Conscription Is the Wrong Prescription

As casualties have mounted in Iraq, and frequent call-ups of National Guard and reserve troops have placed unusual strains on the nation’s citizen-soldiers, there has been a push to reinstate military conscription. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) have introduced a bill that would restore the draft. And one of Congress’ most respected military veterans, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), has called for a national debate on the idea.

Does a draft make sense? Though we do need a substantially larger standing military to sustain the Iraq mission for its duration, the draft is not the answer. Returning to the draft would in all likelihood reduce the quality and performance of the armed forces.

Rather than a draft, the Bush administration should expand the active-duty Army and Marine Corps so that we do not have to keep sending the same people back to Iraq (and Afghanistan, South Korea and elsewhere).

Proponents of a draft say it is unfair to ask only those who volunteer to make virtually all the sacrifices required of the country in this time of war. We do indeed owe them a great deal. Undoubtedly, it is tragically unfair when some lose their lives while the rest of us do not even surrender our tax cuts.

But the fact that certain groups—especially rural whites and minorities—serve disproportionately in the military also indicates that the military is offering opportunities to people who need them.

Society asks a great deal of its military personnel, especially in the context of ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it also compensates them better than ever before—with pay, healthcare, educational opportunities, retirement pay and the chance to learn skills within the armed forces that are often highly marketable thereafter. Today’s enlisted military personnel are generally compensated more generously than individuals of similar age and experience and educational background working in the private sector, once health and retirement benefits are factored in.

We should be careful not to break an institution in the process of purportedly fixing it. Today’s U.S. military is probably the most impressive ever—not only in its technology but also in the quality of its personnel, their basic soldiering abilities and their skills in fields such as piloting, computing, equipment maintenance, engineering, linguistics and civil affairs.

With no disrespect intended to those who served in earlier generations, it must be said that today’s U.S. military is far superior to the conscripted forces of the past. Those who doubt this assertion need only review the decisiveness of recent American military victories. Today’s soldier typically has a high school degree and some college education, several years of experience in the military and a sincere commitment to the armed forces that he or she chose to serve in.

Contrast that with the 10-month to two-year tours of duty that are inevitable in most draft systems. After training, there is little time left for actual deployment. The resulting mediocrity of militaries that are still dependent on a draft is apparent in a number of European countries.

It is important to maintain a link between society and the military. But that link is not so tenuous today as some assert, given the important role of the National Guard and the reserve in overseas missions. A major restructuring of the Army is underway. But even after the reconfiguration is completed, the role of the reserves will remain important in any future operation of significant scale and duration.

The often-heard assertion that policymakers have become casualty-insensitive is exaggerated. Only half a decade ago the nation was purported to have the opposite problem: an extreme oversensitivity to casualties that prevented the U.S. from considering decisive military action in places like Afghanistan—action that national security may have required. This helped fuel a perception of U.S. weakness that some say emboldened our adversaries.

Someday, we could have a crisis that would require more serious consideration of the draft. The most likely cause would be an even more severe over-deployment of the all-volunteer force, particularly in the Army and Marine Corps, that led to an exodus of volunteers and a general perception among would-be recruits that service had become far less appealing. Clearly, a sustained period of high casualties in Iraq or elsewhere would reinforce any such problem as well.

At that point, to maintain a viable military, the nation might have no option but to consider the draft. If that happens, it would truly be regrettable because such a conscripted military wouldn’t be nearly as good as the military we have today.

I don’t preclude the possibility of mandatory national service of some kind, with the military being one option from which individuals could choose. But the most demanding military jobs should be reserved for the professionals, as is the case today. And we should get on with the real needed policy change: an increase in the size of the nation’s standing ground forces.