Don’t Bring Back the Draft

Recently, former U.S. Commander Stanley McChrystal stated that, “I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn’t be solely represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population.” He also said, “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.” For years, many people have called for the reinstatement of the draft for a variety of reasons. One favorite reason cited by liberals is that the current all volunteer military is disproportionately composed of black and low-income soldiers. These are really too separate issues, so lets start with the first one. If a lack of economic opportunity is causing African Americans to be overrepresented in the armed forces, that is a problem of racial inequality, and bringing back the draft would be attacking a symptom, not the cause. Later in this blog post, I will talk more about how, when a draft did exist, African Americans and Native Americans were arguably harmed by it more than anybody else. In the case of the military having a disproportionate number of poor people, there are two things that need to be considered. First of all, would promoting economic opportunity not be a better solution to this problem than forcing everybody to serve whether they want to or not? How to do so is another conversation for another time. Second, saying that we should force everyone to serve in the military to make it economically “fair” is basically calling for equality of results. Third, the fact of the matter is that a draft would also be unfair to poor people. The Vietnam War-era policy of student deferments obviously favors people from middle and upper class families, since they can afford to attend college. Even if student deferments were eliminated, many rich people would simply pull strings to make sure their children get the safest military jobs. And how can you blame them? Nobody wants their son or daughter forced into harm’s way. People of a more conservative bent often argue that people somehow “owe” it to the government to serve in the military. Freedom, they say, does not come free. Well, the last time I checked, we have not gotten a single thing from the government that was not paid for with our tax dollars. So to say that we are obligated to serve our country by serving in the military is illogical. In fact, conscription flies in the face of the principles of self-ownership and individual freedom. I believe in altruism and in the value of doing things for other people. However, a person’s life belongs to that person, and it is their choice what they do with it. If a person has children, their life belongs partly to the children. But it does not belong to the government. Nobody can be forced into service. It is bad enough to force a person to undergo grueling military training that can cause massive amounts of anxiety and discomfort. It is even worse to force a person to die for you. If the government can do such a thing, what can’t it do? Is it any surprise that conscription in America existed side by side with government discrimination against blacks, bans on homosexuality, censorship, and bans on birth control? Furthermore, a draft is highly unfair to oppressed minorities. In both World Wars, African Americans were drafted and forced to serve a country that treated them as outcasts. Stories about how horribly blacks in the U.S. military were treated during World War II are truly heartbreaking. Native Americans were also drafted in World War II, although they also exhibited high rates of voluntary enlistment. Enlisting, of course, should be the prerogative of anyone, regardless of race. However, blacks and Native American conscripts in the pre-civil rights 20th century were effectively forced to take part in a fight in which they had no dog. It might be said that U.S. involvement in World War II was largely representative of white Americans’ fears of ending up like African Americans and Native Americans at the hands of Nazi Germany: disenfranchised, persecuted, and subjected to violence. A widespread historical view is that African Americans’ valiant service in World War II encouraged previously racist white people to give them civil rights. The evidence to support this view is sketchy at best. While Harry Truman may have been personally motivated to support civil rights for this reason, the effect of black service on the public and military consciousness was probably not that great. Three years after World War II, a poll taken indicated that the majority of soldiers supported some form of racial segregation in the military. In the 1940s, Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and MacArthur all defended segregation in the military. World War II benefited the Civil Rights Movement in two ways: first, it made black veterans less likely to accept discrimination after having fought for their country. Second, while America did not enter World War II to save Jewish people, fighting against a genocidal racist did make many Americans more nervous about what racism could lead to. A similar problem would exist with regard to gay soldiers if the draft were brought back today. I advocated long and hard for gays to be able to serve openly in the military if they so chose. Yet the wording is important here: it is their choice to make whether or not they want to serve and sacrifice for a country that does not give them equal rights. Conscription eliminates that choice. Just as it was unfair to deny gay people the ability to choose to serve openly, it would be unfair to force them to serve in a fight ostensibly for freedom when freedom is denied to them in America. I have now outlined the moral reasons for opposing conscription. I now want to address why I feel conscription would be a strategic error if we want to have the most effective military force possible. As I mentioned, military training and service is grueling, both emotionally and physically. It takes a certain kind of temperament to be able to handle that level of stress. Do we really want people forced into those kinds of situations if they do not have the capacity to handle them? Furthermore, people are usually the most motivated to perform a task well when they have chosen to perform it. Nobody would deny that many conscripts have served well. Yet that does not change the fact that a conscript is more likely to desert, disobey orders, or otherwise shirk the “duties” forced on them. Rather than bringing in the most skilled, motivated people the way that an all-volunteer force should, conscription brings in the most skilled and motivated, as well as the most unskilled and unmotivated. Honestly, though, while I do not want the draft brought back at all and would try to prevent it, two years of military conscription would probably end the debate permanently.  The military would almost certainly see a major increase in the number of people going AWOL. A substantial number of people who received a draft notice would go to Canada. Of those who stayed behind, a significant number would work hard to come up with other ways of evading military service. Some conscripted soldiers who did not desert would either freeze up on the battlefield or continually disobey orders. The only way to get people to comply with conscription is to either habituate their culture to the point where they have a feverish trust of government (like the United States prior to the 1960s, and countries like North Korea today) or to never go to war and inundate your citizens with so many goodies that they grit their teeth and put with having to serve (like Sweden until recently.)

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