The False Promises of a Draft
Why conscription won't improve the military.
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.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration of Uncle Sam on Slate's home page by James Montgomery Flagg © Swim Ink/Corbis.