Why a Draft Would Weaken the U.S. Military


U.S. Black Hawk helicopter pilots are taking part in a joint-training exercise in Germany with soldiers from the Army's 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, in anticipation of working together during future missions. U.S. Army/Spc. Thomas Scaggs
U.S. Black Hawk helicopter pilots are taking part in a joint-training exercise in Germany with soldiers from the Army's 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, in anticipation of working together during future missions. U.S. Army/Spc. Thomas Scaggs

For 27 years Alan Gropman served in the U.S. Air Force, accumulating more than 4,000 flying hours in two tours in Vietnam. He participated in 670 combat missions, including many that delivered the Army's battle-hardened 101st Airborne to the fight. When he returned home, the Lt. Col. Gropman became Professor Gropman and taught military history and strategy at the Air Force Academy, Georgetown University and George Mason University. He's considered the leading authority on African-Americans in the military.

You would think that a man with such a pedigree would be in favor of reinstituting the military draft and creating, what some contend, would be a more muscular army. He's not. In fact, he's dead-set against it. "I don't think the draft would improve the army," he says in an interview.

Why not? Other nations have mandatory conscription laws. Doesn't that put the United States at a disadvantage? Aren't we less safe since we don't force a portion of our population into military service? Doesn't the size of a nation's military directly correlate to its martial prowess?

"You wouldn't have a better army — you'd just have more people," Gropman says.

Mandatory Service Doesn't Mean Might

Gropman's view that America is better off with an all-volunteer military is one shared by many academics and military leaders. In their view America's all-volunteer force is vastly superior to any conscripted army in the world. Perhaps that is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff have never recommended reviving the draft.

"I believe Israel and South Korea perhaps are the only countries with conscription and top-flight militaries," Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institute said in an email. "We are much better person for person than almost any place else with conscription, though of course, it's hard to measure."

In fact, O'Hanlon says, a conscripted army would make us weaker, especially in the age of high-tech warfare. "In fairness to that idea, it could at least give us a greater sense of collective national engagement in the fight," O'Hanlon says. "Beyond that, I don't see notable advantages in military terms."

President Harry Truman reinstituted a mandatory draft on July 20, 1948, after the massive demobilization following World War II left the U.S. Army with a force of fewer than 550,000 men. Congress halted it in 1973 and established an all-volunteer military force as the Vietnam War was winding down. Although the draft had been a fact of life for American males for decades, Vietnam had taken its toll. Critics called it a "poor man's war," in which the well-heeled, educated, and politically connected escaped service or served in rear areas, while the poor, especially those who were African American, did the bulk of the fighting. "We've never had an equitable draft," Gropman says.

Bringing back the draft would need an act of Congress and the signature of the president, although the government requires all males ages 18 through 25, who are living in the United States and have a social security number, to register with the Selective Service System. Registration creates a pool of would-be soldiers if Congress reinstated conscription. In 2016, lawmakers nixed a proposal that would have allowed women to register for the draft. The issue came up after then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter decided that women could fight in combat for the first time. A consortium of military leaders and women's rights groups supported the idea of female registration.

Volunteer Military Superior

Since Vietnam, the America's all-volunteer military has been engaged in a number of conflicts, from the invasion of Grenada in 1983, to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Today, 1.4 million people are on active duty and another 850,000 are in the reserves. They are deployed around the world, including facing down North Korea and fighting terrorists in Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones.

From all accounts, the all-volunteer force has worked out well. For one thing, less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the U.S. armed forces as opposed to 12 percent in World War II. It has also saved taxpayers money. The Pentagon's budget accounts for 20 percent of the government's budget, down from 45 percent during height of Vietnam. Moreover, everybody in the armed services wants to be there. No one is forced to serve.

The result, Gropman and others say, is a quality army with no rival on the world stage. A 2015 report by Credit Suisse, a multi-national financial firm, bears that out. The company's research institute ranked the United States military as the best in the world, despite the reduction in size and budget. Researchers ranked each nation on six variables, including the number of active personal, aircraft, tanks, attack helicopters, aircraft carriers and submarines. The U.S. far outdistanced the conscripted armies of Russia, Israel, South Korea, Egypt, among others.

Soldiers of the 200th Military Police Command conduct physical fitness training at Fort Meade, Maryland, in July 2017.
Soldiers of the 200th Military Police Command conduct physical fitness training at Fort Meade, Maryland, in July 2017.
U.S. Army/Sgt. Audrey Hayes

Moreover, while an army of conscripts tend to fall on the edge of the socio-economic spectrum, America's all-volunteer force now reflects a broad spectrum of society. Volunteers with different cultural and economic backgrounds stay in the military longer, allowing for more complex training and creating consistency and cohesion for units. The armed services also have high standards for intelligence, health and behavior, which an army of draftees lacks.

But there are problems. Under the standards set by the military, only 20 percent of Americans are qualified to serve, which makes recruiting hard. During times of conflict there might not be enough soldiers to fight. We saw this during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the military had to dip into its reserve and National Guard units to do the bulk of the fighting. Many units did multiple tours.

That's one reason of why some still believe the U.S. would be better off without a volunteer army. Joseph Epstein, a former draftee who served in the Army from 1958 to 1960 told The Atlantic that "a reinstated draft, or compulsory military service, would redistribute the burden of the responsibility for fighting wars, and engage the nation in military conflicts in a more immediate and democratic way. A truly American military, inclusive of all social classes, might cause politicians and voters to be more selective in choosing which battles are worth fighting and at what expense."