The Call-Up: Conscription, Again

T he debate among politicians and military strategists continues over America’s long-term involvement in Afghanistan and particularly over the number of troops that will ultimately be needed there. The president has chosen to increase our military commitment, but it is hardly certain that success can be achieved with our nation’s current system for raising military manpower.

The struggle between radical Islam and Western democracy, still sometimes called a “war on terrorism,” is going to be a long one. Military intervention by the United States may again be judged necessary, as a last resort against particularly dangerous states or organizations. But we are faced with an obstinate problem: our all-volunteer forces are too small to cope with such momentous threats. They also lack the quality of educational, cultural, linguistic, and technical skills needed for modern military operations in foreign lands. The danger of inadequate forces for military interventions genuinely crucial to national security—in the current parlance, “wars of necessity”—requires a serious discussion of a subject that seems to be taboo currently—restoring conscription. Rather than waiting for future crises to begin that debate, we should start talking about a program of universal national service, including but not limited to a military draft, now.

After the September 11 attacks, few doubted that it was essential to invade Afghanistan, where the Taliban hosted and enabled Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. But we sent too few troops there to prevent our enemies from regrouping—and then diverted many of those troops to the invasion of Iraq. Now the Taliban and al-Qaeda have substantially reconstituted their insurgent capabilities, particularly in southern and eastern Afghanistan and the borderlands of Pakistan, and are attacking NATO forces from across the Afghan-Pakistani border with increasing intensity. It would take considerably larger ground plus air forces, along with naval transport (and, given the exhaustion of our ground arms, a more-than-proportionally larger “rotation base” for sustained operations), to subdue these enemies, if, in fact, they can be subdued at all. The Obama administration’s reinforcement of more than 30,000 combat troops and advisers, along with any near-term expansion of the still unreliable Afghan army, will not begin to achieve the troop-to-population ratio generally acknowledged to be necessary for success in such a counterinsurgency.

And Afghanistan is only the most immediate crisis that may require increased military manpower. Radical Islamist movements are growing in a number of other Middle Eastern, Asian, African, and even southeastern European countries. Restrictions in such areas on American forward-basing facilities would create a requirement for even larger U.S. forces, in more numerous and less economical sites. Nor would complete disengagement from Iraq (let alone the gradual and piecemeal process now underway) yield an adequate “peace dividend” in terms of troop strength.

The forces we may need must be capable not only of conventional warfare but also the high-tech, unconventional operations that will increasingly be required. However, as a result of the repetitive stresses of Afghanistan and Iraq, the quality of the force appears to be on the decline. Recruitment and retention rates (only temporarily improved because of the current recession) have eroded, forcing the armed services to lower their physical, educational, and psychological standards; to soften the rigors of initial training; and even to expand the “moral waivers” granted to some volunteers with criminal records. The loss of many highly qualified middle-grade officers, after their initial periods of required service, is especially troubling.

Meanwhile, the enhancement of homeland security has required a vast increase in counterterrorist police work. Police officer recruitment competes with the armed services for personnel of high quality, both technically and in terms of character. The reconstitution of Reserve and National Guard forces, severely depleted by overseas deployments, is also needed to restore our country’s readiness for disaster relief.

This combination of challenges cannot be resolved by tweaking the present system. There will have to be a reinstitution, albeit in a significantly modified version, of universal military service—in other words, a draft.


E ven mentioning this taboo word is, in our current political environment, saying the unsayable. Resuming conscription would generate opposition from all parts of the political spectrum—on the left, from civil-libertarians and those who oppose any form of armed incursion or fear the uses to which an “imperial presidency” might put such a force; in the center, from classic libertarians and those who would regard conscription as an unfair “tax on youth”; and even from some on the political right, which has traditionally been supportive of military strength but would surely reject the “nation building” missions to which an increased force would probably be assigned.

In addition, sectors of American society now on the margins of involvement with the military might well demand either that their members be excluded from military service because of opposition to particular wars, or that their members be included on the basis of equal rights (for example, non-citizen-track immigrants and openly gay citizens). The politicization created by these arguments would complicate adoption of a conscription program.

Paradoxically, the professional military also might balk at reinstituting the draft. Senior military officers, individually but even more so collectively, are bureaucratically conservative and thus averse to change. They also believe that reliable soldiers are created more successfully by the slow molding of natural talent than through rapid adaptation of better-educated men and women. They have been mistaken in this, as any veteran of troop duty prior to 1973 (when the Nixon administration ended conscription) will attest: before the draft was disbanded, the mixture of talent among enlisted personnel allowed for leaner commissioned-officer staffs, greater small-unit initiative both in garrison and in the field, and increased numbers of college graduates for officer candidate schools.

A third and perhaps equally important issue for the professional military is that of institutional pride. Many noncommissioned and petty officers, as well as commissioned officers, may bridle at the notion that their subordinates are of any but the highest “quality.” Although sincerely held, this belief is also mistaken: there are simply not enough well educated and highly adaptable soldiers in today’s force.


D espite what might become a firestorm of opposition, the military benefits of universal national service—larger and better-educated armed forces—would be compelling, given the variety of challenging and dangerous scenarios America might face in the future. And the collateral dividends would also be compelling.

Conscription will enable the forces to reflect the full spectrum of American life, in terms of both socioeconomic classes and racial and ethnic groups. As books and movies about “America’s greatest generation” have shown, universal military service in World War II did much to promote mutual understanding among America’s diverse groups, with lasting benefits to national unity and comity.

Today, scarcely 1 percent of the nation’s eligible population serves in the armed forces, and almost no sacrifice is asked from the rest of society. Now, as never before, it is entirely possible that a family might not have any members serving in the military—or even know people who are serving. It would not be surprising if, before the dust from Afghanistan and Iraq has even settled, there arise veterans’ protest groups on both the right and the left, the former indignant at having been “cheated out of victory,” the latter, at having been “misled into folly,” and both resentful of the lopsidedness of sacrifice.

Collective experience through universal national service would nurture good citizenship, social cohesion, and a sense of civic responsibility. Other likely outcomes of conscription would be a reduction of youthful cynicism, an increased sense of stakeholding in decisions involving America’s national interests, and intensified participation in the political process.

As the late Charles Moskos, widely acknowledged as America’s leading sociologist of the military rank-and-file, often stated, a compulsory national service program would provide our youth—and future leaders—with a formative civic experience. Aside from acquiring valuable skills that open doors of opportunity in the civilian economy, everyone who has served in the armed forces (or the Peace Corps, etc.) knows of young people whose character and prospects were enhanced by the hard work, discipline, and collective spirit engendered by such service. Professional educators, in particular, will find veterans to be more serious students, as was the case following World War II.

The term “national security” is too often understood in a purely military sense, such as freedom from foreign, armed attack. The term should be viewed more broadly, to include effective diplomacy and nonmilitary resolution of international disputes. There would be a greater likelihood of sound foreign and military policies if the sons and daughters of America’s political and business elites served in uniform—as so many did in the past, but so few do today.

The increased costs of educational and medical benefits for combat-duty veterans would be largely offset by potential savings. It is far more costly to sustain a volunteer force than a conscripted one, not merely in terms of enlistment inducements and pay but also in the hundreds of billions in retirement benefits that the U.S. government already owes its past and current service personnel. Draftees could also perform many non-combat tasks that are currently outsourced to expensive and hard-to-control
civilian contractors.

A revived military draft should be combined with a broader public service program (as already practiced in some European states). The threefold expansion of the AmeriCorps program recently enacted by Congress provides a ready template for program administration. And although participation in some form of universal service—whether military or nonmilitary—would be mandatory, even those conscripted who choose the military option should be allowed the further choice of service in a noncombatant status. Because of the rigors, hazards, and requirements of combat, those who choose the combat route should be offered additional rewards, such as extra-generous post-service education and health care, modeled on the G.I. Bill.

It might be objected that restricting combat to volunteer draftees would raise again the problem of our forces being too small for necessary interventions. It is more likely, however, that many draftees would volunteer for combat duty, in part for the greater benefits suggested above, and in part out of patriotic pride and a youthful sense of challenge and adventure.

Moreover, a program that incorporated several levels of choice would decrease the opposition of other draftees to the justifiable use of military force, and would contribute to valuable sectors like public health and public works, and help rectify shortages of teachers and social workers in disadvantaged parts of the country.


H istory warns us to be apprehensive also about interventionism facilitated and even promoted by military power. As the Bush administration’s geopolitically rash invasion of Iraq and earlier administrations’ ever deepening involvement in Vietnam made evident, future presidents of either party might exploit a draft put at their disposal to engage in or prolong unwise expeditions abroad. It is therefore essential to reinforce congressional—as well as judicial—controls over the use of force. This goal could be accomplished through three measures:

Returning to the original constitutional division of war-making power.
The framers, fearing unconstrained executive war-making, gave Congress the sole power to declare war. The context of the constitutional debates—as well as common sense—makes clear that this was not intended merely to allow Congress to ratify actions already taken, but to give the legislative branch the actual power to decide when the nation should go to war. And if Congress alone had the power to take the nation into war, then by clear inference Congress could end wars, even wars it had previously authorized. The logic of this power division was explicit then and remains compelling today. The decision to go to war is more likely to be a wise one if it is collective, taken after informed debate and the development of consensus, while the conduct of war, its strategy and tactics, must proceed under a hierarchical chain of command with the president at its head.

This constitutional framework has eroded over the past two centuries, particularly through Franklin Roosevelt’s unilateral decision (however wise) to take the nation into World War II, Harry Truman’s order (also, however wise) to defend South Korea against North Korean attack, and the behavior of Lyndon Johnson (now widely regarded as unwise) in escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

That history, especially regarding Vietnam, led to the War Powers Act of 1973, whose purpose (as per its preamble) was “to fulfill the intent of the framers of the Constitution . . . and insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply.” As a result of the act, the president now may not unilaterally use force without specific prior authorization from Congress, except when there is “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” Even in these cases, the president must report to Congress what action he has taken, and Congress can later direct him to end hostilities.

The constitutionality of the act has been challenged (and evaded) by subsequent presidents, although never tested in the courts. Even so, Ronald Reagan and both presidents Bush sometimes, under political pressure, adhered to some of the act’s provisions, such as reporting military actions to Congress. In general, however, the act has been only marginally successful in restoring the constitutional division of war-making power.

Exercising the power of the purse. Perhaps the most important of Congress’s existing powers to prohibit, limit, or end U.S. participation in wars is the constitutional authority to refuse to fund them, or to selectively fund certain military actions but not others. Although Congress is often hesitant to do so (fearing charges of abandoning the military), enacting an appropriations cutoff simply compels the force’s withdrawal, as finally happened in Vietnam in 1973. Aside from Vietnam, Congress has used its appropriations power to prohibit armed intervention in Angola in 1976, to end direct support of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, and to terminate military involvement in Somalia in 1994. In all of these cases, American troops or intelligence elements in the field were coherently withdrawn rather than being left without the means to defend themselves.

Writing a new conscription law. In the law establishing conscription, Congress could include a provision that draftees not be sent into a combat zone without specific and prior congressional authorization, except in time-urgent cases of national emergency.

There is an additional vital, political advantage of such a conscription program. Unlike the War Powers Act and Congress’s power of the purse, both of which require legislators to take substantial political risks in opposing presidential will, the conscription program would essentially be self-enforcing. Should presidents seek to weaken its constraints, they would be checked and balanced not only by the legislative and judicial branches of government, but also by draftees, potential draftees, and their families and friends—in other words, tens of millions of engaged citizens.


T here have been no significant terrorist attacks in the United States since 2001, so it may now seem less urgent to have forces capable of engaging in expanded operations in Afghanistan, the border areas of Pakistan, or other hot spots around the globe. That would change radically, however, if there were new attacks on our homeland, the specter of which includes the horrific possibility of nuclear or biological weapons unleashed against our cities. In such circumstances, arguments against conscription would crumble overnight, and there would be a crash program to build up the armed forces, as happened in World War II. It would be far better to anticipate what we need now and have such forces immediately available, together with established constraints against their misuse, than to generate them in the confusing aftermath of national catastrophe.

Moreover, the creation of larger, higher-quality forces—with a credible capability to intervene massively on the ground—would have a powerful deterrent effect, not only against terrorists themselves but also against states that currently support or tolerate terrorist activities. Indeed, the existence of a such a ground-combat deterrent might well result in fewer future U.S. military interventions, rather than more.

In the long-term struggle against radical Islamism and comparable threats, the United States is going to need larger standing forces of considerably improved quality, along with greater protection against executive misuse of those forces. Achieving both objectives will require much time and effort, but the payoff in terms of national security will be immeasurable. Conversely, committing the nation to a major military campaign (in Afghanistan or elsewhere) with qualitatively and quantitatively inadequate manpower offers a guarantee of disaster.

William L. Hauser is a retired Army colonel and fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society. Jerome Slater is a Navy veteran and retired professor of political science at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he holds the title of University Research Scholar.

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