There is a growing movement for a new form of national military service. Some proponents see the draft as a sort of panacea for what is perceived to be a growing gap between military and civilian cultures. It is a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that is poorly understood. Few proponents address the practical problems that ended the draft 30 years ago and likely would resurface if conscription were reinstituted. The cost to the national economy would be significant, and the military services would not be able to absorb anywhere near the number of new inductees who would become available.
The calls for renewed universal service are from many parts of the political spectrum; there is a surprising consensus between some conservative and liberal proponents. Both sides believe a draft would shift the military's psyche toward their own set of beliefs—but both sides cannot be correct. One unintended result might be that internal divisions introduced by such a radical change could threaten the most cohesive military system in the world.
At the heart of the objections to the draft as it existed three decades ago was the inequity in who was inducted and who was exempted. Myriad deferment types, such as those for graduate school, reserve service, special occupations, and even holding public office, would have to be eliminated for any modem draft to be fair by current standards. Add to that the likely scenario that both men and women would participate, and the annual inductees would be far too numerous for the Department of Defense to absorb.
Consider that in the late 1960s there were fewer than two million men turning 18 each year. Even at the height of the personnel-intensive Vietnam War no more than 600,000 enlistees were inducted annually, despite an overall active-duty force exceeding 3.5 million.
Compare that to today, when there are four million 18 year olds, male and female, and the military totals fewer than 1.5 million personnel. A comprehensive national service program could offer many of those potential inductees nonmilitary options, but it seems inconceivable the services could use even a small fraction of that number. The military is in the midst of becoming lighter, faster, and more efficient, and it is unclear how bloated personnel levels will help achieve these goals. The ironic resuit would be that a new draft would have to be far less universal and far more selective than it was 30 years ago. The goal of making military service a common bond for better citizenship would not be achieved.
There also are economic costs to such a massive program of public service. Taking millions of potential workers out of the workforce or delaying their educations will have an adverse impact on the national economy. In the early 1970s the most conservative and liberal economists, including Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, were outspoken against the draft, even with its lottery and low overall inductee rate. Their concerns would be even more applicable today.
Most versions of a national service plan are feasible financially only because it is assumed the pay offered to the mass of inductees would be substantially lower than what is paid to the current lowest enlisted ranks. We find the existence of enlisted military families on welfare abhorrent, but most proposed conscription plans would make this condition worse.
Even with a draft, there still would have to be career or long-term enlistments. For the Navy in particular it seems likely the majority of personnel needed would need to stay for longer than the minimum required of draftees—the length of most Navy training pipelines would require this. If the military was split into career and drafted personnel pools, with disparities in pay levels and other benefits, there would be dangerous internal divisions and strife introduced into the system.
The all-volunteer force has made the U.S. military the most dominant on the planet. Why put that at risk? If military and civilian cultures are more different than in the past—and if that indeed is a problem—then it needs to be addressed. Reinstituting a conscription system is not a part of the solution.
Chief Briem is a selected reservist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is an economist at the Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh. He drills with the Military Sealift Command, Northern Persian Gulf, Detachment 105.