Retired Officer   Magazine

In 1940, the United States instituted a peacetime military draft that helped provide troops for World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. On Jan. 27, 1973, the day the Vietnam peace pacts were signed, the draft was ended. Fast-forward to the present, when some armed services are having difficulty meeting recruiting goals. Could a resurrection of the draft solve these problems? What problems of its own would a draft create?

By Charles Moskos

No problem is more serious in our armed forces than recruitment and retention. Even without such personnel shortages, the services are too understrength to meet the needs of the post-Cold War era. The only way to resolve these problems is to bring back the draft. It is time to construct a conscription system that will both reinvigorate the citizen soldier and properly compensate the career force.

A draft for the 21st century would be based on several principles: Only males would be drafted, as service in combat arms would be a high likelihood. (Women, of course, could enlist as they do now.) The term of active duty would be short, say 18 months; there would be a follow-on assignment to a reserve component for two years. With conscription, moreover, it is likely that enlistments in the reserves would increase markedly, thus ending another recruiting shortfall. Very important, options for alternate civilian service would be generous in a reconstituted conscription system, thereby fully respecting conscientious objectors’ rights not to serve in the armed forces.

A common argument against conscription is that today’s overseas missions require professional soldiers. Let us remember that in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, most combat soldiers had only six months of training before being sent to war. Peacekeeping operations are best suited to short-term servers at the lower enlisted ranks.

A reality often overlooked in the all-volunteer force is that one-third of entering members fail to complete their initial enlistments. Contrast this with the one in 10 draftees who did not complete their two-year obligation. It’s much better to have a soldier serve a short term honorably than be discharged prematurely for cause.

Another argument against the draft is that the contemporary military requires a high level of technical skill that cannot be met by short-term personnel. Precisely. Higher compensation should be aimed at those whose skills require extended training and job experience. A two-track pay system could be devised to give long-term enlistees higher compensation than their drafted counterparts (many of whom, however, may have preexisting technical skills).

The need to enhance the compensation of the career force is very pressing. To put it baldly, we now have overpaid recruits and underpaid sergeants. This is one reason the junior enlisted force is disproportionately likely to be married, with the attendant family strains. Pay raises and bonuses should be focused on the career force, not on recruits. This only can be done with conscription. In the draft era, the pay ratio between a master sergeant and a private was 6-to-1; today it is 3-to-1. Restoring something like the old balance is the best way to upgrade retention in hard-to-fill skills and leadership positions. The jump between a junior enlisted person and a noncommissioned officer must again be significant.

Along with a draft, a major redirection is required in the way federal aid operates in higher education. Annually, $43 billion in grants and loan subsidies goes to students who do not serve their country. We have created a GI Bill without the GI. Federal college aid must be linked with military or civilian service.

The strongest argument against the draft is one usually not raised. Namely, who serves when not all serve? Even with larger active duty and reserve components, even with expanded forms of civilian service, only about half of the male cohort would probably be needed to serve their country.

How then can a draft be equitable? The answer is to start conscription at the top of the social ladder. Begin by drafting graduates of leading private and public universities. This will not only ensure the legitimacy of conscription with the public at large but also will have a positive effect on recruitment across the social fabric. Something close to this existed in the peacetime draft of the Cold War. In my Princeton class of 1956, for example, two thirds served in the military. By 1999, the number was less than 2 percent.

Indeed, getting the children of America’s ruling classes to serve their country is the strongest argument for bringing back the draft. Who better to do a term of service than those who benefit most? If serving one’s country becomes common among privileged youth, future leaders in civilian life will have had a formative citizenship experience. This only can be to the advantage of the armed forces and the nation.

—Charles Moskos, a former draftee, is professor of sociology at Northwestern University. His books include The American Enlisted Man, The Military: More Than Just a Job?, All That We Can Be, and The Postmodern Military. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

By Alan Gropman

I recognize there is great nostalgia for the draft. I speak to audiences all over America about mobilization planning, and the majority of people more than 40 years old believe returning to the draft would be beneficial to the country and to its youth. I disagree.

The draft has never been equitable, although some draft eras have been more evenhanded than others. Draft laws are written by politicians, draft board members are chosen by politicians, and because domestic politics intrude on every process touched by officeholders, some benefit from the ways the laws are written and enforced, and others do not. The American Civil War draft is a notorious example but by no means the only one.

In that war, Confederate slave owners possessing 20 or more slaves were exempt, and so were the overseers of at least that number. Members of state legislatures also were exempt. Confederate law also permitted the wealthy to buy their way out. The Union also allowed the rich to opt out through commutation (a $300 payment for most of the war) or by purchasing a substitute.

Subsequent drafts did not directly exempt the wealthy. The World War I Selective Service Act was much more objective, but it, too, had striking inequities. Let me cite just one example: About 24 million men were registered for the World War I draft, and about 17 million passed the initial physical and mental tests. Of these, more than 8 million petitioned for exemptions for a variety of reasons. Virtually all of those exempted were white! African-Americans made up 9 percent of the population in 1917, but 13 percent of those drafted. Why? Because there were no African-Americans on draft boards, and when a white man requested an exemption, an African-American could be found to send in his place. Given in 1917 the political impotency of African-Americans, the sorry state of race relations, the relatively much poorer health of African-Americans in general, and the terrible schools African-Americans attended, the statistics are striking. So much for the war to make the world safe for democracy.

The World War II draft was perhaps our most just draft, but even there, the undereducated were most likely to be carrying bayonets or leading those who did, and the well-educated were more likely to find themselves in the Pentagon or serving in one of the dozens of civilian organizations that ran the war effort. Many of these bureaucracies were huge — the War Production Board, for example, contained more than 20,000 bureaucrats. Furthermore, many skilled workers burrowed into war industries in which employees were granted draft exemptions, and they guarded these privileges fiercely. Read about Rosie the Riveter, and learn how hostile men were to females in war plants because for every woman in such a factory — and there were millions — a man might become eligible for the draft. In 1945, because of a severe manpower shortage, the War Manpower Commission tried to draft more than 350,000 surplus farm workers, but farm-state representatives and senators were successful in legislating against their being drafted. (President Truman vetoed the bill, but, because he did so in the spring of 1945, none served.)

The primary reason I oppose a draft, however, is because presidents have taken advantage of this too readily available pool for domestic political reasons. Truman could not have gone to war in Korea without a formal declaration if he had not had a draft force to fall back on. Nobody would be able to accuse him of losing Korea the way Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon pilloried him, Dean Acheson, and George Marshall for “losing” China. But a more glaring example is Vietnam.

Let me give you a quote from President Lyndon Johnson: In 1964, on the cusp of deciding whether or not to up the ante in Vietnam, McGeorge Bundy suggested that Johnson consider using only volunteers to fight in Vietnam. The president replied, “Well, you wouldn’t have a corporal’s guard, would you?” Johnson and Nixon prosecuted that disastrous war without a formal declaration because they had a draft (an exceptionally unjust one, at that).

We don’t need a draft now, and we don’t want to put such a pool of people into the hands of politicians without requiring them to seek formal approval from the people’s representatives.

—Alan Gropman is chairman of the Grand Strategy and Mobilization Department at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He was never drafted but served 27 years in the U.S. Air Force, including two flying tours in Vietnam in which he accumulated more than 670 combat missions. His views are his and his alone and do not represent those of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or anybody else.