The way to end America's forever wars is to bring back the draft
Around Memorial Day each year, I take my children to Arlington National Cemetery.
I’ve got friends buried there, and I think the best way to tend to their memory is to tell my kids stories about them. Who knows, maybe when my kids are grown up, they’ll pass some of those stories down to their own kids. I try not to take them on Memorial Day itself, as it is packed, so usually we wind up there after school the week before. Two years ago on our visit, a detachment from the Old Guard–the ceremonial troops who work at Arlington–was lined up in formation behind a riderless horse and caisson. My kids asked me what was going on, and I explained that the soldiers were preparing for a funeral.
As I told this to my daughter, I caught myself staring across the Potomac, toward downtown Washington. Observing the indifferent afternoon hustle, a sadness came over me. But I was with my kids, so I shook it off. We visited a few more graves, I told a few more stories. Then we left.
On the drive home my daughter asked if someday she would have to fight in a war.
“Only if you want to, kiddo,” I answered, but could feel my response stick in my throat.
I then glanced into the rearview mirror, at that little sliver of her face that was just her eyes, and I watched as she tried to understand the difference.
2019 marks the first year someone born after 9/11 will be eligible to enlist in the armed forces to potentially serve in Afghanistan or another theater in the global war on terror. Never before in our history has an American been able to fight in a war that is older than they are. Currently our civil-military divide is arguably as wide as it has ever been. The burden of nearly two decades of war–nearly 7,000 dead and more than 50,000 wounded–has been largely sustained by 1% of our population. From Somalia to Syria, American forces are engaged in combat. With recent military posturing against Iran, against North Korea, it is also easy to imagine our country sleepwalking into another major theater war. To avoid those outcomes–a major theater war, the continuance of our “terror wars,” the attendant loss of life–we must move the issues of war and peace from the periphery of our national discourse to its center. And the only way to do that, I increasingly believe, is to reconsider the draft.
Congress has also taken a renewed interest in the draft, having created in 2016 a bipartisan National Commission on Military, National and Public Service charged with two missions. The first is to determine “whether the Selective Service registration requirement should be extended to include women”–this in light of the 2015 reforms that allow women unrestricted military service. The second is to “explor[e] whether the government should require all Americans to serve in some capacity as part of their civic duty and the duration of that service.” The commission is slated to submit these recommendations to Congress and the President in March 2020. This past January, while it continues to hold hearings in communities across the country, it released its first interim report.
The report found that Selective Service is “a mystery to most Americans,” who were not aware that all men ages 18 to 25 have a legal obligation to register in case of a draft. Although the draft was abolished in 1973, the Selective Service registration requirement was resumed in 1980, when after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a capability to conscript was again deemed critical to the national defense. The system for registering for Selective Service is passive: it occurs when you apply for your driver’s license or federal student aid. Most American males aren’t even aware that they’re registered for the draft. Furthermore, the commission’s interim report deals explicitly with the numbers we’d be talking about if a draft ever again occurred. Under the military’s current standards, 71% of Americans ages 17 to 24 do not meet the physical or mental qualifications for military service. People often assume the draft was compulsory for an entire generation, but this was never the case. Of those killed in Vietnam, the war most inextricably linked to the draft, 69.3% were volunteers.
To wage war, America has always had to create a social construct to sustain it, from the colonial militias and French aid in the Revolution, to the introduction of the draft and the first-ever income tax to fund the Civil War, to the war bonds and industrial mobilization of World War II. In the past, a blend of taxation and conscription meant it was difficult for us to sustain a war beyond several years. Neither citizens nor citizen soldiers had much patience for commanders, or Commanders in Chief, who muddled along. Take, for example, Washington reading Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis as a plea to his disbanding army before it famously crossed the Delaware (“These are the times that try men’s souls …”) or Lincoln, whose perceived mismanagement of the Civil War made his defeat in the 1864 presidential election a foregone conclusion (until Atlanta fell to the Union two months before the vote). The history of American warfare–even the “good” wars–is a history of our leaders desperately trying to preserve the requisite national will because Americans would not abide a costly, protracted war. This is no longer true.
Today the way we wage war is ahistorical–and seemingly without end. Never before has America engaged in a protracted conflict with an all-volunteer military that was funded primarily through deficit spending. Of our current $22 trillion national debt, approximately $6 trillion is a bill for the post-9/11 wars. These have become America’s longest, surpassing Vietnam by 12 years. And it’s been by design. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was virtually no serious public debate about a war tax or a draft. Our leaders responded to those attacks by mobilizing our government and military, but when it came to citizens, President George W. Bush said, “I have urged our fellow Americans to go about their lives.” And so, the war effort moved to the shopping mall.
In fairness to Bush, when read as a response to a terrorist attack designed to disrupt American life, his remarks are understandable. However, when read in the context of what would become a two-decade military quagmire, those same remarks seem negligent, even calculated. This is particularly true for a generation of leaders (both Republican and Democrat) who came of age in Vietnam, when indignation at the draft mobilized the boomer generation to end the war, one that otherwise might have festered on like the wars today.
If after 9/11 we had implemented a draft and a war tax, it seems doubtful that the millennial generation would’ve abided 18 successive years of their draft numbers being called, or that their boomer parents would’ve abided a higher tax rate to, say, ensure that the Afghan National Army could rely on U.S. troops for one last fighting season in the Hindu Kush. Instead, deficit spending along with an all-volunteer military has given three successive administrations a blank check with which to wage war.
And wage war they have. Without congressional approval. Without updating the current Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress one week after 9/11. Currently we live in a highly militarized society but one which most of us largely perceive to be “at peace.” This is one of the great counterintuitive realities of the draft. A draft doesn’t increase our militarization. It decreases it.
A draft places militarism on a leash.
In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, 42% of Americans didn’t know whether we were still at war in Afghanistan. There are few debates in public life that should merit greater attention from its citizens than whether or not to commit their sons and daughters to fight and possibly to die. Imagine the debate surrounding troop levels in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria, if some of those troops were draftees, or if your own child were eligible for the draft. Imagine if we lived in a society where the commitment of 18- and 19-year-olds to a combat zone generated the same breathless attention as a college-admissions scandal. Imagine Twitter with a draft going on; snowplow parents along with millennial cancel culture could save us by canceling the next unnecessary war.
By the end of Vietnam, after President Nixon eliminated the draft, the U.S. military was in shambles. It had morale problems. Drug problems. Racial problems. It had lost America’s first war, and with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and our failed bid to rescue our hostages from Tehran on the horizon, it seemed poised to lose the next one. From the detritus of the post-Vietnam military, a generation of officers–Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, Anthony Zinni, to name a few–began the decades-long work of thoroughly rebuilding and professionalizing its ranks. The most visible result of their toil played out in 1991, with scenes of ultra-sleek U.S. battle tanks trouncing the Iraqi military (the world’s fifth largest at the time) in a whopping hundred-hour-long ground war. More recently, we’ve seen the high-tech efficiency and lethality of our military in its rapid ouster of the Taliban from Afghanistan and in the rush to Baghdad in 2003.
Today, among many officers, particularly those senior officers who shepherded in that change, the idea of returning draftees to the military seems entirely regressive. Why would you degrade the finest fighting machine the world has ever known? It’s not a logic without merit, but professionalization has had its own drawbacks, ones that are perhaps more insidious to the fabric of a democracy than a draft would be.
Not long ago, I was speaking on a panel about the integration of women into frontline combat units. The Department of Defense had recently approved its new policy, and I argued that it was the military’s job–particularly that of my own service branch, the Marine Corps, which began implementation at a stubborn pace–to execute and support that policy, regardless of reservations. A retired Marine colonel in the audience became incensed. He stood, prodding: on average, women weren’t as strong as men. Could I deny this? No. Men and women were often sexually attracted to one another. Could I deny this? Also no. Then how could I argue for integration when it would so clearly degrade our ability to fight and win wars?
I replied that our military didn’t exist solely to fight and win our wars. Our military was also a representation of us.
The colonel then turned to the crowd and, as if to prove his point, announced that if we took all the women in the room and pitted them against all the men in a “fight to the death,” everyone knew who would win.
The idea that the military exists solely to fight and win our nation’s wars is as juvenile as the colonel challenging the audience to throw down. Might makes right is not the policy of the U.S. government, or at least shouldn’t be. If our military doesn’t represent our values, it can threaten to undermine them. The Founding Fathers understood this. Their revolution relied on citizen soldiers, and they were suspicious of standing armies. It’s a suspicion we’ve since shrugged off.
The concern about degrading our military’s capabilities through a draft is legitimate. Conscription has only ever been used in this country to augment a core force of volunteers, and often to great effect. Our World War II military was 61.2% conscripted. In Vietnam, it was 25%. The question then becomes: Could you introduce a certain number of conscripts into the all-volunteer military at a lower rate without a meaningful degradation in its capability? And what would that rate be? Ten percent (130,000 people), 5% (65,000 people), 1% (13,000 people)–and would those numbers be meaningful?
What would be most meaningful might not actually be the number of individuals drafted, but the specter of the draft itself. The idea that citizenship has a cost, that you owe something to society. Which leads to the question of who owes what?
One of the central criticisms of the Vietnam-era draft was that it drew disproportionately from those of low socioeconomic backgrounds, while the children of the wealthy and influential were able to finagle exceptions. Under rules promoted by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, draft boards across the country were required to call up men with IQ scores below the military’s minimum standards to offset the recruitment deficit caused by college student deferments. Take for instance Harvard College, in which 19 alumni were killed in Vietnam, compared with Thomas Alva Edison High School, in lower-income northern Philadelphia. Despite being approximately one-quarter the size of Harvard, Edison high school suffered 64 alumni killed in action. Of the Harvard alumni killed, only one was a draftee.
Who gets drafted has always been just as important as whether or not there is a draft. In conflicts like Vietnam and the Civil War, the draft exacerbated social inequalities by providing exemptions for the wealthy and influential. A certain type of draft could, however, become a tool to promote greater equality. It could create greater social cohesion. And, lastly, it could create greater accountability between our policies and our population. In the era of the 1%, of hyperpartisanship, of identity politics and divisiveness, a reverse-engineered draft could prove a powerful tool to counteract these corrosive forces.
Here’s what a reverse-engineered draft could look like:
The Department of Defense would annually set a certain number of draftees for induction into the armed forces for two-year enlistments, which is half the typical enlistment of a volunteer. This number would be kept small as a percentage of the overall active-duty force, let’s say 5%, or 65,000 people, which is roughly the size of the Coast Guard. By keeping the number small, we would retain the culture of professionalism born after the troubles of the post-Vietnam military. Upon induction, new service members are typically assigned military occupational specialties, like medic, truck driver or radio operator. However, in the past, another way people gamed the draft was to gain cushy assignments through influence within the military. In a reverse-engineered draft, inductees would only be eligible for military occupational specialties within the combat arms–infantry, tanks, artillery and the like. And with the recent integration of women, the gender divide would no longer be an issue as women would also be eligible not only for the draft but also for frontline service.
And no one could skip this draft, unlike previous drafts, where through the practice of hiring substitutes during the Civil War, or the hiring of certain podiatrists during the Vietnam War, the well-off adeptly avoided conscription. This placed the burden of national defense on those with the least resources. And when those wars turned to quagmires, elites in this country–whose children did not often fill the ranks–were less invested in the outcome.
Which comes to a final, essential aspect of the reverse-engineered draft: those whose families fall into the top income tax bracket would be the only ones eligible. These are the children of the most influential in our country, those whose financial success in business, or tech, or entertainment have placed them in a position to bundle political contributions among their friends, or have a call returned by a Senator or member of the House. If the college-admissions scandal surrounding William Singer’s company the Key is any indication, it shows that this is a demographic that does not sit idly by with regard to their children’s well-being.
The military does–as the agitated colonel pointed out–exist to fight and win our nation’s wars. But it is also one of our great engines of societal mobility. Those who enlist are taught a trade, and if they earn an honorable discharge they’re granted tuition for college under the GI Bill. From the greatest generation to my own millennial generation, the social result has been transformative. And the military will continue to attract the professionals who wish to serve out a 40-year career, as well as the ambitious citizens who wish to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a four-year enlistment and the GI Bill. Our military continues to be an engine of societal mobility, but it also needs to return to being what it once was, a societal leveler, in which men and women of diverse backgrounds, at an impressionable age, were forced together in the pursuit of a mission larger than themselves.
Why send our sons and daughters to fight and die in the name of unity? Couldn’t they sign up for Habitat for Humanity? Yes, they could, and opportunities to serve outside the military would still be important. However, an argument for mandatory national public service that excludes military service forgets perhaps the most important consequence of a draft, which is that with a draft the barrier to entering new wars would be significantly higher.
We were more than 10 years into the wars before I ever heard anyone talk about the draft. It was the summer of 2012, a weekday afternoon in August, and I was in a motorcade escorting the body of Gunnery Sergeant Jonathan W. Gifford, who had been killed in Afghanistan a couple of weeks before, to Arlington National Cemetery. His coffin was loaded on a caisson, a riderless horse trailing behind, just like that day with my daughter. I was sitting shotgun while my friend T– drove. I’d known Gifford awhile, the two of us having served in the same special-operations unit, but Gifford and T– had been closer friends. As T– stared across the Potomac, to the lunchtime hustle of downtown Washington, he was angry, “Not a single person out there cares that Giff’s dead. They don’t even know.”
“Is what it is,” I said, affecting the doomy pragmatism fashionable among professional soldiers of that time.
T–, however, was less sanguine. “F-ck it, man. I’m for a draft,” he said while gazing past the river, as if with those words alone he might condemn all those oblivious civilians to a yearlong tour in Helmand province.
T– was the consummate professional. He’d deployed as a special operator in Afghanistan, Iraq and several other war zones. If anyone believed in the sanctity of the all-volunteer military, it should have been him. So he couldn’t be serious. Could he imagine how we’d perform with our ranks filled with draftees. “We’d suck at fighting,” I said.
And he answered, “I’m not sure we need to be as good at this as we are.”
At the time it surprised me to hear the most seasoned military professional I knew call for a draft. But it shouldn’t have. That day we’d been fighting for more than a decade and were poised to fight on for at least another. The professionals across the river rushing to lunches while we buried Giff infuriated T–. Their indifference fueled these wars. As a soldier with three kids, too close to retirement to start a new career, he could say their indifference was, literally, killing his friends. And, with each successive deployment, also threatening to kill him. But could we blame civilians for their apathy? No one asked them to care about the wars. How to make them care? His answer was the draft. It’s become mine too.
Ackerman is the author of three novels and the memoir Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning. He fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine