<< The Body Politic

Drafting our kids?

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

In yesterday’s New York Times, Thomas Ricks, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, echoed a call recently made by General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan, to bring back the draft. Discussing the idea at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, McChrystal worried that long wars fought by an all-volunteer force become unsustainable and undemocratic. “I think if a nation goes to war,” he said, “it shouldn’t be solely represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population. I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”

Speaking about the strain that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have placed on the professional military, especially reservists and their families, McChrystal continued: “We’ve never fought an extended war with an all-volunteer military. So what it means is you’ve got a very small population that you’re going to and you’re going to it over and over again. Because it’s less than one percent of the population…people are very supportive but they don’t have the same connection to it. […] We’re going to have to re-look the whole model because I don’t think we can do this again.”

Ricks agrees, and he proposes a draft system that is composed of three options for males and females 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. […]

The pool of cheap labor available to the federal government would broadly lower its current personnel costs and its pension obligations–especially if the law told federal managers to use the civilian service as much as possible, and wherever plausible. The government could also make this cheap labor available to states and cities. Imagine how many local parks could be cleaned and how much could be saved if a few hundred New York City school custodians were 19, energetic and making $15,000 plus room and board, instead of 50, tired and making $106,329, the top base salary for the city’s public school custodians, before overtime.


But most of all, having a draft might, as General McChrystal said, make Americans think more carefully before going to war.

Whether or not a draft or similar calls for national service  provide the answer, the problems that McChrystal and Ricks identify are very real. To check out the Program’s work on civil-military relations and, especially, ROTC, go here.