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.