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Ivan Eland: The Ill-Wind Of The Draft

The Ill-Wind of the Draft

By Ivan Eland*
April 27, 2004

Even some liberal voices—for example, Senator Joe Biden and The New York Times—are calling for augmenting the 135,000 U.S. forces and 20,000 mercenaries in Iraq with more U.S. troops. Tying down even more of the nation’s forces in the Iraqi quagmire will only increase pressure to reinstate the draft. Other liberals, such as Congressman Charles Rangel, however, are directly advocating a return to conscription. Bringing back the draft is terrible policy and is completely unnecessary, even if one accepts the dubious notion that keeping large numbers of U.S. forces bogged down in Iraq is a good idea.

On all levels—from the highest philosophical plane moving through mid-range practical considerations to more base political motivations—reinstating the draft is a bad idea. President Bush insists that U.S. forces being killed in a faraway brushfire war of choice in Iraq are dying for our freedom—a dubious proposition since it is questionable if they are even fighting for Iraqis’ freedom. But for the sake of argument, let’s say he is right. Should the rest of us sitting at home in our armchair recliners compel young men—and now possibly young women—to give up their freedom to potentially die for ours? Enslaving people to fight for the freedom of others would have been abhorrent to the founders of one of the freest nations in world history.

More practically, the U.S. armed forces do not want a return to conscription. The military has deduced that soldiers who volunteer for military service are more motivated to become better soldiers than are unwilling draftees. Very few military analysts would argue that the Vietnam-era conscript military was better than the all-volunteer armed forces of today—by far, the best in the world. Only imperial overstretch to the breaking point induced by the politicians could compel the generals to consider reinstating the draft. The U.S. military is huge (2.3 million active and reserve forces) but is spread all over the world to fulfill outdated security commitments. For example, even after the Cold War ended, the United States retains 100,00 troops in East Asia and 100,000 troops in Europe. In East Asia, U.S. forces are there to counter a potential invasion of South Korea by North Korea. Yet times have changed since the Korean War and South Korea’s economy is now almost 24 times that of destitute North Korea. The United States should withdraw its forces and let the wealthy South Koreans assume more of the burden for their defense.

In Europe, the situation is even more ridiculous. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact 15 years ago has left no threat for the European-based U.S. forces to counter. Why are they still there?

The U.S. military rightfully complains that even its gargantuan forces are too small to fulfill the grandiose goal of policing the world. The solution of some politicians and analysts is to call for a larger force and a draft to fill the ranks instead of discarding unneeded or outdated commitments. This is analogous to the relatives of a person gaining weight demanding that the government conscript people to make larger clothes, when a healthier solution would be for the person to lose weight. The only difference is that conscripted textile workers won’t get killed during their servitude.

In addition, the U.S. Army has reorganized little for the post-Cold War nation-building missions that it has been required to perform for the last 15 years. Compared to the potential armored warfare of the Cold War, such nation-building missions require fewer combat troops and more support forces (for example, military police and civil affairs units). Also, armored and heavily mechanized units are of limited use when fighting guerrilla wars, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although many such units in the Army are underused, support forces in the active and reserve components are in short supply and stretched to the breaking point. Once again, the politicians need either to compel the Army to reorganize so that its manpower is used more optimally or, more preferably, to scale back or eliminate nation-building missions.

Conscription—which undermines the liberties of young Americans and harms the civilian economy by their absence from highly productive labor—allows politicians to avoid the tough choice of getting rid of outdated military commitments or making the Army more efficient. Although putting young peoples’ lives at risk for paltry compensation might save the government money at a time of budget deficits, these hidden (off-budget) societal costs and inefficiencies of a draft would be staggering. The civilian economy would be drained of billions of dollars worth of skilled labor.

And at last we get to politics. The Bush administration and many in Congress realize that involuntarily ruining the career paths of America’s youth and putting their lives at risk would rile up a here-to-fore quiescent middle America. Conscription was a major factor in making the Vietnam War unpopular at home and would likely spell the end of President Bush’s already troubled adventure in Iraq. The politicians should tread carefully on conscription or the silent majority may not remain silent


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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