Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Bringing back the military draft is a terrible idea

By Jason Pye



Perhaps one of my favorite Milton Friedman stories is when he was served on a presidential commission to look at military conscription. The Nobel Prize winning economist listened to General William Westmoreland, who was givening testimony before the commission. Here’s how it played out:

In his testimony before the commission, Mr. Westmoreland said he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. Mr. Friedman interrupted, “General, would you rather command an army of slaves?” Mr. Westmoreland replied, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.” Mr. Friedman then retorted, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.”

Friedman’s words ring just as a true today as they did some 40 years ago. But don’t tell that Thomas Rick, who earlier this penned an editorial in The New York Times explaining why we need to “draft our kids” (and yes, that sound you’re hearing is me banging my head against a wall right now):

In late June, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan, called for reinstating the draft. “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”

This was the first time in recent years that a high-profile officer has broken ranks to argue that the all-volunteer force is not necessarily good for the country or the military. Unlike Europeans, Americans still seem determined to maintain a serious military force, so we need to think about how to pay for it and staff it by creating a draft that is better and more equitable than the Vietnam-era conscription system.

A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.

Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.

And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.

This is similar to proposals we’ve seen over the last few years to impose some sort of “universal service” or “national service,” which would require young Americans to engage in their communities in some manner. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has pushed thisin nearly every Congress for the last several years, again pushing the “national service” angle. Ricks, however, doesn’t sugarcoat it much. He plainly says that it’s a draft.

Over at Reason, Lucy Steigerwald notes the lack of complaints on bringing back the draft from the Left (does anyone else remember when they hated war and the idea of a draft?):

Ricks is not being laughed of the media for this suggestion, though most aren’t fully jumping on board. Adam Weinstein over at Mother Jones is disappointingly okay with Ricks’ suggestions. He says they’re “worthy of serious consideration.”  Matt Yglesias atSlate scorns the suggestion, noting that raising taxes would be a lot easier way to save government money; but still thinks that a draft is sometimes acceptable. And of course, nobody — nobody — loves the idea of National Service more than perennial Reason favoriteDavid Brooks.

The underlying argument that Rangel has give for his legislation to reintroduce the draft is repeated by Ricks. By bringing back the draft, may “make Americans think more carefully before going to war. Imagine the savings — in blood, tears and national treasure — if we had thought twice about whether we really wanted to invade Iraq.”

There is probably some truth to that. But Steigerwald takes that line down in eloquent fashion, and also by quoting my good friend, Stephen Gordon:

It’s a compelling argument that if more people felt the sting of war, so easily ignorable for most Americans, that war would become less likely. Public outrage over Vietnam being motivated by the threat of the draft is one obvious example, but even with a draft, that war lasted more than a decade. A lot of people could die for the hopes that the public would be outraged fast enough to stop the war.

Certainly if warmongering politicians feared for their kids, they might try a little harder to avoid invading another country, but as libertarian consultant Stephen P. Gordon, who served in the Army for ten years, told Reason over email, “If McChrystal thinks that every citizen will be taking the same risk as we consider going to war, he’s sadly mistaken. Somehow the rich and the elite will find a loophole; historically they always do.”

Not only are men like Ricks, McChrystal, Brooks, and Rangel willing to sacrifice the freedom and maybe the principles and lives of millions of youths, who apparently are communal U.S. property even after they reach the age of majority, but they want to use these men and women to build some delusional picture of mandatory civic coziness that does not and should not exist.

The Thirteenth Amendment is supposed to prevent involuntary servitude. Unfortunately, that hasn’t prevented the federal government from conscripting Americans from going to ill-advised wars. The idea bring back the draft because our foreign policy is misguided is absolutely insane. Using the state to compel Americans to enter military service, under threat of penalty or otherwise, is slavery. There is no getting around that, folks.

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