Not only are we not drafting our young men. We are not even planning to draft them. Elected leaders are not even talking about the possibility of drafting them. That terrorists might poison municipal water supplies, spray anthrax from crop dusters, or suicidally infect themselves with small pox and stroll through busy city streets, is no longer considered farfetched. That we might need to draft some of our people to counter these threats—now that’s considered farfetched, to the extent that it’s considered at all.
America needs to wake up. We’re at war. We need a draft. But because this is a new kind of conflict, we need a new kind of draft. A 21st century draft would be less focused on preparing men for conventional combat-which probably won’t be that extensive in this war—than on the arguably more daunting task of guarding against and responding to terrorism at home and abroad. If structured right, this new draft might not be as tough to sell as you would think.
Churchill famously said that America could be counted on to do the right thing, after exhausting all other possibilities. On the subject of the draft, we are rapidly reaching that point of exhaustion. A draft might be avoidable if enough Americans were volunteering to serve. But we’re not. Soon after the events of September 11, newspapers reported that the phones in military recruitment offices were ringing off the hook. Follow up with stories showed that all that clamor had brought virtually no new recruits. So far, our patriotism, though sincerely felt, has largely amounted to flag-waving and coat holding.
Perhaps we could get by without a draft if our all-volunteer military had more than enough troops on hand. But it doesn’t. The actions so far taken in Afghanistan, and the buildup to support those actions, have been relatively modest. Yet with personnel cut by a third since the end of the Cold War, the services were hard-pressed to meet ongoing missions even before September 11. There is already talk of pulling U.S. forces out of the Balkans, something the Bush administration wanted to do anyway. But it will not please our NATO allies, whose long-term support we will need in the fight against terrorism, and who will have to fill the gap with more troops of their own.
We are calling up large numbers of reservists, but because so many of them work as police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians, our municipalities are being drained of precisely the people we will need if (when) the terrorists return.
Indeed, it seems clear that we are going to need thousands more men and women in uniform to deal with terrorist threats here at home. The president has appointed former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as his new homeland security “czar.” The federal government will be taking over airport security, either providing the services directly or supervising private firms providing it. However the restructuring shakes out, we are clearly going to need more federal armed personnel to guard dams, nuclear power plants, sports complexes, and U.S. embassies abroad; more border patrol and customs agents to keep terrorists and their weapons from entering the country; more INS agents track down immigrants who have overstayed their visas; more coast guard personnel to inspect ships; more air marshals to ride on passenger jets; and more FBI agents to uncover terrorist cells still operating within and outside our borders.
Where are all these brave men and women going to come from? Certainly, America is rich enough, and the need vital enough, that we could afford to offer significant salaries to lure candidates. But even in a weak economy, there is a finite number of competent people willing to choose a career that requires wearing a uniform, performing often dull work, such as guard duty, with alertness, and being ready at any moment to risk one’s life for others. A whole range of government agencies and private firms, from the U.S. Army to Brinks to local police departments, must compete for this limited labor pool. And the pool is probably not expanding.
Consider this: Between 1980 and 2000, surveys showed that the number of young people saying they would definitely not serve in the military rose from 40 to 64 percent. The only reason this change of attitude did not destroy military recruiting efforts is that the need for new recruits plummeted with the end of the Cold War. But the military is feeling the pinch nonetheless. The armed services have had to double starting pay to recruit half as many enlistees, and the quality of new recruits is not what it should be. The number of enlistees scoring in the top half of the armed forces qualification tests has dropped by a third since the mid-1990s. In fiscal year 2000, the Army took in some 380 recruits with felony arrest records, double the number in 1998. Desertions are also on the rise. Most telling, over one-third of those entering the military fail to complete their enlistments. Contrast this with the one in ten of draftees who did not complete his two-year obligation during the Cold War. Much better to have a soldier serve a short term honorably than to be discharged for cause.
Reinstituting the draft is the obvious way to meet the suddenly increased manpower needs for military and homeland security. This fact would have seemed obvious to previous generations of Americans. That today we aren’t even talking about a draft it is a measure of the deep psychological resistance Americans have developed to anything that smacks of the state compelling anyone to do anything. Ideology plays a role here. In general, the left doesn’t like the military, and the right doesn’t like anything that interferes with the marketplace. When it comes to national needs, the left believes in something for nothing, the right in every man for himself.
The psychological resistance also gains comfort from arguments made by the opponents of the draft and by the military hierarchy, which also resists a return to conscription. (The military resists the draft largely because it resists all change; it opposed ending the draft in 1973).
One argument is that today’s military requires professional soldiers, especially for overseas mission. Let’s leave aside the fact that in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, most combat soldiers had only six months of training before being sent to war. Let’s also grant that because of today’s high-tech weapons and complex war-fighting strategies, the actual combat must be left to professional soldiers (though there is some reason for skepticism here). Still, there are hundreds of thousands of vital military jobs—not peeling potatoes—that could be filled with short-term draftees.
One example is peacekeeping. From experience with U.S. deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo, we know that combat troops tend to chafe at peacekeeping duty when they are stuck on bases with nothing to do and little opportunity to train with their weapons. But it’s also clear that military police thrive on such assignments, because they get to perform the jobs they are trained for—patrolling neighborhoods, arresting troublemakers, intervening in disputes with a minimum of force. Military police work doesn’t require that many special skills. After two months of basic and four months of special police training, new recruits are shipped off to places like Tuzla, and they do just fine. The average tour of duty in Bosnia or Kosovo: about 6 months. Short-term draftees, in other words, could easily do these M.P. jobs, and many others besides. This would free up more professional soldiers to fight the war on terrorism without requiring that the U.S. to abandon other commitments.
Draftees would not have to be offered the relatively high wages and benefits that it takes to lure voluntary recruits (an increasing number of whom are married with families). This would leave more funds available to raise pay for the kinds of personnel that the military is having a terribly hard time holding on to, such as computer specialists, mid-level officers, and master sergeants. To put it baldly, we now have overpaid recruits and underpaid sergeants. In the draft era, the pay ratio between a master sergeant and a private was seven to one; today it is less than three to one. Restoring something like the old balance is the best way to upgrade retention in hard-to-fill skills and leadership positions.
All these arguments apply equally to the homeland security front. There is no reason why conscripts, with professional supervision, can’t work as border guards, customs agents, anthrax inoculators, or disaster-relief specialists. Federal law enforcement agencies and unions will deny this with all their bureaucratic might, but it’s true. It takes less than five months to train someone to be a border guard. The FBI turns applicants with law or accounting degrees into fully-fledged agents after only four months of training.
Other developed nations that have retained the draft typically use conscripts for homeland security. In Israel, draftees serve in both the regular military and as as lightly armed “guard police” along the Gaza Strip. They also man the “home command,” which provides security and other services in the country’s cities during emergencies, such as the scud missile attacks during the Gulf War. In France, which finally abandoned its draft last year (believing that threats to its security had diminished), conscripts worked alongside professional police in the Gendarmerie and provided emergency airport security when terrorists set off bombs in the Paris Metro in 1995. In Germany, most draft-age men choose to serve either in the military or in some form of civilian service, such as working with the elderly. But about one in ten chooses to work in a state or federal police force, providing such things as border security, or they train as volunteer firefighters and serve part-time for seven years.
One can imagine a similar three-tiered system of youth service in America, with 18-month terms of duty for all citizens age 18 to 25. In this new-style draft, conscripts would have what all Americans now demand: choice. They could choose to serve in the military, in homeland security, or in a civilian national service program like AmeriCorps (there’s no reason women couldn’t be drafted for the latter two categories). In return, draftees would get GI-bill-style college scholarships, with higher awards for those who accept more dangerous duty.
Back in Vietnam days, opting to fulfill your draft requirement stateside in, say, the National Guard, was considered a way to save your skin. That won’t be so true in the new war on terrorism. As we saw with the deaths of firefighters in New York, homeland security duty can be dangerous.
That brings up the second argument against the draft: that the sons of the elite will find ways to avoid service. Of course, that’s even truer in an age of all-volunteer forces. But it’s fair to ask: How can a draft be made equitable?
The best way would be to require all young people to serve. One reason more young people don’t serve now is the fear that while they’re wearing the uniform, their peers will be out having fun and getting a leg up in their careers. If everyone were required to serve, no one would feel like a sucker. They might even enjoy the experience; surveys show that most former draftees look back on their time in the service with fondness and pride.
It’s possible, however, that the country won’t have the need for every eligible young person to serve. What then? One answer is a lottery with no student deferments. (Under Selective Service rules established after Vietnam, college deferments are no longer allowed.)
Part of what makes Americans dubious of conscription is our memory of how the class-biased draft of the Vietnam War-era helped drive America apart. We tend to forget that the more equitable draft that existed during World War II and for 20 years afterwards helped bring the country together. During the peaceful years of the 1950s—a time not unlike our own, when the threat of mass destruction hung in the air—most Ivy League men had to spend two years in uniform, before or after college, working and bunking with others of very different backgrounds and races (the military, remember, was about the only racially integrated institution at the time).
This shared experience helped instill in those who served, as in the national culture generally, a sense of unity and moral seriousness that we would not see again—until after September 11, 2001. It’s a shame that it has taken terrorist attacks to awaken us to the reality of our shared national fate. We should use this moment to rebuild institutions like the draft that will keep us awake to this reality even as the memory of the attacks fade.
A 21st century draft might be more welcome than most of us realize, especially among young people whose lives will be affected by it. While national leaders and pundits have avoided the subject, a potential return of the draft has been a hot topic of conversation among young people since September 11. “If it’s something they want us to do for our country to keep us safe, then go for it,” Ryan Aaron, a senior at U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City, told National Journal. Another young man, Julian Medina, a day laborer cleaning up office buildings near the still-smoldering World Trade Center, told The Washington Post: “If I have to, I’d fight to catch the man who did this.” Not all young people are so gung ho; many, in fact, hate the idea. But at least they’re talking about it. If their views can move from news pages to the editorial pages, and ultimately to the floors of Congress, then we could be on our way to a more secure and more unified America.
Charles Moskos, a former draftee, is Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. Paul Glastris is editor in chief of The Washington Monthly and a senior fellow at the Western Policy Center.