War Stories

Draft Numbers

If we want to take on the world’s problems, we may need the draft. Still want to?

A military recruiting station in Times Square

Until last week, we hadn’t heard much from Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, President Bush’s “war czar,” and I suspect that, after his recent remarks on National Public Radio, we won’t be hearing from him again anytime soon.

On Aug. 10, Lute told NPR that reactivating the military draft has “always been an option on the table” and that it “makes sense to certainly consider it.”

The notion of bringing back conscription has no real political support in this country—and not much support from the ranks of military officers either. (In a less-quoted part of the NPR interview, even Lute said that “we have not yet reached” the point where a draft needs to be seriously discussed.)

And yet the question is tacitly raised or evaded every time the issue of troop shortages in Iraq comes up. Adm. Michael Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at his confirmation hearings this month that the surge in Iraq could not be sustained beyond next April without a change in the Army’s “force structure”—that is, without more troops or a change in the way they’re deployed or organized.

Two weeks ago, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, was asked, during a Q&A session at the Captains’ Career Course at Fort Knox, Ky., whether the U.S. armed forces could deal with another conventional military threat, should one suddenly arise. Gen. Cody said, “No, not a big one.”

Most serious military analysts, regardless of their views on the Iraq war, think the Army needs more troops. But from where? An alluring array of incentives and bonuses has kept recruitment drives afloat but hardly soaring.

The draft ended in 1973, just before the Vietnam War did. But its demise was foretold four years earlier, on March 27, 1969, when Richard Nixon—just two months into his presidency—announced the creation of a “commission on an all-volunteer armed force.”

It was well understood that the purpose of the commission was to sanctify the abolition of the draft. The panel was chaired by Thomas Gates, a former secretary of defense in the Eisenhower administration. But more to the point, it was set up by Martin Anderson, Nixon’s campaign chairman and a free-market economist who opposed conscription on philosophical grounds. And among the commissioners that Anderson appointed were two of the nation’s most renowned libertarian economists, who shared Anderson’s view on the matter: Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan.

The report, released on Feb. 20, 1970, concluded—no surprise—that the nation would be secure enough without a draft.

However, even these panelists noted that conscription might be necessary under some circumstances. For that reason, they urged that mandatory registration be continued for all draft-age males. (The recommendation was adopted and remains in effect.) This “standby draft,” as they called it, might be activated in case of “an emergency requiring a major increase in force over an extended period.”

In the event of war, the report noted, the nation would deploy volunteer forces. In the first stage of expansion, it would call on the National Guard and Reserves. But if the war were to go on for a while, the “standby draft” might have to be mobilized, in order “to provide manpower resources for the second stage of expansion in effective forces.”

Judging from the recent statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army’s vice chief of staff, we seem to be approaching that stage in Iraq today.

The 1970 commission report assumed that the all-volunteer armed forces would attract 2 million to 3 million troops, with 40 percent of them—or 800,000 to 1.2 million of them—in the Army.

The real-life, present-day all-volunteer force consists of 1.4 million troops, 35 percent of them—or 489,000—in the Army.

Of course, in 1970, the Cold War was still on; NATO and Warsaw Pact troops faced each other along the East-West German border. Maybe a million soldiers are no longer necessary. Then again, in 2003, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, told Congress that “several hundred thousand” troops would be needed to stabilize postwar Iraq.

In any case, regardless of scenarios, the all-volunteer forces and especially the all-volunteer Army are much smaller than the commissioners assumed they would be.

Size, of course, is not everything. In the past few years, I have asked many officers, of varying ranks, whether they would like to see the revival of a draft. Almost all of them have said they would not. Two captains that I asked recently gave succinct renditions of the most typical replies: “I’d rather be fighting with soldiers who want to be there,” and “With a draft, there’d be too much riff-raff.”

The latter response might surprise those, like Michael Moore and Rep. Charles Rangel, who claim the all-volunteer force draws mainly on poor, uneducated minorities. The stereotype was true in the first decade or so of the all-volunteer force, in the wake of Vietnam. But, according to official data, members of the armed forces today are better-educated than civilians in their age group; they score higher on aptitude tests; African-Americans are only slightly overrepresented in the enlisted ranks, and Hispanics are underrepresented. (For some details, click here.)

Still, if political leaders want to send the troops to solve a vast range of the world’s problems—if they want a military that’s far-flung, deployed on many fronts, and fighting in multiple theaters—then, at some point, numbers do matter. Or, rather, numbers and missions matter. If we want to maintain all these military missions, then the numbers have to go up. If we don’t want to do everything necessary to push the numbers up, then the missions have to be cut back.

So, should we continue to send troops overseas to fight wars, keep peace, settle conflicts, impose order, and build nations? How do we get the extra troops—pay them a lot more (and where do we get that money?), mobilize all the reserves, reactivate the draft?

Or should we handle international affairs in a different way, relying much more on military alliances and diplomacy—not because (or not just because) that’s often regarded as preferable to unilateral military force, but simply because there is no practical alternative?

The authors of the 1970 commission report emphasized that if the standby draft is ever activated, it should not be ordered into effect by the president; rather, it should be authorized by Congress. Before such a momentous step is taken, the panelists wrote, there must first be a “public discussion.”

It’s getting very near time for that public discussion now.