Nick De Gregorio, a veteran of our nation's current wars, recently wrote an article for The National Interest in which he argued for the return to a military draft as a way to not only help the military but also to involve our nation's citizens in service to their country. He is not alone in this thinking. Many outstanding citizens of our country argue for a draft. General (retired) Stanley McChrystal, my classmate from West Point, is one proponent .
But this sincere interest in helping our military and instilling a sense of service to our country by reinstating the draft is wrongheaded. We don't need a draft to “spread the pain” (or privilege) of military service among various social and economic groups, and it would end up costing the military way more in money, means and morale than we can afford. Using De Gregorio's earnest piece, which lays out the most common arguments for a draft, we can examine whether those arguments hold up to scrutiny.
Up front it is important to note that our nation still requires young men to register for "selective service" (draft), and Congress, with the president, can reinstate a draft if a conflict were so big as to require a major increase in the military. What De Gregorio and others are recommending though is a “peace time” draft.
It is also important to recognize that both De Gregorio and I agree that our current volunteer force has, in his words, " enabled America to sustain its military pre-eminence." In that regard, the All Volunteer Force (AVF) meets our national interests. Where De Gregorio and I differ is in assessing how an all-volunteer force affects our national character and our national will. De Gregorio thinks the AVF undermines those things. I do not.
“Through the 1973 War Powers Resolution (WPR), the United States committed to never again enable the president to prosecute lengthy wars without the express consent of Congress.”
De Gregorio claimed in his article that the All Volunteer Force was initiated along with the 1973 War Powers Resolution (WPR) to prevent us from entering a long war with no public support. That's true of the 1973 WPR, but in fact, the AVF had been under consideration since the 1960s, well before the WPR, and its adoption was driven mostly by a desire to find a more economic and effective model for manning the military.
According to the Oxford Companion to American Military History 2000 :
“The blueprint for the AVF was prepared by President Richard M. Nixon's Commission on an All Volunteer Armed Force, appointed in 1969. Driven by political pressure to end the draft and an ideological commitment to free market forces, the commission headed by Thomas Gates concluded that a volunteer force, supported by the potential to reintroduce the draft, was preferable to a mixed force of conscripts and volunteers, and that, based on labor market dynamics, it was economically feasible to raise a volunteer army.”
De Gregorio, to his credit, acknowledges the economic arguments in favor of AVF “were valid” but, he focuses on the AVF as the tool for relief from lengthy, unpopular wars.
So many changes were happening in the early 1970s that it is understandable to mistakenly conflate them. Two of those changes are cited by De Gregorio: the War Powers Resolution and the All Volunteer Force. But in fact, the way in which defense planners attempted to prevent long, unpopular wars was not by replacing the draft with a volunteer system but by moving key combat and support functions from the Active component into the Reserves and National Guard. Congress then added the requirement that any lengthy mobilization of these reserves would require the president to get congressional approval. The thinking was that any major war would require the call up of military forces, draft or volunteer, which would in turn involve military members from all the states, not just those with large bases.
In his 2012 Foreign Policy article, General Stanley McChrystal also argued for a draft, writing, “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.” This in fact happened in both Desert Storm (1991) and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of the 1970s decision to shift forces into the Reserves. For the current wars, which have dragged on for almost two decades, forces from across America in the Reserves and National Guard were needed at such high rates that the Army had to extend troops in the war zones and break dwell time rules back home to meet demand. A visit to any small town in America today will almost certainly reveal a monument or memorial to those from that area who served in the current and recent wars. A draft is not necessary to bring the pain of war to small town America.