On Conscription and Military Effectiveness

Every so often a Washington, D.C., pundit decides to preach to the public about the wonderfulness of conscription. Almost inevitably, the pundit who tells us how great it is to have citizen-soldiers serving on our behalf, against their will, has never served a day in uniform himself. Since the end of conscription in the United States in 1973, a couple generations have passed where nobody has served in the military except voluntarily. In America, this means that very few of our elites have donned any uniform, and among the D.C. commentariat the percentage of never-served approaches 100%.

I’ve enjoyed being an anomaly when I’ve traveled in D.C. circles, as someone who actually has served in uniform, but I realize what an outlier I am. My family has a tradition of military service stretching back more generations than we remember, and my own service was expected in an unspoken way: I suppose I’m passing the same onto my sons. But in 21st century America, at least in the places where PhDs like me circulate, that marks you as an anomaly, if not a weirdo, when you admit that, actually, you were in the military. It’s a great conversation starter and/or stopper, if you travel in the “right” circles in our country, where you’re more likely to find people who’ve been to rehab or done time (a tennis prison, mind you), than who’ve served Uncle Sam in uniform.

Which makes the elite’s intermittent fetish for conscription all the stranger and, to me, distasteful. Most recently, The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank has exhorted us to “restore the draft.” Here our pundit drags out the usual tropes – it’s bad for both democracy and the military that so few members of Congress are veterans, the people are disconnected from the forces, and by the way maybe our policymakers would engage in fewer stupid wars of choice if kids from elite families were getting blown apart by IEDs – and, let me say, I find myself in agreement with much of that (very familiar) line of argument.

That said, I’d find Milbank more persuasive if he’d decided to join the military, even for a little while, rather than go to Yale, as he did (where he was Skull & Bones, in case you wondered). Additionally he cites Switzerland as an example of a successful citizen army. Now, I’ve repeatedly praised Switzerland for its cost-effective and highly sensible defense policies, and I’ve lauded Austria too for keeping conscription even when almost everyone else is ditching it. But what relevance this has to present-day America, a global power with far-reaching defense responsibilities, I cannot fathom. A Swiss-style mass reserve force would make a great deal of sense if the United States worried about actual invasion from Canada or Mexico, something which even Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn’t think is a realistic threat. Otherwise, not so much

Moreover, what would the U.S. military do with all those people? Since, unless you want to replicate the worst features of the pre-1973 draft, when flimsy exemptions abounded that privileged the privileged, the Selective Service system would have to direct millions of young men (and women too? how, in gender-equal 21st century America, could they be excluded?) into the forces. Even allowing that a high percentage of young people would be kept out on grounds of rising obesity and general idiocy that are spreading in wildfire fashion among American youths – many place that number at seventy-five percent unfit for military service these days – the Pentagon would need to find lots of make-work work for many big battalions of teenagers.

I don’t hear anyone suggesting a draft period of two years, as it was before 1973, so we’d be talking about a one year – twelve months – service period at most (Austria is down to six months coerced service, as a reference point, which has limited functional utility for the active forces.). Which would mean the U.S. military would have to invest in a vast training system resulting in lots of units filled with half-trained troops plus many others counting the days until they get out. It’s not difficult to see why you hardly ever meet career military types, of any rank, with any enthusiasm for restoring peacetime conscription.

That perspective was captured nicely by retired Major General Robert Scales, U.S. Army, who penned a pointed riposte to Dana Milbank. Entitled “Drafted armies are self-killing machines,” the article is as subtle as its author, and it delivers the shellacking to not-even-a-REMF D.C. pundits that they deserve. I have decidedly mixed views on MG Scales, whose take on Professional Military Education I find questionable, but he’s a bona fide Vietnam war hero and a scholar who deserves to be taken seriously even when – perhaps especially when – he pontificates in this fashion.

In his article, Scales trots out all the myriad reasons why restoring a draft in present-day America is a non-starter, including mentioning just how unfair that draft was, as he witnessed in Vietnam, when the better educated and better-off could avoid service in the Poor Bloody Infantry that incurs over seventy percent of our casualties in war. Those frequently unwilling foot soldiers, usually poorly trained and less than motivated, were killed off in high numbers, without adding much to military effectiveness or battlefield success. He concludes with a statement that I find depressing in its accuracy:

National service sounds like a utopian concept for social leveling, and it might be if it were applied fairly. It might be applied fairly during peacetime. But this is America. When the bullets start to fly Mom and Dad from the middle and upper classes will find a nice internship for their child in a soup kitchen or a Congressman’s office. But the less well connected will, as always, go to war poorly prepared, untrained and resentful.

Sadly, MG Scales is correct here, and all honest Americans know it. Not content to take a flamethrower to the present day and our recent past, he piles on about World War II, his father’s war, saying some unsayable things about the alleged Greatest Generation:

Yet in my father’s war, thanks to a corrupt draft, infantry came from the lowest mental categories and were universally smaller and weaker than soldiers drafted for non-combat specialties. Thus it should surprise no one that better trained and acculturated German soldiers had a field day killing Americans with great skill in the hedgerows of Normandy. 

This is one of those dirty little historical secrets that’s hidden in plain sight for seven decades. Ask any aged German veteran, he’ll be happy to tell you just how weak American infantry, drawn from the unwilling and the weak, actually was. Historians have known this for a long time, it’s just not something very politic to harp on, as it doesn’t jibe with Greatest Generation myth-making. There’s a reason our movies tend to focus on elites like the 101st Airborne Division, comprised of highly motivated and superbly trained volunteers, since the average U.S. Army division was routinely chewed up by the tired Wehrmacht.

One of the shocking things to military historians is how shattered German units, after being wrecked on the Eastern Front and filled up with middle-aged dads and granddads plus green teenagers, managed to defeat U.S. units whenever it was a fair fight. If you want to see the U.S. Army as it actually was, focus less on Hollywood-friendly moments and more on hard slogs like the Battle for the Hürtgen Forest, the longest lasting battle ever fought by the U.S. Army yet one hardly any Americans have heard of. Happily, American artillery and airpower, which were superb, managed to compensate for the weakness of our infantry on the road to victory. Our best generals knew this. Patton, surely an expert witness, observed at the end of the mighty struggle, “I do not have to tell you who won the war. You know. The artillery did,” adding acidly, “The poorer the infantry, the more artillery it needs; the American infantry needs all it can get.”

MG Scales is making his point perhaps a bit too strongly for this military historian. There were benefits to the draft, not least that during the Cold War it pushed quite a few young men, usually the more intelligent ones, to volunteer for three years in the military doing a job of their choosing, often in the Navy or Air Force, rather than face two years with the infantry or an equally unrewarding “gut” job (my father was one of those guys).

But Bob Scales is more right than wrong. Talk of restoring the draft in 2013 America, as the military contracts after a dozen years of war in the Middle East, is sheer fantasy unconnected to geopolitical or budgetary reality. Moreover, unless we’re willing to institute a draft more equitably than we’ve done in recent memory, conscription can be immoral too, no matter what D.C. pundits who’ve never served a day in uniform tell you.

Sadly, a draft may be necessary again one day. When that day comes, let’s conscript young people fairly and equitably to share the sacrifice and ensure the development of the excellent military machine we’ll need to win that war. The standard we set in World War II may not be good enough. Until then, let those who wish to serve do so, voluntarily, with the thanks of the rest of us.


29 comments on “On Conscription and Military Effectiveness”
  1. Judy Garland says:

    The N.S.A. has an app for that, you know.

    BTW: Your #1 student, the self-exalted warrior-historian LTC Bateman, is back with more heaping helpings of self-serving delusion:


    1. 20committee says:

      LTC Bateman is no student of mine. Stop huffing glue, especially before going online. Otherwise we’ll have to to tell your mom.

  2. mt noise says:

    HBO did a movie set in during the Hurtgen battle called ‘When Trumpets Fade’. The infantry shown doesn’t want glory, they just want to survive.

    1. 20committee says:

      I’ve recommended it more than once, good war movie.

  3. Terry says:

    He knows exactly what he’s doing. Would make a lot of people mad and resentment would be focused on the military and Republicans.

  4. MarqueG says:

    Pity the poor columnist who must opine about something on cue at regular intervals. Mr. Milbank’s program appears to me to be:
    1) Reinstate draft
    2) ???
    3) Our creaking and broken political institutions are all fixed, smooth consensual government restored!

    A mite simplistic. It might be better to overhaul those institutions entirely in and of themselves. Not just to assume that the military can fix the failures of broken families, underperforming schools, and so on.

  5. N Wallace says:

    Wouldn’t it solve several problems at once? In todays highly automated service-sector economy, a huge percentage of young people simply have nothing waiting for them when they get out of high school. Many of them will wind up hanging out on the corner. Some will wind up in trouble. A few will end up in prison. A couple of years in the military, where they can build their bodies and minds, learn some skills and some basic ability to take care of themselves, would do them and consequently society a lot of good.
    It shouldn’t have that much affect on the military. There’s less front line combat and more drone strikes nowadays.
    It would have to be done fairly. As in no exemptions.
    Israel can do this, why can’t we?

    1. Michael says:

      Flawed comparison:
      – Israel spends 6-7% of GDP for a regionally focused defense force….the US grudgingly spends a little over 4% for a global focused defense force.

      1. 20committee says:

        I never mentioned Israel …

  6. James Taylor says:

    I had this every conversation over Christmas dinner with friends last night.I am afraid that I took the position that after 9/11 a military draft should have been instituted. it was my position that had our sons and daughters been drafted into military service during wartime it would have made all of the parents pay attention to what the government was doing with its military resources and our national treasure. The draftees could have been used as a force multiplier, which in turn would have reduced the deployment burden on our volunteer forces. Having a draft might have made the government pause in its decision to seek a war with Iraq knowing that the American people were more attentive to what their government was doing in their name. I cannot help but wonder where we would be in Afghanistan today had all of our great military force been directed towards the mission in that country instead of being redirected to the war in Iraq. It seems that our government told us to go back to sleep once they had their resolutions to use force and we did. After all most of us didn’t have any skin in the game; we were too old to go to war and our kids were in college or grad school. After reading your essay I agree with you that a volunteer military is better than a compelled force, except I think in times of global conflict, where our volunteer military will be stretched to the breaking point. This was a great piece and as always I have enjoyed your insight into things related to military national security.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback. This is a somewhat emotional issue for many, for understandable reasons. A bona fide national debate would be a great idea, IMO/FWIW.

  7. Screaming Eagles says:


    While a voter in Virginia, I repeatedly called my senators and representative to urge them to provide better training for our all volunteer force starting with Basic Training. Mark Warner was not interested neither was former Representative Tom Davis. In Colorado, neither Michael Bennet nor Mark Udall are interested. Representative Lamborn seems ineffective.

    In Bringing Up the Rear, SLAM Marshall makes those points up close and personal. He knew because he debriefed hundreds of infantry companies after combat in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Even now, there are significant deficiencies in the training given.

    Screaming Eagles

    1. Terry says:

      SLAM Marshall has been proven a fraud, do some research. How do you know about these significant deficiencies? What is your source?

      1. 20committee says:

        SLAM was indeed debunked some years ago….

  8. Corky Boyd says:

    We have this conversation in a current events discussion group I belong to. So I did some simple, but devastating research. Here the gist of it: The current 18 year old age group is 4 million, almost evenly divided between males and females. If you had universal mandatory conscription and a two year hitches for men only, the Army would number 4 million of just conscriptees, and if women were subject to the draft, add another 4 million. And I ask, where do you base 8 million troops?

    We haven’t had that number since WWII. The last time I checked, the army’s recruitment goal for 2010 was about 70,000 and the current active duty army is now between 450 and 550 thousand.

    To add insult to the college professors, I add that the a universal draft would result a two year gap of enrollments where no freshman would be available for college.

    1. Terry says:

      Very few out of 4 million could pass a military physical.

  9. david says:

    As a British observer of the US scene and avid reader of John’s writings I am amazed that there is advocacy of the USA reintroducing conscription. Quite simply it does not bring military effectiveness in today’s world – which partly explains why in Western Europe it has been nearly eliminated.

    There is an argument, not only in the USA, but elsewhere within liberal democracies, for some form of ‘national CIVIL service’. Whether that is in conservation, in hospitals and civil defence.

    1. 20committee says:

      Which is what works rather well in Austria, btw …

  10. RICanuck says:

    My recommendation for a draft is to draft Ivy League and Jesuit college graduates only. These institutions quite consciously are geared to producing America’s ruling class. If they want to lead, they should be willing to bleed!

    Also, if they didn’t participate in ROTC, they should not be inducted as officers. They should serve in the ranks with the lads from the trailer parks, the ghettos, and the barrios. At the very least it would produce a more broadly educated ruling class for America.

  11. AM says:

    Congress must authorize a draft. It would be political suicide for a politician to do so. Hence there will be no draft. However if there were a draft, it wouldn’t be 4 million people joining the Army overnight. The draft process gives 193 days from Congressional approval to first draftee getting off the bus for Basic Combat Training.

    If you go a step further and say 100% compulsory military service, that is a different story, but once again the pacing of the flow into the training pipeline, and back into the civilian world on the backend, isn’t an issue.

    Then again, over half of American youths don’t make physical, educational, or moral standards to serve in the US Armed Forces. But a draft won’t happen, nor will 100% compulsory service. Politicians don’t go through all that time and effort getting elected to vote themselves out of office.

    1. James Taylor says:

      My grandfather was drafted into the U.S. Army in late 1940. He was a carpenter by trade and was drafted to build the camps up and down California that the army knew it would need for the army being assembled. We tend to forget that Congress instituted the draft to help prepare the nation’s defenses because Europe and Asia were already consumed by war. my grandfather worked as a carpenter building army bases until mid 1943. once all of the construction needed was finished he was assigned as a drill instructor at Camp Roberts in California. He never shipped out overseas because he had never even been through an army boot camp nor had he ever fired weapon. His contribution to the war effort was that he was drafted before we were at war in order to help the nation prepare. My point in telling this story is that those who have added their comments that a draft would impact the government because millions of young people would be called up is an accurate assessment. In 1940 the US government believed we were going to be drawn into a global war and they begin making preparations to build the infrastructure well in advance for the army that they would need to defend the country. An unfortunate consequence of the base realignments of the 1990’s is that most of the military facilities that were built by men like my grandfather do not exist today and as a result our ability to quickly prepare for global war through the use of a draft is severely diminished because we don’t have the bases.

      1. 20committee says:

        You are certainly correct that, for the US Army today, a mass mobilization would require a dramatically different infrastructure than exists at present.

  12. Rob says:

    It’s not even a question of the draft. The 99% of the population have not sacrificed anything since 9/11. There have been no tax increases to pay for the war and to take care of our men and women in uniform. In fact, at one point in 2003, these people received a tax refund. The nation and its military could be on separate planets so they are disconnected.

    1. 20committee says:

      Which is not a good thing ….

    2. Screaming Eagles says:

      As pointed out in This Kind of War, we had close to a universal draft in World War II. Often, this brought into the service men of good morals, responsible, and adult. Under Selective Service, we often got the outcasts of society. In Bringing Up the Rear, SLAM Marshall pointed out that men from the Western states that had the best health and best education made the greatest efforts to escape service in the infantry. There will still be dissension as those with political connections escape the hard duty.

      Any close reading of Wellington’s experience with the War in the Portugal and Spain, you need to smash them flat when you enlist the criminals that we will sweep up in true draft. That mirrored my service in the 101st. Quite often judges, would suspend sentences if men convicted enlisted. It made for a high level of theft and some rapes.


      Screaming Eagles

      1. 20committee says:

        Indeed. Problem in WWII was that the dregs of draftees got sent to the infantry, resulting in the problems MG Scales (rightly) ranted about.

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