 10th-grade level. Nearly all recruits—97 percent of female, 94 percent of male—graduated from high school; 79 percent of civilians have high-school diplomas. Officers are better-educated still: All are now required to have college degrees.

In short, today’s armed forces are not the downtrodden, ethnically lopsided social rejects that they tended to be after the Vietnam War, when the all-volunteer military came into being.

Bringing back the draft would lasso the social dregs along with the society elite. Would the net effect be a “more equitable representation of people making sacrifices,” as Rangel put it? Maybe, maybe not. Even with a draft, not everyone would serve. About 11 million Americans are 20 to 26 years old. The military doesn’t need 11 million people. A draft would have to involve some sort of lottery. If that’s the way it goes, there should be no exemptions (except for the physically disabled, the mentally incompetent, convicted felons, and perhaps conscientious objectors). Still, unless a military draft was one component of a compulsory national-service program (the subject of another essay), only some would be called. It’s a matter of chance whether the kids from the suburbs would be called more than the kids from the projects.

There is a still more basic question: What is the purpose of a military? Is it to spread the social burden—or to fight and win wars? The U.S. active-duty armed forces are more professional and disciplined than at any time in decades, perhaps ever. This is so because they are composed of people who passed comparatively stringent entrance exams—and, more important, people who want to be there or, if they no longer want to be there, know that they chose to be there in the first place. An Army of draftees would include many bright, capable, dedicated people; but it would also include many dumb, incompetent malcontents, who would wind up getting more of their fellow soldiers killed.

It takes about six months to put a soldier through basic training. It takes a few months more to train one for a specialized skill. The kinds of conflicts American soldiers are likely to face in the coming decades will be the kinds of conflicts they are facing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Bosnia—”security and stabilization operations,” in military parlance. These kinds of operations require more training—and more delicate training—than firing a rifle, driving a tank, or dropping a bomb.

If conscription is revived, draftees are not likely to serve more than two years. Right now, the average volunteer in the U.S. armed forces has served five years. By most measures, an Army of draftees would be less experienced, less cohesive—generally, less effective—than an Army of volunteers. Their task is too vital to tolerate such a sacrifice for the cause of social justice, especially when that cause isn’t so urgent to begin with.

Would lawmakers be less likely to approve and fund wars if their children and the children of their friends might be drafted to fight? The answer is unclear. The one senator whose son fought in Iraq, Sen. Tim Johnson, Dem-S.D., voted for the war resolution and all subsequent funding measures. True, the senator’s son, who was serving in the 101st Airborne Division, did volunteer; Johnson’s vote could be seen as a token of support for his son. Would other senators vote differently? If patriotism or party loyalty did not play a role, might they fear accusations of selfishness or cowardice if they seemed to oppose a war simply to save their children’s hides?

Nonetheless, we do need more troops. How do we get them, if not from a draft? The inescapable answer is that we have to pay more for them, maybe a lot more. Those of us who do not volunteer enjoy more freedom, leisure, and in many cases income, as a result. It is not asking too much to sacrifice some of that extra income for those who risk the ultimate sacrifice.