The False Promises of a Draft
Why conscription won't improve the military.
It's a complex business, calculating how many troops a nation needs. No matter how you do the math, though, one thing is clear: The United States doesn't have enough.
Should we, must we, bring back the draft to fill the gaps?
We need to do something. Simply to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan (and we're doing a less-than-adequate job of that), the U.S. Army has mobilized all its available brigades, delayed their rotations back home, and turned the Guard and Reserves' "weekend warriors" into full-time soldiers. Despite all this, the Army still needs to bring in 4,000 troops from the once-untouchable garrison in South Korea. More desperately, it's ordering to Iraq members of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the outfit in Ft. Irwin, Calif., that trains all other Army units for desert warfare. This is like melting down the lathe to make more metal.
In short, we are stretched thin. If tomorrow brought another crisis requiring U.S. ground forces, it's not clear where they would come from or how they would get there.
The prospect of compulsory military service raises fundamental questions—and agonizing dilemmas—for a free and democratic society. On the one hand, should the state have the right to compel its citizens to kill and possibly be killed? (This is very different matter from the compulsion to pay taxes or serve on juries, except to extreme libertarians.) On the other hand, should we, as citizens, be allowed to evade this ultimate obligation by turning it over to the poorer members of society—those who can't find good-paying jobs except in the military?
Rep. Charles Rangel, the political leader of Harlem and the dean of New York's Democratic congressional delegation, is proposing a revival of the draft, in part to address precisely this issue of social justice—"to make it clear," as he said last year, "that if there were a war, there would be more equitable representation of people making sacrifices." Rangel, who fought in the Korean War, added, with a twist of the knife, "Those who love this country have a patriotic obligation to defend this country. For those who say the poor fight better, I say give the rich a chance."
Rangel had a second motive for bringing back the draft—to reduce the likelihood of military adventures in the first place. "I truly believe," he said, "that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that's involved, the sacrifice that's involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility."
It has been widely noted that only one U.S. senator has had a son fighting in Iraq. Might more lawmakers have been more hesitant to vote for that war had their sons and daughters been eligible for call-up?
Rangel's premises have some validity, but not as much as he apparently thinks.
For one thing, today's all-volunteer American military is not nearly as poor or as black as it once was.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration of Uncle Sam on Slate's home page by James Montgomery Flagg © Swim Ink/Corbis.