Paul Pillar

The Functions of Conscription

Thomas Ricks has made a thought-provoking proposal for reinstating the draft. It plays off a comment from General Stanley McChrystal, the retired former commander in Afghanistan, who said last month, “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.” Ricks's proposal has significant flaws, and Christopher Preble has enumerated several of them. There are more issues involved in this question than first meet the eye, however, and some further examination and discussion would be useful.

Ricks's specific idea is to offer everyone (males and females) several options upon coming out of high school. One would be eighteen months of military service but without the prospect of deploying overseas. Instead, these conscripts would be used for stateside jobs such as “paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don't have to,” and the tasks would not have to be expensively outsourced either. Pay would be low but attractive post-service benefits would include subsidized college tuition. Any conscripts who wanted to stay in the service would get better training, pay and benefits upon moving into the professional force.

Another option would be two years of civilian service such as cleaning parks or caring for the elderly, also at low pay but also with similar post-service benefits. Finally “those who want minimal government” could opt out of national service entirely but with the understanding that not helping Uncle Sam means not asking anything from him: “no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees.”

Evaluating a proposal such as this requires bearing in mind that conscription can serve several different purposes. The obvious one is to provide bodies to fight wars, and Ricks's idea of nondeployable conscripts does not appear to serve that purpose. Neither does it do much to serve the purpose that McChrystal had in mind; mowing lawns and painting barracks does not really mean having a skin in the game of war. At the risk of reprising the Vietnam War experience that some in younger generations are tired of hearing about, the way that the draft put every town and every city at risk back then was to risk having their sons killed in a combat zone. The career-delaying inconvenience of military service was also a factor for many young men, but it was not nearly the attention-getter as the danger of becoming a casualty.

It also is hard to envision how Ricks's two-class system of conscripts and professionals would function in practice at military bases across the country. The conscripts would be barely distinguishable from civilian employees, although subject to military discipline. The closest we have come to that situation was during the last few months of the Vietnam War, when the Nixon administration stopped sending draftees to Vietnam, but that period was too short to draw any conclusions.

But another purpose, which a proposal such as Ricks's could serve, is to impart in the population a greater sense of service and obligation to the nation. It would be a way of bolstering an important element of the civic culture. A good case can be made that we need to do more along this line. Despite all the tub-thumping nationalism one sees and hears in present-day America, that nationalism entails more thoughts about taking and less about giving than was true a half century ago when John Kennedy called on Americans to ask what they can do for their country rather than vice versa. It is perhaps symptomatic of this transition that this year's presidential election will be the first since World War II in which neither of the major party candidates has served in the military. And neither one performed alternative national service such as in Americorps or the Peace Corps. One of them dedicated himself from an early age to climbing the ladder of political power; the other dedicated himself to making a boatload of money by manipulating the ownership and control of businesses.

Still another purpose of conscription, which is one of the main grounds on which Ricks defends his proposal, is to provide a supply of cheap labor to meet national needs, including needs of the military, at low cost. Here is where we need to think of the question in the same terms of burden sharing and economic equality or inequality that we use to think about tax rates and other aspects of fiscal policy. I commented earlier this year, when Ricks previously advanced the idea of reinstating the draft but did not offer a specific proposal, that the wealth and inequality in the U.S. economy are necessary conditions for the all-volunteer army to work. We are wealthy enough to provide the pay and benefits to help attract people to the difficult and dangerous military profession. The inequality means there are enough people whose alternative opportunities are sufficiently modest or downright bad for them to be attracted to the military without our having to make military pay and benefits sky-high. One way to phrase the current question of whether to reinstate a draft is: Should a significant part of the levy that the federal government imposes on its citizens be, in addition to the income and payroll taxes that people pay, an in-kind levy in the form of modestly compensated labor in young adulthood?

There are several reasons that favor an affirmative answer to that question. Required national service would be a noble way of counteracting the inequality that the current all-volunteer system for the military exploits. In a sense the in-kind levy would be a progressive tax, in that the career-delaying opportunity costs would tend to be relatively greater for those already enjoying a higher economic status. The burden of such service generally would be easier to carry at that stage in people's lives—and it would be a paid job, after all—than, say, higher taxes on many older middle-class adults. The government also would get more bang for its buck. As Ricks puts it, think of how much could be saved “if a few hundred New York City school custodians were 19, energetic and making $15,000 plus room and board, instead of 50, tired and making $106,329.”

Then there is the advantage of not being burdened with all the ideological baggage that burdens the discussion of taxes—the money kind, that is. As long as Grover Norquist does not expand his no-tax-increase pledge to cover in-kind levies of national service, maybe we actually could have an intelligent public debate on the subject. It is a debate we ought to have. Thanks to Ricks for encouraging such a debate, even if his own proposal is flawed.