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Why We Should Consider Bringing Back the Draft

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"But men living in times of democracy seldom choose a soldier's life. Democratic peoples are therefore soon led to give up voluntary recruitment and fall back on conscription. The nature of their way of life forces them to do this, and it is safe to predict that that is what they will all do." Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America

On the brink of a major conflict with Iraq, after years of failing to attract sufficient numbers of new recruits through much of 1990's, the Pentagon announced that the armed services have met their recruitment goals early for 2002. This is welcome news but unfortunately even doubling those numbers ( 201,925 recruits) would still fall short of the actual wartime national security requirements of the United States. Because Congress is far more willing to vote for new dollars than for new divisions, Pentagon planners leveraged America's formidable technological arsenal into a reliable and lethal substitute for manpower. That policy may be reaching the point of diminishing returns as we are faced with a complex, global war. Is retaining the politically sacred "All-Volunteer Army" the best way to fight the War on Terror ?

The Bush administration is juggling several imminent strategic threats that place high demands on finite military assets. Perilously, each threat must be met using a military downsized by 600,000 personnel for the post-Cold War "End of History." Secretary Rumsfeld was technically correct in his recent statement about the capacity of the United States to decisively destroy Saddam while defeating a dangerously imploding North Korea. (Rumsfeld's declaration may be contingent upon the use of American nuclear weapons). U.S. conventional forces, however, are not optimally situated to handle two such wars, the War on Terrorism and the possibility of a catastrophic attack on the American homeland. This is not an impossible task with current American forces but it entails a " horrific operational risk " in the Pentagon's own words. (1)

Anti-war critics of the Bush administration have used the existence of these multiple, grave threats to American security to advocate doing little or nothing about any of them, essentially arguing for a policy of strategic paralysis. This is not a viable option. Delaying action indefinitely only assures that the WMD threat will increase and multiply. Where critics like Congressman Charles Rangel may have a valid point is in their contention that existing force levels are stretched dangerously thin in confronting Iraq, North Korea and Islamist terror.

One of Richard Nixon's far reaching governmental reforms was following the advice of his All-Volunteer Armed Force Commission led by Thomas Gates to create a thoroughly professional American military. While Nixon's focus may have been narrowly political, the long-term result was the creation of the elite, highly technocratic, "point of the sword" American military that recently demolished the Taliban. The United States, thanks to its superbly trained personnel and ongoing R&D, possesses a military force that is across the board, approximately two generations ahead of rival powers still relying upon 1980's era Soviet-designed equipment.

In spirit, Nixon's All-Volunteer Armed Force marked a return to the martial philosophy of the 18th century when armies were composed of long-serving, exquisitely trained, professional soldiers who had more of what De Tocqueville called an "aristocratic" character. Armies schooled in military professionalism result in smaller armed forces than that of the "democratic," industrial mass-production militaries born in the French Revolution that increasingly dominated warfare until defeat in the rice paddies of Vietnam.

Political rulers whose armies are built on a basis of "class" instead of "mass" face the prospectively high cost of replacing laboriously trained, career soldiers and are far more reluctant to risk large casualties. Stalin, Clemenceau or Lincoln could lose divisions; George W. Bush cannot politically sustain such losses even in the pursuit of vital national objectives. Unfortunately, when the small professional military faces too many opponents at once over too great a theater a supreme commander faces an unpalatable choice of ignoring some threats or risking failure by dividing his forces.

Conscription has an uncomfortable place in American history. Introduced during the Civil War by President Lincoln, the draft with its allowance of the purchase of $ 300 substitutes provoked the bloodiest riot in the nation's history, leaving at a minimum, 105 dead in New York City and Democratic newspapers editorializing about a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight." More than one-fifth of all Union draftees never reported for service. (2) In neither the Civil War nor Vietnam a century later, did the privileged classes shoulder a rifle and military pack in proportion to their numbers. As De Tocqueville had predicted, such inequality in conscription in both cases provoked outrage and defiance. Only in World War II and the subsequent Korean War, was a basically egalitarian draft accepted without demur by the American public.

Due to a decline in readiness and standing forces, the Pentagon must draw heavily upon the Reserves and Guard forces to mount even a moderately sized war-fighting campaign. Afghanistan required 83,000 Reserve and Guard personnel and currently the combined Army Reserve and National Guard forces outnumber the active duty Army 550,000 to 480,000. Having reached 47 percent of the Pentagon's total forces the part-time soldier is now integral to the wartime performance of America's 10 Army divisions, 12 aircraft carriers and 38 Air Force squadrons. The pressing shortage of even reserve troops has been masked by President Bush's recent, quietly signed, executive order extending the old 365-day limit on National Guard deployments to a two-year hitch. This was, at best, a stopgap measure.

Despite this, a World War II style conscription of millions of young men as envisioned by Congressman Rangel will not help the current situation any more than the U.S. Navy would be improved by adding sailing ships of the line. The "Point of the Sword " should remain the elite volunteers -- the highly motivated Special Operations professionals and shock troops like the Marines and Army Rangers. A draft may be most useful in filling out our reserves to a more realistic figure of 750,000 to 1 million, thus reducing burnout and loss of experienced personnel in our active duty forces. Pentagon planners should throw out old notions about the selective service system and explore potentially radical changes in the draft to meet the realities of a 21st century war on terrorism such as:

A Wider Age Range DOD officials should take into account generational equity; better health of middle-age adults and the military requirements in some instances for special skills not possessed by the average twenty something. A more realistic and frankly " fair" age range to consider would be 18 to 35 or even 18 to 45 years. Who are the new CIA paramilitary soldiers of the Special Activities Staff who played an irreplaceable role in Afghanistan ? Former Special Operations veterans well outside the traditional draft age.

Drafting Women Though no study persuasively (to my mind) identifies any military advantage in placing women into combat units, the draft should primarily employ support units to free up professional soldiers for combat. With the need for communication technicians, M.P.'s, lawyers, medical personnel, computer programmers and even humble stateside cooks, there is really no reason the Pentagon cannot fill such positions far from the battlefield equally well with qualified women.

Foreign Recruitment In addition to conscription, raising " Foreign legion " units composed of volunteers from Allied nations, particularly veterans from NATO countries should be considered. The lure of American citizenship might allow the Pentagon to quickly and cheaply assemble several relatively high quality combat brigades.

It is possible that the Bush administration will be able to handle a war with Iraq while hunting down al-Qaida and containing North Korea's belligerent, nuclear-armed despot with the military forces available. The speed with which America can strike and win in Iraq is, for technological reasons, likely to be even more impressive than during the first Gulf War. However needless risk is being entertained by operating major military campaigns so close to the limit of available personnel when the risk can be diminished by enlarging the available reserves. A draft is not the only way to raise armies but it is the fastest way and an option not to be dismissed simply for reasons of mere politics.

(1) Defense Report: U.S. military at 'operational risk,' " Daily Press, September 29, 2001.

(2)McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 601.