If we want to take on the world's problems, we may need the draft. Still want to?
Until last week, we hadn't heard much from Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, President Bush's "war czar," and I suspect that, after his recent remarks on National Public Radio, we won't be hearing from him again anytime soon.
On Aug. 10, Lute told NPR that reactivating the military draft has "always been an option on the table" and that it "makes sense to certainly consider it."
The notion of bringing back conscription has no real political support in this country—and not much support from the ranks of military officers either. (In a less-quoted part of the NPR interview, even Lute said that "we have not yet reached" the point where a draft needs to be seriously discussed.)
And yet the question is tacitly raised or evaded every time the issue of troop shortages in Iraq comes up. Adm. Michael Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at his confirmation hearings this month that the surge in Iraq could not be sustained beyond next April without a change in the Army's "force structure"—that is, without more troops or a change in the way they're deployed or organized.
Two weeks ago, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, was asked, during a Q&A session at the Captains' Career Course at Fort Knox, Ky., whether the U.S. armed forces could deal with another conventional military threat, should one suddenly arise. Gen. Cody said, "No, not a big one."
Most serious military analysts, regardless of their views on the Iraq war, think the Army needs more troops. But from where? An alluring array of incentives and bonuses has kept recruitment drives afloat but hardly soaring.
The draft ended in 1973, just before the Vietnam War did. But its demise was foretold four years earlier, on March 27, 1969, when Richard Nixon—just two months into his presidency—announced the creation of a "commission on an all-volunteer armed force."
It was well understood that the purpose of the commission was to sanctify the abolition of the draft. The panel was chaired by Thomas Gates, a former secretary of defense in the Eisenhower administration. But more to the point, it was set up by Martin Anderson, Nixon's campaign chairman and a free-market economist who opposed conscription on philosophical grounds. And among the commissioners that Anderson appointed were two of the nation's most renowned libertarian economists, who shared Anderson's view on the matter: Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan.
The report, released on Feb. 20, 1970, concluded—no surprise—that the nation would be secure enough without a draft.
However, even these panelists noted that conscription might be necessary under some circumstances. For that reason, they urged that mandatory registration be continued for all draft-age males. (The recommendation was adopted and remains in effect.) This "standby draft," as they called it, might be activated in case of "an emergency requiring a major increase in force over an extended period."
In the event of war, the report noted, the nation would deploy volunteer forces. In the first stage of expansion, it would call on the National Guard and Reserves. But if the war were to go on for a while, the "standby draft" might have to be mobilized, in order "to provide manpower resources for the second stage of expansion in effective forces."
Judging from the recent statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army's vice chief of staff, we seem to be approaching that stage in Iraq today.
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.
Photograph of military recruiting station and photograph on Slate's home page of a U.S. soldier in Iraq by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.