Easy Chair — From the March 2014 issue

Dodge the Draft!

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Ever since the last draft was ended, in 1973, a small but devoted chorus of pundits, legislators, and retired military men have been stumping for its return. These are not wild-eyed boosters of the New American Century, itching to occupy every square inch of the Middle East and beyond. No, we’re talking about moderates like the Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who recently argued that mandatory service could help fix the dysfunctional U.S. Congress. Or the journalist Thomas E. Ricks, who said the all-volunteer force (AVF) “has made it all too easy for our nation to go to war.” Or Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, who last year brought the Universal National Service Act to the House floor for the fifth time in a decade.

None of these men is arguing that a draft would improve the quality of the fighting force, and their proposals haven’t been endorsed by the military. The appeal, ultimately, isn’t to battlefield necessity but to a kind of social engineering. Conscription, in their view, would rebuild our spindly national character, whose muscle tone has melted away since the end of the Vietnam War. It would bridge the economic, regional, and racial gaps in a sorely divided nation. It would restore a sense of sacrifice and meanwhile stock the U.S. Congress with the sort of sagacious veterans who would never, ever shut down the entire government in a fit of pique.1

1 It is true that Congress now has the lowest proportion of veterans since the Second World War: only 19 percent have served, compared with a high of 77 percent in 1977. But that year, just as the fraction of vets hit its peak, Congress still shut down the government — not once, but three times.

The pro-draft pundits have also seized on an appealing paradox: conscription as an antiwar measure. The idea is that veterans in the legislative branch will not only run the country with greater discipline but also be sufficiently sobered by their experience to avoid military adventurism in the first place. Add to that the prospect of their children — and everybody else’s — swelling the ranks for our next ground campaign, and you have the democratic equivalent of a mass hostage situation. Barring a Martian invasion or a crack Chinese expeditionary force wading ashore at La Jolla, we might never go to war again.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a historian (and contributor to this magazine) who served in both Vietnam and the Persian Gulf before retiring from the Army as a colonel, in 1992, calls this the “skin-in-the-game argument.” The profound disconnect between the armed forces and the civilian establishment “allows the military to be abused, or used recklessly,” he told me. “If you and I had our sons or daughters serving and likely to be sent into harm’s way, we would exercise greater caution. And we’d be writing letters to our congressmen saying, ‘You damn well think twice before sending my boy to fight in the Syrian civil war.’ There’s something to that argument.” Indeed, there is something to all of them — which doesn’t change the fact that few Americans would greet a renewed draft with open arms. On the contrary: press-ganging the nation’s youth into the armed forces has frequently met with resistance, and sometimes with the sort of explosive unrest that makes the urban uprisings of the Sixties look like pep rallies.

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