We ended the military draft. Maybe we need it again. Or something like it.

Robert Redford’s latest movie, “The Company You Keep,” didn’t make me stand up and cheer, but it did make me think. The movie tells the tale of a group of former anti-Vietnam-War protesters, still on the run from the law more than 30 years later. One of the goals of the radical protesters of the 1960s and 1970s that the movie alludes to was to end the military draft. It was unfair—offering too many “easy outs” to privileged people like Dick Cheney [he had “other priorities” at the time], George W. Bush [he got a cushy assignment—which he may or may not have completed—in the reserves], and even Bill Clinton [who wangled his way out, too.] It was the mechanism that sucked an endless stream of 18- to 21-year-olds into the meat grinder of a futile war.

Eventually, we got our wish. In 1973, at the end of combat operations in Vietnam, America ended conscription and established a large, professional, all-volunteer military force.

But that fulfilled wish has had unintended consequences. The military now operates and lives in a world mostly isolated from civilian life, and war has become a spectator sport for most Americans. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t spark the same intensity of protest that we saw in the Viet Nam years.

Why? In an op-ed published in the New York Times [May 22, 2013], entitled “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” a former Army commander in Afghanistan and an emeritus history professor spell out some of the reasons, and offer arguments for reinstituting a modified military draft—and other ways to re-integrate civilian and military life.

What’s wrong with the all-volunteer model?

The all-volunteer military is failing America in several ways, say the authors—Karl W. Eikenberry and David M. Kennedy. In the absence of a military draft, Americans have become disengaged from the economics and the experience of war. Civilians are insulated from the military: Fewer serve, and a vastly reduced portion of Americans have contact with, help produce, or profit from the sale of war materials. We’re simply not as connected to the military as we once were, and our awareness of the issues involved in military service—and, of course—war itself—is dramatically diminished. It’s somebody else’s job, somebody else’s risk, somebody else’s war.

Eikenberry and Kennedy note that:

The modern force presents presidents with a moral hazard, making it easier for them to resort to arms with little concern for the economic consequences or political accountability. Meanwhile, Americans are happy to thank the volunteer soldiers who make it possible for them not to serve, and deem it somehow unpatriotic to call their armed forces to task when things go awry.

In other words, in the days of the compulsory military draft, more of us had skin in the game. Most civilians knew someone who was serving in the military. We could see the costs—economic, physical and emotional. We protested the Viet Nam war because we and our friends were at risk, as well as because the war itself was unwinnable—and therefore immoral—and ill-advised.

Moving toward a better system

Eikenberry and Kennedy offer several suggestions, such as:

-Institute a lottery draft:

[Such a s system would]reintroduce the notion of service as civic obligation. The lottery could be activated when volunteer recruitments fell short, and weighted to select the best-educated and most highly skilled Americans, providing an incentive for the most privileged among us to pay greater heed to military matters.

-Re-establish the Total Force Doctrine

This philosophy…shaped the early years of the all-volunteer force, but was later dismantled. It called for large-scale call up of the reserves and National Guard at the start of any large, long deployment. Because these standby forces tend to contain older men and women, rooted in their communities, their mobilization would serve as a brake on going to war because it would disrupt their communities.

-Give Congress a larger role in war-making

Congress hasn’t formally declared war since World War II. Eikenberry and Kennedy say:

It’s high time to revisit the recommendation, made in 2008 by the bipartisan National War Powers Commission, to replace the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires notification of Congress after the president orders military action, with a mandate that the president consult with Congress before resorting to force.

-Pay for wars in real time

This is a lesson we are learning the hard way, in the wake of the economically disastrous, unpaid-for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eikenberry and Kennedy say:

Levying special taxes, rather than borrowing, to finance “special appropriations” would compel the body politic to bear the fiscal burden—and encourage citizens to consider war-making a political choice they were involved in, not a fait accompli they must accept.

The authors also suggest ways to break down the wall between civilian and military life, such as:

-Decrease reliance on contractors for non-combat tasks, so that the true size of the force would be more transparent

-Integrate veteran and civilian hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, which would let civilians see war’s wounded firsthand.

-Shrink self-contained residential neighborhoods on domestic military bases, so that more service members could pray, play and educate their children alongside their fellow Americans. We need to break down the civilian-military barrier and reinforce a sense of duty that that is critical to the health of our democratic republic, where the most important office is that of the citizen.

Of course, the best solution would be no wars–or at least no dumb wars and no trumped-up wars– and no need for a military or any kind of a draft. But that’s a utopian dream. If we must live with the reality of a military, we should at least try to do it better.


  • glen_tomkins

    The easiest way to avoid a military that develops its own culture inimical to the civilian culture of our society, is to not have significant standing military forces at all. That’s what this nation did between wars, disband its military back to a corporal’s guard, all the way up until the Cold War.
    The very fact that we don’t adopt that easy way to avoid this problem — plus all the other problems entailed by standing forces (the huge price tag, the systematic incompetence bred by maintaining forces that have no real mission, the draw towards unnecessary, even destructive, fake missions created by the absence of any real need) — is the best demonstration of the danger posed by the solutions you entertain, which all amount to attempts to keep our military tamed by keeping it civilianized. We’re currently living the failure of that approach. We mass-mobilized to fight WWII, and all those former civilians brought back to civilian life after the war a militarism the war inculcated in them. Re-mobilizing, despite the lack of need and despite all the downside, was the consensus response to the ginned up “threat” of world Communism, because so many had become conditioned by fighting the good fight in uniform in WWII that a military response was the unquestioned knee-jerk response.
    We don’t need a military in peacetime, not beyond a corporal’s guard. We don’t need to force anyone into uniform in peacetime to maintain a military we don’t need. We don’t need to civilianize the military, we need to de-militarize the wider society. That cannot happen until you and the conventional wisdom stop your unthinking acceptance of the idea that we need a large peacetime military.

  • Cthulhu0818

    The best way to get rid of the need for a large standing army is to make it impossible for the scions of the rich and powerful to avoid service.
    If the 1% want to start another war for profit, not only do ALL of their of age children get drafted and sent to the front lines FIRST, so do the member of the 1%, if they’re still of service age.
    When they have their skin in the game, they won’t want any wars.

  • joetheiceman

    In the years of the draft, the Army looked like much of America. All political and religious points of view were part of the Army due to the draft. Today’s all-volunteer Army is self-selecting, and mostly conservative and Christian in outlook. There are preachers who tell their flock to join the Army to become paid government missionaries. The Army no longer looks like America.
    Some liberals would be drafted and might like the Army, become officers. The more conservative element of the Army would have to make compromises to work with more liberal elements.
    I believe that if we do not impose a draft, in the future the Army may be so conservative that they will consider themselves a separate arm of the United States. I can remember during recent campaigns being told that the Army would have to approve the person who became president. We need to combat this mindset.

  • TJ

    I am a Vietnam veteran. And I belong to Veterans for Peace. And I favor re-instating the draft; more specifically, Universal Conscription. All 18 year olds (with some exceptions for disabilities) would serve for 18 or 24 months with no exemptions. The first two months would be basic training (haircut, uniforms, physical training, weapons training, hand to hand combat, military orientation, etc.). Then four months of Military Occupational training (everything from infantry to artillery to engineering, mechanics, cooks, clerks, computers, etc.). Then the final 12 – 18 months could be spent in the military or another government assignment such as Americorp. Upon discharge you would be required to keep and maintain your uniforms for another 4 years, just in case you are needed. Then our leaders might not be so quick to pull the trigger on wars of aggression or to protect corporate interests. We would also have a more physically fit citizenry with various vocational skills and a sense of discipline and duty. And everyone now has skin in the game.

  • IMB Seventy

    Why should we militarize our entire population? Wtf?

  • Jessie Morgan

    nobody said we should militarize our entire population. he only said the 18 year olds. It’s not like we’re sending in 10 year olds or anything. And I can see what he’s getting at. A draft means more soldiers in the military, getting sent onto active duty to replace those who have been on active duty for a while.