Future Tense

We Need to Bring Back the Draft

Technology demands it.

New technology means civilians understand the military less, even as conflicts have become less lethal.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

One of the most significant contributions to a reduction of domestic social tension in the United States as the Vietnam conflict wore down was the ending of the draft in 1973. (The Selective Service system, which is the administrative backbone of the draft, remains active.) Ever since, a low-level debate over the desirability of a draft has bubbled on, with the consensus being that this is a controversial topic, and since things are generally quiet right now, there’s no need to create yet another potentially ugly political debate.

But this is a dangerous complacency in a society where class cleavage and political divisiveness is going stronger, where fewer and fewer institutions provide opportunities that cut across self-selected communities of interest and ideology, and where the divide between civilian and military cultures is already dangerous and growing wider. Moreover, several trends mediated by accelerating technological evolution—especially in core domains such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology, and applied cognitive science—challenge that comfortable status quo. It’s time to bring back the draft.

There should be no illusions about the difficulties involved. Universal conscription goes against the individualist tendencies of American society, not to mention the  historical trend of significant reductions in U.S. armed forces after periods of conflict. Moreover, the logistical challenge of managing large numbers of draftees can’t be underestimated. Draftees in a country such as the United States are opinionated, stubborn, cantankerous, questioning, and difficult to lead (as I know well: I was an Army officer during the Vietnam War period). Nonetheless, at least two trends, taken together, constitute a powerful challenge to the draftless status quo.

The first is the increasing distance between the military and civilian sectors. When a professional military becomes ever more distant from a civilian government—in competence, values, and knowledge of military and insurgency realities—the result is long-term instability in society. Civilian leaders who have never served lack the institutional feel, and knowledge, that can help prevent disastrous adventures such as the Iraq War. Civilians who have not had to cope with technology in combat situations also seem prone to overestimate the power and conclusiveness of purely technological solutions: They make the profound mistake of confusing situations in which technology can provide solutions with those in which technology at best offers victory in battle, but leads to hubris and failure in the subsequent political phase. With the Iraq War, for example, civilians tended to be enamored of the power of American “shock and awe” technology, but seriously underestimated the complexity and challenge of the subsequent phases of successful engagement. A draft can help void increasingly oversimplistic policy, optimistic and naïve technological determinism, and a dangerous cultural chasm between experienced military personnel, and a civilian population with no military experience that wavers between benign neglect (or malign disparagement, during the Vietnam era) and adulation of the military.

But there is another increasingly important technological dimension to this dialog. We are entering a historical era in which technology, and its social and cultural implications, will be far more challenging than we are yet ready to admit. Public debate about the foreign and domestic deployment of drones is increasingly shrill and superficial. Lethal autonomous robot technology is developing rapidly, and indeed has already been deployed by, among others, South Korea and the United States. Cyber warfare might well be undermining the laws of war, which have long been a factor in rendering conflict less lethal, especially to civilians. Perhaps most challenging, we are in the early stages of engineered warfighters, in which genetic engineering, applied cognitive science, enhanced brain-computer interfaces, and other technologies come together to create designer superwarriors, with far better survivability, lethality, and techno-human networked cognitive capability than anything history has known.

The implications of these technologies are numerous and profound. Civilians increasingly lag in their understanding of military and security technologies, especially in terms of actual experience. Furthermore, the barriers for our society to go to war, already low because with a volunteer military most people know they will not be exposed to the risks of conflict, will virtually disappear as robotic systems, remote operation of weapon platforms, superwarriors, and other technologies mean that conflicts can be conducted with less and less risk to American lives. In the first case, then, technology is in dangerous ways exacerbating the gap between a professional military and an increasingly naïve society. In the second case, it is changing a fundamental social calculus—when to shift from diplomacy to war—in unprecedented ways.

The most popular response to date appears to be demanding that research and deployment of technologies such as “killer robots” cease. This is fantasy, given the trends favoring deployment. First, such technologies have the potential to save lives—and not just the lives of soldiers, but of civilians as well. Secondly, they enable military effectiveness in combat environments that are ever more complex, and that change so rapidly that only machines can keep track of what’s going on. Thirdly, they are an important means by which the military can adjust to a culture that is increasingly allergic to any military casualties at all. Additionally, the armed forces are well aware that likely demographic shifts will in future significantly reduce the pool of available soldiers, which would necessitate technology taking over for people.

This brings us back to the question of the draft. Going to war should always be a last resort for a civilized society. Iraq is a cautionary tale, but it pales next to the reduced disincentives for conflict that technological evolution may well soon create. If technology makes war more socially acceptable, we obviously need other ways of making war less desirable. A properly designed draft that exposes all individuals of a certain age to the potential of becoming involved in the military during a conflict has that effect, even when technologies may be removing many soldiers from direct conflict.

Simply put, emerging military and security technologies, combined with the political and cultural effects of an all-volunteer force, is making war too easy, and the draft is one of the few ways to mitigate that undesirable trend. Bringing back the draft may sound extreme at first blush—especially on Veterans’ Day—but in reality, it’s one of the few rational, ethical, and responsible steps that can and should be taken to help balance the always awful calculus of war. And that’s a great way to celebrate Veterans’ Day.

This article is part of Future Tense, which is a partnership of Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Follow Future Tense on Twitter.