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Conscription: Not Now; Not Ever, Part 1

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ON SEPTEMBER 11, it had been almost 60 years since the U.S. homeland had come under attack. As they did after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans turned to the military for their defense. But now, in contrast to the past, they are finding security in a volunteer military.

When the terrorists struck on September 11, they attacked the nation that has the most powerful and effective military on earth — a nation whose weapons are the most advanced and whose troops are among the brightest and best-trained. The result is catastrophe for any opposing force, as the Taliban and al-Qaeda quickly learned.

Yet even as the military was gearing up to fight, some analysts called for conscription. For instance, the day after the World Trade Center attack, Stanley Kurtz of the Hudson Institute wrote, “Maybe now, in the wake of this terrible act of war, we can break our great taboo and at least consider a revival of the draft.” He complained that “military recruitment is in a state of crisis for some time now.” And that was before September 11, “without taking into account the increased demands on our armed forces that the war on terrorism will surely impose.”

This is an extraordinary argument. Ironically, foreign nations are now following the United States in abandoning the draft. France has dropped conscription, and Russia is professionalizing its military. No major power is moving in the other direction. The countries most dependent on conscription tend not to be ones whose example we should wish to follow — the Taliban in Afghanistan, for instance, and Hutu rebels in Burundi.

Today, the U.S. military possesses an extraordinary ability to use high-tech weapons to maximize destruction of opposing forces and minimize American casualties. Observes William Owens, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “What sets the United States apart from its adversaries is that we use information much better than they do. Properly used, that can be an unbridgeable gap.”

Moreover, America fields a professional force of extraordinary quality. Soldiers today are far brighter and better educated than the draft-era force. They are therefore much more capable of handling high-tech weapons. This will become even more true in the future.

The military opposes conscription, not just because it tends to resist change, as some charge, but because today’s military forces are the best ever. Observes Gordon Sullivan, former Army Chief of Staff and current president of the Association of the United States Army, “Military commanders prefer high-quality volunteers to mixed-quality draftees.”

All of the services made their recruiting goals in FY2001. More than 90 percent of Army and Navy accessions had high-school degrees; 96 percent of Marine and 99 percent of Air Force recruits had diplomas. Roughly two-thirds of those joining the first three services scored in mental categories I-IIIA (out of five); three-fourths of Air Force recruits fell into that category. Recruiting was tougher in 1998 and 1999, though there was never a crisis: DOD fell short by 6,000 and 8,000 recruits in those years, respectively. Even then, the military’s problem was inadequate quality recruits, not too few recruits.

The All Volunteer Force (AVF) is choosier than a draft military, rejecting many bodies; the percentage of “high-quality” enlistees, that is, those with high-school degrees and scoring above average on the AFQT test, has jumped 50 percent since the advent of a volunteer military in 1973.

With few exceptions, the armed services today do not accept those scoring in category IV and V on the military aptitude test or those who lack a high-school degree. The military could solve any recruiting problems by simply lowering standards to that of a conscript military.

Volunteers and service

The volunteer force is superior in another way: the armed services are filled with people who want to be in them. Even Kurtz acknowledges that discipline problems would inevitably increase with conscription. And this problem would permeate the force: draftees have little incentive to train, accept greater responsibility, or reenlist; yet the military must retain them, almost no matter how ill-suited they are to military service.

This explains the fact that the volunteer military has higher attrition rates. The services get to choose who remains; with conscription, they can ill afford to kick out even the worst malcontent, since doing so would be seen as a reward for anyone seeking an out.

Ask yourself: Is a military healthier if it relies on those who desire to be in it and succeed, or if it is forced to include those who desire to escape at any price?

Since a draft would lower the quality of enlisted manpower while diverting attention from creating the specialized, professional forces needed in the future, what other reason is there to conscript? Englishman John Derbyshire suggests a draft to meet specific needs, such as Pashto- or Chinese-speakers. This proposal builds on more traditional plans for a medical draft, to ensure the availability of doctors and other health-care personnel in a crisis.

A medical draft has long been defended as being needed only in the midst of a serious war. A specific-needs draft, in contrast, could be implemented at any time; in theory, there might be a draft of just a few hundred people, if they were unlucky enough to possess a particular skill demanded by the military.

Yet to do so, to conscript only Afghan immigrants, for instance, would correctly be seen as grossly unfair. It would also create perverse incentives — encouraging anyone with unique abilities that might suddenly come into demand to hide those skills (e.g., to deny that one speaks Pashto, make a hash of interpretation duties, or refuse to speak it at all) or undertake an extended sabbatical abroad or even emigrate. (Pakistan might begin to look good to someone who otherwise faced induction into a Ranger unit to be dropped behind Taliban lines.)

Conscription also offers an unnecessarily complex solution to a relatively simple problem. A draft is unable to provide a long-term supply of any skill: absent lifetime conscription, most draftees will leave when their tour ends. Nor can a draft quickly fill an unexpected need; even if the Pentagon had decided on September 12 that it wanted Pashto-speakers, it would have taken months to induct and train them. Better to rely either on civilian contractors or military reservists to find people with skills that will only unexpectedly and temporarily be in demand.

Charles Moskos, of Northwestern University, and Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, recognize that a high-tech military requires professionals. But they suggest a draft to acquire raw numbers for other purposes — peacekeeping duty, for instance. “This would free up professional soldiers to do the fighting without sacrificing other U.S. commitments.”

Fear of maintaining expansive commitments also motivates Kurtz. Imagine, he writes, a United States busy garrisoning Afghanistan and preparing to invade Iraq, then having to deal with the collapse of Pakistan’s government, followed by a North Korean invasion of South Korea. This “would stretch our forces past the breaking point, and almost surely force the president to ask the Democrats to join him in imposing a draft.”

More sensible, however, would be to ask, Under what circumstances should the U.S. government commit U.S. forces to action? More particularly, which actions are worth meeting through conscription? For instance, why should U.S. forces be policing the Balkans? The area is important to Europe, which has more than one million men under arms, not America.

The artificial settlements imposed in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia reflect the opinions of international elites rather than local residents, and thus warrant no loss of American life. There is certainly no reason to conscript young Americans to force three hostile communities to live together in Bosnia or to ensure that Kosovo remains an autonomous part of Serbia, a position that satisfies none of the combatants. Americans’ lives and freedom should not be sacrificed so frivolously.

As for Kurtz’s slightly lurid scenario of the United States going to war with most of the known Muslim world, Washington maintains a substantial reserve force precisely to handle unexpected contingencies. During the Cold War, no one suggested maintaining, day in and day out, an active force sufficient to manage the unlikely contingency of a full-scale NATO–Warsaw Pact conflagration. Instead, in the event of war Washington would have called up the reserves while expanding its active forces.

Anyway, the U.S. government could easily expand its available military resources by ceasing to defend its prosperous and populous industrialized allies. The United States currently maintains 100,000 troops in both of Europe and East Asia.

The Western Europeans face no serious security threat and are able to deal with disruptive civil wars in the Balkans. Japan is capable of doing much more to defend itself, while South Korea can counter the sole serious regional military threat posed by North Korea. At a time when Seoul possesses upwards of 40 times the GDP, twice the population, and a vast technological edge over its northern antagonist, Americans should stop talking about what they would do in the unlikely event of an invasion and let South Koreans talk about what they would do. Unnecessarily subsidizing wealthy client states is ridiculous enough; drafting young Americans so that allies don’t have to burden their own citizens is senseless.

Indeed, there is no justification for having such a big military even without conscription. The service may be voluntary, but the taxes exacted to pay for it are not. Today most U.S. forces are devoted to subsidizing populous and prosperous allies and engaging in international social engineering. In fact, these activities have little to do with defending America. To the contrary, such a foreign policy is positively dangerous, risking involvement in wars unrelated to American security and generating hatreds that spawn terrorism.

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)