In a Washington Post compendium in which ten writers were each invited to name something “we'd be better off without,” Thomas Ricks—one of the more perceptive observers of civil-military relations and the impact of war on American society—nominates “the all-volunteer military.” Ricks says the all-volunteer force has made it too easy for the United States to go to war and to give insufficient attention to the consequences. “One percent of the nation has carried almost all the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says, “while the rest of us essentially went shopping.”
Ricks's basic point about how the absence of a draft reduces the public pain of wars, and thus increases the likelihood or duration of them, is valid. I have told my students who listen politely to panel discussions and other exchanges on campus about the nation's ongoing wars that if we had conscription, many of them would instead be armed with signs and bullhorns, demonstrating outside. In other words, it would be more like the college campuses I remember from the 1960s, as the Vietnam War was escalating and draftees were being sent to fight there. Besides concentrating public attention on the consequences of wars, mandatory national service might have other societal benefits. Many other questions would have to be carefully considered before conscription were reintroduced, not least of all exactly how a draft would be structured and administered to make it fair. But the issue should not be considered dead.
Thinking more broadly than just the United States and its recent wars, however, one has to ask: Shouldn't forced enrollment of citizens in a military force make a government more, not less, able to wage war? Doesn't such compulsion mean having more, rather than fewer, troops to fight the wars? Isn't modern conscription in this respect a successor to feudal arrangements in which monarchs leaned on their vassals, who in turn compelled the serfs, to man their armies?
It is, but the United States of today does not fit that pattern for both political and economic reasons. The political reason is that the United States is a liberal democracy in which the aforementioned dynamic of protesting when the consequences of war hurt directly, and of having reason to believe such protest will make a political difference, comes into play. Just as important is the economic reason, which has to do with both the wealth and the inequality of American society.
The wealth enables us to compensate sufficiently those who serve in the armed forces to help induce enough such people to join or stay in the force. The personal motivations involved are not solely a matter of selfless patriotism, although there is much of that among those who choose to serve. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates may have complained that the cost of health care for the military is “eating the Department of Defense alive,” but good health-care coverage is part of the package of compensation that influences the decisions of many of those who serve in the military. Part of the defense budget represents the fiscal burden we bear to avoid having our sons drafted.
The inequality—not just of current economic status but also of opportunity—helps to assure there will be enough people sufficiently attracted by the material benefits of military service to influence their career decisions. A more egalitarian society, with more opportunities open to all in civilian life, would have a harder time getting enough people interested in donning the uniform and fighting that country's wars.
Conscription is a direct affront to free-market principles, given that it involves compelling people to act differently from how they would have acted in response to the incentives provided by the market. But on some subjects markets, left on their own, do not work well. Providing military manpower may be one of those subjects.