why the u.s. needs a military draft

Recently talking with L about this, I was persuaded that the United States needs a military draft in order to make the world a safer place. As long-time readers and friends know, I come from a military family.What I haven’t written about before is that like many Americans, I am only two generations removed from abject poverty. These two facts are related. Three of my grandparents grew up in broken families in the rural South of the early twentieth century, became young adults during the Great Depression, and were dirt poor for years and years. Both of my grandfathers entered the military because it was the most promising employment opportunity available to them. My father and uncle, first-generation college students, went into the army not only because of their desire to serve their country but also because of the job security such employment promised.

There will always be men and women who feel such pride in their country that they want to serve in the military, putting their personal safety on the line because of their patriotrism. However, there will also be a large number of very young people who enter the military because while it is not a career that will make them rich, it will appear to be the only available low-paying job with such a high level of prestige, and it offers the promise of “helping pay for college.” In America, this is the ticket to middle-class respectability. Meanwhile, the popular kids from high school–the ones who could afford the expensive, brand-name clothing instead of the no-name imitations; the ones who got a brand-new car on their sixteenth birthday instead of saving up to buy some old hoopty with their burger-flipping money–those kids are going straight to college. They don’t have to risk their lives for socioeconomic mobility.

When our nation goes to war, we are all implicitly responsible for what happens. But we don’t all have to take equal risks. This is wrong. The United States should reinstate the draft and make every single young American eligible with no loopholes whatsoever. Are you in college? I’m sure your professors will understand. Married? Maybe your spouse will join up, too, so she can be with you. Have kids? At least your spouse will still have someone to love if you get killed.

When we invaded Iraq, the safety of every single Iraqi–man, woman, child–was threatened. If we all knew that everyone we know here in the United States is also at risk, maybe we wouldn’t find it so easy to go to war.

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14 thoughts on “why the u.s. needs a military draft

  1. To say that I am of two minds on this issue would be to sound like I have even more clarity on this issue than I have. But to problematize your very persuasive argument, I wonder:
    *Is it easier to advocate this position now that we are no longer eligible for conscription?
    *On a practical level, won’t this create a greater morale problem for the miliatary we do have?
    * The reinstated draft, or its cousin, short-term mandatory military service (as I believe is not uncommon in Europe and elsewhere) will necessarily expose more people (poor and rich) to the military’s indoctrination processes. Am I comfortable with the idea of subjecting anyone (poor or rich, male or female) to this militaritic, patriarchal, hierarchical model for running an organization, and hence the nation?
    *(Related) Does bringing more people into the military help contribute to a more politically conservative America (This is not a rhetorical question; perhaps the answer is no, the opposite will happen by introducing more dyed-in-the-wool liberals into the military millieu).
    *My sister is in her 5th year of Naval service; she is at this moment training to be an officer. My opposition to the very idea of the military is a lot more complex and ambivalent than it was five or six years ago. And yet I know even as a self-professed Republican 18-year-old, I was vehemently opposed to doing military service, on grounds that were not (only) based on fear and aversion to personal risk. Is the solution to abusing some people to instead abuse more fairly? I’m not sure.
    I ramble. and ramble. probably not very coherently . . .

  2. What about people morally opposed to conflict already, or — more to the point — morally opposed to the military structure and culture that comes with it? While I understand the culture would be diluted by a mandatory draft, the very idea of doing something I hate for someone I hate (in this case, the current president) sets my teeth on edge. I protested the war from the beginning and hate the idea of the US as peacekeepers, I’m uncomfortable (okay, disgusted and terrified) with the current powers granted to the government by the Patriot Act. Blah, blah, blah. How is my presence in the military going to help me or it?
    I guess that’s my biggest reservation about the draft. I don’t think it’ll do me any good, I don’t think another miserable liberal intellectual who hates getting up to face her shiny mandated job will do the military any good, and I don’t think I’m a unique snowflake here.

  3. We have mandatory military service in Norway, though nobody but professional (i.e. by choice) soldiers have been sent overseas to warzones since WW2. Well, actually since we were invaded so fast during WW2 I guess only volunteers fought in that, too.
    Anyway, I do see your point. Perhaps part of the reason that we DON’T go to war is that everyone would have a family member or close friend at risk. I know that the strongest argument FOR mandatory service is that it is the best way of keeping the military democratic, truly a people’s army rather than the upper classes using the poor. After watching Fahreneheit 911 and seeing exactly how the poor are abused I’ve had more sympathy for this view.
    Surely, though, a better solution would be to avoid war? How can a draft be the way to peace? I know that I couldn’t in good conscience serve in the military. I’d end up in prison instead, a conscientious objector, or, if in a tolerant society like Norway, doing community service for 16 months.
    I think this is seeking to undo the knot from the wrong end.

  4. I heard on NPR that Kerry has advocated mandatory military service in the recent past, but has since backed down from that position and removed all references to it from the offical Kerry/Edwards website (hopefully the Wayback Machine will cache it, but I suspect both candidates have their web developers install robot.txt files to prevent such archiving). Anyway, his original argument, like yours, was persuasive. (Though I’m of two minds on this issue like so many others–one reason I find it personally hard to fault Kerry for his so-called flip-flopping.)
    As a military brat myself, I grew up with a positive image of the armed forces: some of the most extraordinary and brilliant people I’ve ever known, not least among them my father, are products of that culture. It breeds good as well as ill.

  5. Clarification on my previous post: Kerry has advocated compulsory _national_ service in the very recent past (within the last few months), which is different from a draft (and far more palatable). Nonetheless, such service as he envisioned it clearly entailed a military component.
    And hey, the WayBack Machine _did_ archive it!! If you point your browser to the original URL now, you get a 404 message.
    No doubt Kerry’s campaign team realized the Republicans would try to spin “national service” as a reinstated draft, and so quietly removed the contentious matter.

  6. Kari’s research on Kerry campaign statements (national serives versus military conscription) is very interesting. In light of George’s opening remarks on economic disparity and the military’s social welfare functions and its character as a meritocratic enhancer, I’d like to point to some developments in social policy in certain juridictions: labour in exchange for receipt of social assistance (workfare vs welfare); set number of hours of mandatory community service as prerequiste for graduating from high school.
    There are demographic and socio-political factors at play in these interventions. In part they are a response to the erosion social service provision and charity work which had a strongly endered dimension (shift in the roles of middle class women).
    The questions raised by Kari and George deserve being set into the greater context of four sources of citizen well-being: market income, non-market care and support from family and friendship circles, state-sponsored services and income transfers, community services and support.
    Sustainable profits depend on overcoming social deficits. See for example the Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care Policy recently releases by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. http://www.oecd.org/home/

  7. i don’t expect that this will happen, primarily because the Pentagon’s last experience with conscripts was so dismal.
    i don’t think a war will ever be fought by the US like that again. if it ever got to the point where mass conscription was a possibility, we’d be dealing with a foe with nuclear capability, so so vast and dangerous that unilateral nuking would be required for national survival; the war would already be going in a different direction . . .

  8. I’m sort of playing devil’s advocate, but mostly I’m serious. This is a question of equity: presumably having a military benefits us all. Why should only some of us fulfill that responsibility? We all have to pay taxes, don’t we? No one gets to say they object to the idea of taxes and thus exempt themselves from this responsibility.
    If, on the other hand, we decide that not everyone should go into the military because it’s not such a good thing, then why do we have a military? Or why do we allow our military to be not such a good thing?

  9. I don’t necessarily think the military _isn’t_ a good thing. I think that there are people for whom being part of it as it is would be a really bad thing, though — yes, myself included — and I don’t think the draft should be reinstated until there’s a capacity in which I can serve that won’t cause me to ignore my moral code and won’t impose discrimination on me, other issues I have aside. (I mean, if you’re going to instate the draft, you absolutely have to get rid of discrimination in the military, including don’t-ask-don’t-tell, which from what I can find is still an active part of military policy. Do _you_ want to explain to gay people everywhere that not only do they not have the right to marry a person so that said person may know when their spouse is killed in battle, but they also have to completely cut the entire idea of romance and relationships and, often, a decent chunk of their identity out of their lives for several years in mandatory service to the government that prevents them from having said marriage? I sure don’t.)
    So, yeah. Some people are too crazy to be soldiers, and a rash of post-draft suicides or other mental-break episodes won’t do anyone any good. Some people get shit on by the government enough. And I think some people really would better serve in a different capacity than being in the military — maybe by teaching or something.
    We can presume that teachers are good for our country — why isn’t everyone expected to be a teacher? Ditto senators and doctors and on and on.

  10. the threshold of qualification to pay taxes is rather low–you just have to have an income, or certain amount of money and spend it or gain income from it, and barring the deduction system, you pay taxes.
    the threshold of qualification to serve in the military is rather higher. it’s incorrect that soldiers, sailors, whatnot are the dregs of society: the technical aspect of the modern military in fact moves them to at least average level, if not higher.
    further, considering the force ratio of american versus average potential enemy is huge: a draft would in fact create an army that would have no other use, even if it were as competent as today’s, (which would be arguable,) than to field imperial ambitions.
    indeed, a military that were adequately large to deal with the issues ongoing in iraq *effortlessly*–which i my opinion would have to be merely of cold war size, at this point–could also *effortlessly* deal with iran, syria, and, say, north korea too.
    although there’s something to be said for having enough tools to do several jobs, there’s also something to be said for picking and choosing what job to do. having a military is a good thing when you live in a world of human beings–other humans are untrustworthy. having a very very large army in the hands of a government made of politicians–humanity’s ethical lower rung–is a bad thing, even if the aim were to equalize the military burden on the populace.
    anyhoo, as far as a responsibility–our republic has a lot of responsibilities: voting, jury duty, whatnot. some of them are more important, some less. i consider the military to be equivalent of voting*: someone wants the responsibility of maintaining the state so much that, presumably, they are willing to kill and die for it. someone (see paragraph above) necessarily must do this, but just as the nation continues to operate with 50% voter turnout, it continues to operate with 1% military turnout.** i think forcing people to vote would reduce the quality of elections; forcing people to fight has been shown to reduce the quality of military action.
    *albeit with much higher risks for the participant.
    **to make up a number.

  11. Hrm… Nowhere in this debate have I seen mentioned the fact that the various branches of the military have been steadily cranking their entrance requirements up in order to reduce enlistments to budgetary limits.
    Nor have I seen addressed the simple fact that being a soldier is a career, a skilled profession that not everyone is going to be 1) good at, 2) capable of. What soldier wants to bet their life that the conscript providing covering fire isn’t going to dive to the bottom of the foxhole at the first enemy round, leaving you exposed on the field?
    Come on, people. Conscripts are only good for cannon fodder, and if we (the US) ends up fighting a war where we need cannon fodder, we’re already way over our heads. That’s not the way the US military does bizness.

  12. I am a pacifist and have been locked up on more than one occasion for protesting war. So I don’t favor a military draft, though I do understand the need for the children of privilege to feel in their flesh some of the consequences of their parents’ decisions. I think, as many do, that this would make war less of an option to our national decision-makers.
    I might be in favor of some sort of national service, with military service one of many options. Other options could be: serving in an ambulance corps, serving in a soup kitchen, lobbying for peace and justice on Capitol Hill, planting trees in fire-damaged areas, etc.

  13. “being a soldier is a career, a skilled profession that not everyone is going to be 1) good at, 2) capable of.”
    True. And all the more reason to have a draft. If we only rely on those people who decide to go into the military because it’s the best option available to them, the available pool of candidates will be much smaller than if we take a crack at every single citizen. Having a draft doesn’t mean you have to let everyone join the military.

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