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No Panacea: Why a draft wouldn’t stop a war

By Andrew J. Polsky

The long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have prompted a number of politicians and pundits to recommend a return to conscription. On several occasions Charles Rangel, the Democratic representative from New York City, has introduced bills to revive the draft. Stanley McChrystal, former military commander in Afghanistan, has urged that the country not fight another war without a draft. His call was the point of departure for noted journalist Thomas E. Ricks, who proposes a law mandating universal service for all 18-year-olds, with an option for either military or civilian public service.

Advocates offer a number of justifications for conscription, including the idea that a more representative military is healthy for American society and the notion that we should spread the risk of casualties across the entire population. One particular justification, though, calls for close inspection—the notion that a conscript military might, as Ricks puts it, “make Americans think more carefully before going to war.” At a time when the public has become disenchanted with recent military interventions, the assertion that a draft would give leaders pause before they resort to the use of force resonates.

There is, however, no reason to place any confidence is conscription as a war prophylactic.

At first glance, it may appear that the end of the draft during the Vietnam era increased the likelihood that the United States would engage in military action. Military interventions have occurred more frequently since the all-volunteer military was reestablished in the early 1970s. But the rise came after the end of the Cold War in 1989. In a world with but one remaining military superpower, it falls upon that superpower to police the world order. A draft wouldn’t alter the geopolitical status of the United States.

Although proponents of conscription haven’t spelled out the political logic behind its supposed preventive effects, the reasoning might go like this: a president would hesitate to commit American troops for fear of provoking a political reaction; the American people would be much less accepting of the rationale for war if their own sons and daughters were likely to be in the line of fire; and Congress would be less easily bulldozed into endorsing a military adventure if lawmakers’ constituents questioned or opposed it.

On close inspection, however, none of these claims seems plausible. To begin with, presidents never take the decision to use force lightly and they have always been mindful of the need for public support. But when they face what they regard as an international crisis, they have been very effective in framing the situation in terms that generate public backing. Whether we have a conscript or volunteer military seems to have no bearing on a president’s ability to tap the rallying effect of a crisis. Lyndon Johnson won public approval for his response to alleged North Vietnamese attacks in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964, as did George W. Bush when he announced the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

The military is at least as representative of the population today as it was during the Vietnam era. Generous deferments back then let wealthier college students put off military service. Certainly we can imagine a clean conscription bill that treats all young people the same way. But how often does Congress pass such pure measures?

Congress tends to give a president the benefit of the doubt when the national security seems imperiled, draft or no draft. When the Tonkin Gulf Resolution came to the floor, only two senators cast negative votes; no representatives opposed it. Congress showed much less enthusiasm when George H.W. Bush sought a resolution endorsing military action to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. The measure barely passed the Senate (52 votes in favor, 47 opposed). That the military in 1991 consisted entirely of volunteers did not make lawmakers any more eager for war.

Part of the faith in the war-inhibiting power of conscription may reflect our memories of the massive antiwar protests of the Vietnam era. But public support for a president’s war policy will decline sharply in any conflict that becomes a stalemate. Indeed, history suggests that it will take roughly as long for serious opposition to emerge whether the war is fought by draftees or volunteers. In the case of Vietnam, massive street protests erupted in late 1967, a bit more than two years after Johnson sent American troops, and he was repudiated politically in the New Hampshire primary in March 1968. Opposition to the Iraq War entered the political mainstream in November 2005 when Representative John Murtha urged immediate withdrawal. Here, too, it took two years for a significant part of the public to turn against the war.

Other arguments can be made for a draft. General McChrystal makes a compelling case that when we go to war, the burden needs to be shared across the entire national community, so “everybody has skin in the game.” (If we are serious about broad sacrifice, though, a tax surcharge to pay for the war will reach more people than any draft would.) But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that conscription makes the use of force less likely. The all-volunteer military doesn’t cause wars and a draft won’t prevent them.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

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Recent Comments

  1. Art Barie

    I generally concur with your take on reinstating the draft, but disagree that GEN McChrystal’s argument was in any way valid. I’ve written on that here:


  2. Andrew Polsky

    Interesting that we both note that in the past the draft was hardly equitable, witness the multiple deferments Dick Cheney received during the Vietnam Era.

  3. […] volunteer probably does not make the US more willing to enter wars: historically, drafts don’t actually deter presidents from getting the US into […]

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