In war as in life, what doesn't happen is often as significant as what does. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their setbacks, victories, and casualties, have many things in common with past American wars. But there is one big thing missing this time: the draft.
Hendrik Hertzberg noted recently in The New Yorker magazine that "for the first time in a century, America is fighting a long war—indeed, two long wars, each longer than our participation in both World Wars put together—without conscription."
A few decades ago, the draft was a requirement for any major military undertaking. No one would have dreamed of fighting the Germans and Japanese, or the North Koreans and Chinese, without calling up young men for mandatory service. Not until the waning years of the Vietnam War did the nation elect to rely entirely on volunteers.
It was a controversial step, and one whose durability was very much in doubt. But in the intervening decades, the draft has gone from being indispensable to being unthinkable. Even the extraordinary demands of two difficult wars have not induced a reconsideration.
That change represents a sort of throwback to the early days of the republic. When President James Madison proposed conscription for the War of 1812, New Hampshire's Daniel Webster rose on the House floor in eloquent opposition.
"Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war in which the folly or wickedness of government may engage it?" he demanded. That was the end of that idea, until the Civil War.
It's true that legislation to restore the draft has been introduced repeatedly by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), but without the slightest expectation that Congress would take him up on it. There is simply no sentiment in either party in favor of the idea.
It's not just that no one wants to bring back the bitter divisions and organized resistance the draft produced in the 1960s. It's also that we have established the clear superiority of a military composed of men and women who choose to serve.
David Henderson, an economist who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., says he sometimes asks his students, all officers, how many favor a return to conscription. "It's been zero for the last 15 years," he says. The common view is, "Why would I want people under me who don't want to be there?"
No one would imagine you could run a private business with employees who are forced to take jobs there against their will. Imagine the difficulty of motivating them. Yet we used to run the Army that way.
Back then, it was accepted wisdom that the draft was a more economical way of fighting a war, since soldiers didn't have to be paid much. But that belief was grossly mistaken.
The first reason is that the draft doesn't reduce the cost of carrying on a war. It merely shifts it from taxpayers at large to able-bodied males, a saving for the federal budget but an enormous burden on conscripts. That's why the journalist Nicholas von Hoffman once urged, "Draft old men's money, not young men's bodies."
Another is that it's a colossal waste to cycle large numbers of people, many of them poorly suited to military service, through the ranks for a couple of years just so they can bail out at the first opportunity. The all-volunteer force provides a far bigger return on training dollars, while enlisting men and women who want to do what soldiers do—including combat.
There is no doubt that the current wars have put exceptional burdens on the active duty force as well as reservists—burdens far greater than they expected when they signed up. But future soldiers will have no illusions about what to expect, and they will adjust their choices to fit the new reality.
Thanks to the abolition of the draft, if Americans want to keep making such heavy demands on the military, they will have to pay generously enough to get people to enlist and re-enlist.
It was once a novel experiment: fielding a force to protect freedom without grossly violating freedom by dragooning young men to serve. But it's worked so well we've almost forgotten there's an alternative.
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