Bizarrely enough, the spate of phone calls from recruiters began a couple of years ago. The first ones came from the Army, next the Marines, and then other branches of the military. I’m decades past enlistment age. I’ve been publicly antiwar for most of that time and come from a family that was last involved with a military when my grandfather ran out the back door to avoid Russian army recruiters at the front door and kept running until he reached America.
The calls with recruitment offers eventually died away. Someone had probably been punking me, but I remain intrigued by the messages the recruiters left, always focusing on the special “opportunities” the Army (Navy, Marines, Air Force) were ready to offer me.
What often came to mind when I listened to them was a sweltering afternoon in the Vietnam War years. A bunch of us college kids were slouching around the only fan in someone’s apartment telling “funny” stories about how people we knew avoided the draft. There was the guy who stripped at his physical to reveal a Superman costume under his street clothes; there was the officer at the hearing test who shouted in frustration, “I know you’re not all deaf!” There was my housemate with a low draft lottery number, which made him extremely draftable. He then substituted coffee for sleep, raising his blood pressure so successfully that the examining doctor said, “Do you know you’re near death?” And there were the friends who got letters from therapists testifying to their instability. (I don’t think any of them had “bone spurs,” though.) I like to think that we recognized our luck in being able to afford college and excuses from shrinks to keep a highly unpopular war at arm’s length, but I can’t say for sure.
Those episodes from different eras probably stick in my mind today because there’s no longer a draft — it ended nearly 50 years ago — and so many Americans have no experience with military recruitment, or with war, American-style. That, I think, is a problem.
As much as Americans love their military — it’s consistently the part of the government in which they have the most confidence, according to multiple polls — the majority of them don’t want to join it or be made to join it. Active-duty personnel currently account for a mere 0.4% of the population and only about 7% of us have ever been in uniform (more than half of those are over 60 years old). If we consider a tour in the armed forces a burden — as we must, despite all that thankful hand-shaking of people in uniform and their celebration everywhere — shouldn’t we also consider the effects on the country of relying on an all-volunteer force (AVF) to carry that burden? One of those effects is surely that so many of the rest of us are allowed to ignore the endless wars and other conflicts “our” military has sparked and is still involved in around the world in our name.
And what to make of the often-repeated claim that if only we did have a draft, this country might be far less eager to march into war? Is that, in fact, true?
Who’s for Selective Service?
Conscription in the United States dates back to 1863, after the Confederacy needed to ensure that it had a large army continually in the field and the North soon followed suit. There was, however, an active federal draft for less than 40 years total, mostly in the twentieth century. It ended as the Vietnam War was ending in 1973, a time when for every 100 men inducted into that military, 131 others got exemptions.
Antiwar resistance, however fierce at the time, was only part of the story of its ending. A 2006 RAND study cited moral concerns on the left and right; the cost of the system; demographics (too few soldiers were needed to make the draft genuinely universal); and a desire for change on the part of the U.S. military because draftees in the Vietnam years, when antiwar protest flourished within the military, were often a pain in the ass.
For these and other reasons, almost no one is advocating the return of the draft any time soon. Except for a short period in the early 1980s, sizeable majorities of Americans have opposed reinstating it. Recent polls put those figures at five against for every citizen who wants it.
Still, as long as men are required to register with the Selective Service System (SSS) on turning 18 and the Defense Department views it “as a low-cost insurance policy against unforeseen threats,” a draft exists as a possibility. In the wake of the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani, the SSS website crashed for a day when young American men panicked that the Trump administration might be starting a new war and would need cannon fodder to fight it. (After a federal district court ruling in Texas last February that it is unconstitutional to require only men to register for a possible future draft, women have reason to feel vulnerable, too.)
It turns out that a draft is expensive, even when we don’t have one. Keeping the Selective Service System afloat will cost about $27 million this year. In 2016, libertarian Republican Senator Rand Paul introduced legislation to get rid of it and, after the death of former boxing champion Muhammad Ali, a prominent Vietnam-era draft resister, renamed the bill in his honor. Paul saidthen, “If a war is worth fighting for, people will volunteer,” but not enough senators agreed and the amendment died. Congressman and Air Force veteran Peter DeFazio has recently tried again, introducing a bill to repeal draft registration and eliminate the SSS, which he called “an unnecessary, unwanted, archaic, wasteful, and potentially unconstitutional program.” The site Govtrack gives his bill a 3% chance of passing.
A Poor Man’s Draft?
Of course, no conscription system is as fair as we would like it to be. Those with the wherewithal always find ways to avoid military service, as they have since the Civil War when it was possible to pay to get out of the military or fund someone else to go in your place. It comes as little surprise then that an ABC News survey found that “the elites are almost six times more likely than those in the military to say they would be ‘disappointed if a child of mine decided to serve.'”
That bias reinforces the assumption that the AVF is a poor man’s draft. In reality, though, the poorest Americans don’t enlist or fight in our current wars disproportionately. A recent demographic study of the military divides its personnel into five income groups. As it turns out, the poorest fifth (with fewer qualified candidates) and the richest fifth (so many of whom go to college instead) are slightly underrepresented. Statistically, three-fifths of the military comes from middle-class neighborhoods.
There are imbalances: enlistment runs in families and the most fertile recruiting grounds are in the southern states and rural areas, as well as in communities with military installations where potential recruits interact with, or at least see, people in uniform while growing up.
Today’s military has many more women, proportionately more blacks, somewhat less racism and sexism, and clearly offers more benefits to its members than the military of the Vietnam-draft era. Still, the current all-volunteer force comes from a population remarkably similar to the conscripted-and-volunteer force who fought there. Recent recruits are also descriptively like the demographic that significantly voted for Donald Trump in 2016. That’s not to imply that such recruits are all Trump voters, just to suggest that the scribbling classes, who see a volunteer military as grossly unfair, may understand as little about the reasons people enlist in it as they did about the reasons people voted for Trump.
Enlistment is influenced by a number of factors, including inequalities that are increasingly basic to this society, as well as where military recruitment efforts are focused. It is, however, difficult to quantify motives for enlisting. Of the nearly 100 veterans and active-duty personnel from conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and earlier with whom I’ve discussed the reasons they enlisted — admittedly a skewed sample since most of them had come to oppose their wars — economic necessity wasn’t mentioned much more often than patriotism.
The Effects of a Draft
Arguments over the influence and value of a draft revolve around economics, self-interest, the consequences of an isolated military, and the effects of such a military on war policy. The evidence can be bent in various directions to bolster our predilections and beliefs, and yet it’s hard to let go of a nagging feeling that hiring a small, increasingly isolated subset of the population to go to war, while the rest of us go shopping isn’t quite… well, American.
Clearly, a draft would redistribute the burden of America’s forever wars: deployments would be shorter and less frequent, national security a more evenly shared task. A draft could offer more people the social benefits found in military service, including participating in a rite of passage; learning new skills, cooperation, and leadership; and spending an extended time in a place where different populations mix, work, and live together. On the other hand, militaries are still havens of hyper-masculinity and there are other — and dare I suggest, better — ways to make a man out of a boy. Just add political will and a portion of the staggering sums of money now lavished on the military and stir.
A draft could also increase public awareness of war, American-style, to some degree, as happened during the Vietnam era when soldiers circulating in and out of civilian society brought news of their war home with them. So the general public was then far better informed about how that war was being fought and reacted to it in significant ways, including with a large-scale antiwar movement, which in the end would involve many active-duty and retired soldiers.
In comparison, awareness of America’s never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa could hardly be lower (and the response hardly less striking). For instance, a Gallup poll taken monthly asks respondents to name the most important problem the country faces. This past February, no one answered, “war/wars/fear of war,” although it did register a high of 2% the month before. Meanwhile, the only presidential candidate who consistently talks about war policy, Tulsi Gabbard, has been polling in the low single digits.
Not that the current all-volunteer military is doing a particularly noteworthy job of fighting its twenty-first-century forever wars without significant public attention — something else that, in a draft-less America, we get to ignore. The Washington Post recently documented more than 18 years of lies about the prospective odds of victory in Afghanistan, a war most Americans probably do know we’ve been involved in. Two thousand pages of interviews with 400-plus “insiders” conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction showed those in charge of that war to have been as clueless as the public about what victory would look like. (To readers of TomDispatch, the only possible response is: duh.)
If a draft doesn’t necessarily produce a fairer military, that still leaves a primary question for our era of unending wars. Could a draft lead to fewer conflicts? And the answer to that is: possibly, but not certainly. Post-Vietnam research seems to show that conscription decreases widespread public support for going to war — with a host of contingencies and caveats. Researchers don’t argue, however, that reinstating the draft would ultimately keep this country from wars or even from continuing those it’s now involved in. A draft can also escalate wars. After all, if you need more soldiers, you just call them up.
Probably the most significant influence of conscription would be on how the U.S. fights its wars. “The logical extension of a draft would be to make the use of war so much more violent,” Peter Feaver, a scholar of military-civilian relations, told me. A conscripted military would be less efficient than the current all-volunteer one, which is highly trained for modern, technology-driven warfare. So while wars might be fewer, he maintained, they could also be bigger, longer, and bloodier. If true, that would be a significant caveat. So would an observation of Benjamin Fordham about the present situation in his historical study of support for the draft: “The horrors of war have not disappeared simply because Americans have lost touch with them.”
A Conclusion of Sorts
When it became ever more difficult to ignore just which Americans were involved in the horrors of our wars, Congress did what deliberative bodies often do when they don’t want to deal with an issue: created a commission to study it. The National Commission for Military, National, and Public Servicewas launched in 2017 and tasked with, among other things, reconsidering the nature and operations of the Selective Service System, the agency that would oversee any draft, if it were brought back. Among the subjects to be considered was a requirement for women to register for a potential draft and permission for conscientious objectors not to.
An interim report issued last year was not particularly enlightening, other than to note that only three in 10 young Americans are even eligible to enlist. The other seven are either too fat or have criminal convictions (many for drug use), too little education, or too many tattoos. The commission’s final report is due on March 25th and early indications are that it will favor a program to encourage but not require some sort of national service, including the military but not necessarily being drafted into it.
My fingers are crossed that the report won’t opt for the resurrection of the draft because — just speaking personally — I don’t want anyone dragooned into the military, age, gender, or body fat aside. Yet I doubt this will be the last we hear of it. Admittedly, a draft may be a fairer way to distribute one kind of public service, though only if it were fine-tuned to allow few exemptions and defined conscientious objection more generously. But armies exist to fight wars and when U.S. “national security interests” are so broadly defined as to create a continual state of war, that (in this country) passes for peace; when you have a sizable standing military, repeatedly called the best in the history of the world, at bases on every continent except Antarctica; when militarism is bred into our national bones and the military remains the only part of government still widely admired; when we fund it with well over half of all federal discretionary spending; when military operations are increasingly carried out by special operations forces and drone operators in places we’re distinctly under- or uninformed about, and we generally prefer it that way, then you’re going to be using that military for endless war-making. So I can’t see what a revived draft would accomplish, save to salve the guilty consciences of people who would probably avoid it anyway.
A theatrical costumer I knew used to joke that when she wrote her memoir, she would title it, “If the song doesn’t work, change the dress.” Maybe the real conclusion should be that, as long as war is this country’s default option and peace the aberration, reinstating the draft would amount to little more than a change of wardrobe.
Nan Levinson’s most recent book is War is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built.
This article first appeared on TomDispatch.