FBB Debate Special: The Military Draft in America

Editors Note: Earlier this week we examined the history and present state of the Selective Service system, which you can read here. Tonight, in this FBB Debate Special, John and Winston will square off over the question – Should there be a Selective Service System in the United States? Neither John nor Winston saw each other’s arguments before they submitted their final copy to Tom who edited the article into its current format. 

John Opening Statement :

““My Fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” -President John F. Kennedy

In my senior year of high school, like millions of other young American men (boys, really), I registered for Selective Service. It was not presented as an option, it was presented as a requirement. With the withholding of my FAFSA being held over my head as potential punishment for not registering, and with me headed off to college in less than a year, I signed up without delay.

Of course, at the time, the irony struck me that only us young men had to register for selective service in order to receive our FAFSA benefits. But I did it without, or at least only a little, complaint. The irony also struck me that conscription for the U.S. armed forces had ended some 40 years earlier, and yet I still had to register with the Selective Service System.

However, looking back, I take no issue with registering with the Selective Service System. I believe the draft is an important tool in our society that must be maintained, not for its regular and continual use, but as a last resort in times of the greatest urgency.

Winston Opening Statement:

“The freedom of man is, in political liberalism, freedom from persons, from personal dominion, from the master; the securing of each individual person against other persons, personal freedom.” -Max Stirner

The draft, involuntary mandatory military conscription, is antithetical to a free society. The idea that a government has the ability to control an individual’s person into military combat is,at its very core, against the concept of self determination. The draft is not now and most likely will never be necessary. The draft is an antiquated idea which simply entails active state control over your body for the state’s own interest. That level of governmental control, the power to compel unwilling citizens to die, is repulsive.

John on the Draft:

What is not widely understood is that conscription in the United States did not begin and end with the Vietnam War, but actually has a lengthy history. In early U.S. History, states required young, able-bodied men to enroll in state militias and undergo military training. In the Civil War, the Union Army drafted close to 200,000 men. Just prior to World War Two, with the threat of the Axis powers looming, 71% of Americans, and 69% of American high schoolers, agreed that there should be compulsory military training and service to raise American military readiness. Ultimately in that war, despite the widely held misconception that the war was fought by volunteers, over 10 million people (about two thirds of total US force strength) were drafted into the U.S. armed forces (Flynn, 1993). In the more modern era, of the 8.75 million people who served in the armed forces during the Vietnam Era, only about 650,000 men, or 25% of U.S. strength in the South East Asia theatre, were draftees.

So, if the percentage of draftees in Vietnam was so much lower than in the Second World War (66% vs 25%), why was public reaction so much worse? In short, because the war in Vietnam was not seen as a just war. The Vietnam War was so unpopular that it is largely credited with Johnson’s decision not to run in 1968, which led to Nixon’s victory on the back of his pledge to “end the war with honor.” When he failed to do that, his own popularity plummeted.

This highlights the key problem with the Draft. When it is used to draw in additional manpower for a war that the public does not support that has no righteous cause, it diminishes the authority of the government and of the war. The principle of the modern U.S. military is a civilian, volunteer army. A well trained, well equipped, highly motivated fighting force. This is a solid guiding principle that has proven itself to be effective time and time again with U.S. military victories. Using the Draft as a substitute for volunteer forces is objectively wrong. However, the need for a means to conscript and then train a very large fighting force very quickly is undiminished by time.

In the Civil War, the Confederacy began a draft in 1862, and doubtless the Union would not have stood without a draft of its own. In World War II, even with the massive force available and in spite of American confidence, there were times when it seemed the Allies would not prevail. In retrospect, it seems likely that the German-Italian-Japanese Axis would have conquered most of the world but for the impressive arsenal of democracy the Allies were able to wield, which would not have been possible without the Draft. While the massive, global scale conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century seem long past, It is impossible to see the future. While it seemed to many with the fall of the Soviet Union that the potential for large-scale global conflict had permanently ended, recent years have shown that may not be the case. In short, when Francis Fukuyama declared 1989 “the end of history,” he may have been jumping the gun. The rise of Russian adventurism in the Middle East and Eastern Europe has inflamed old global East-West tensions. The ability to rapidly and exponentially increase the size of the U.S. armed forces may be needed again, as it was in the Civil War, the First World War, and the Second World War and we should not be so quick to dismiss that possibility.

Additionally, while many Americans, including some writers for this very blog, question the practical relevance of the Draft to the 21st century, the Draft also serves a key cultural purpose. In the words of Lt. General David Barno (Ret.):

“[The Draft] plays a very important role in linking the American people to military service. Without the possibility of a draft, however remote, the American people will never again have any personal exposure, no intimate skin in the game in the weighty national decision to go to war.”

The possibility of a draft makes all Americans tied to the potential cost of a war. War is a terrible thing, and is the last resort of civilized nations. Even as the most powerful nation in the world, or perhaps especially as the most powerful nation in the world, we should never be eager to spring into war. The existence of Selective Service continues to serve as a deterrent for war, which is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Ultimately, above all else there is the principle of national duty which accompanies the draft. The United States is greater than the sum of its people. By existing in the United States, we accept a social contract that applies to us. We do not exist in absolute freedom. I may run down the street naked brandishing a weapon, but I would surely be detained by agents of the government. We have agreed, morally and philosophically, to give up certain pieces of that absolute freedom in favor of a collective government which protects the remainder of our freedoms and, for the most part, keeps us safe and healthy from threats both internal and external. One piece of that absolute freedom that we must sacrifice in favor of collective security is the Draft. There are times, thankfully infrequent, where we must put down individual needs and wants in favor of a national cause that is greater than us all.

Winston on the Draft:

The main purpose of the draft is to muster troops in defense of a nation. While some can imagine a time in our history when this was necessary, is it needed now? Melvin R. Laird, former Secretary of Defense from 1969 to 1973, says no. Specifically the former Secretary of Defense wrote that;

The all-volunteer force has surpassed expectations. After more than a decade of sustaining combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while meeting other global obligations, our force has been successful by virtually every measure. The “total-force” concept, which I conceived, more closely links active-duty, National Guard and reserve military components. The volunteer military is more intelligent, fit, committed and representative than ever. Moreover, it has proved more cost-effective than a draft force.

Don’t just take the word of a former Secretary of Defense, a real look at the facts show that our total military force shows that we have 1,492,200 active duty personnel, which brings us to the second largest army in the world, and “is considered one of the best-trained and most powerfully equipped armies in the world.” Laird cites Defense Department data showing that “[e]ach year about 160,000 young men and women volunteer for active duty… [an] additional 110,000 volunteer for the reserves and the National Guard [and] [t]wenty-five thousand others are commissioned as officers…” In 2015 the United States spent $598 billion dollars on military expenditure, more than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined. This spending allows the United States to have the most: main battle tanks, aircraft carriers, AWS, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, nuclear and non-nuclear submarines, military aircraft, attack helicopters, nuclear weapons, and military satellites. The United States has the highest military strength indicator in the world at 0.94, for comparison Russia is second with 0.80. It seems simple that there is no man power need. The United States is firmly in place as the undisputed champion of military strength. Under Trump, this is incredibly unlikely to change.

The quality of the United State’s military is higher than under the last draft army. Laird writes:

Last year marked the 27th consecutive year in which the Pentagon has exceeded its quality standards for active-duty recruits. Half of all recruits are in the top two of the Armed Forces Qualification Test’s five categories, Defense Department personnel data show, with only 1 percent in the lowest. In the last year of the draft, only one-third of recruits were in the top two categories, with 25 percent in the lowest. Whereas only three-quarters of youths nationwide graduate from high school, all military recruits are required to have graduated. (During the last year of the draft, only half of recruits were high school graduates.)

In addition, many economists, including conservative economist Milton Friedman and the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, oppose the draft. “Economists actually played a key role in the Nixon administration’s decision to end the draft in 1973. The draft ended because people hated the Vietnam War, but economists provided the intellectual justification.” Appelbaum writes, “Volunteer soldiers are more expensive because they need to be paid market rates. But volunteer armies require fewer soldiers, so taxpayers don’t save much money with a draft. Studies show that volunteers tend to work harder and serve longer, reducing training costs, and that performance improves with experience.”

A report titled Economics and the All-Volunteer Force sets out many arguments against the draft and in favor of a volunteer system. Lower retention, higher turnover, government spending on catching those who try to evade, higher annual demand for more personnel, the primary use of negative incentives (court martial instead of higher pay), and lower experience are all but some of the problems that economists have identified with a draft army. Want to help the poor? Oppose the draft;

Conscription promotes a less equal distribution of income and tends to place the burden of paying for national defense on lower-income groups. Benjamin Franklin recognized this point two centuries ago: “But if, as I suppose is often the case, the sailor who is pressed and obliged to serve for the defence of this trade at the rate of 25s. a month, could have £3.15s, in the merchant service, you take from him 50s. a month; if you have 100,000 in your service, you rob that honest part of society and their poor families of £250,000 per month, or three million per year.”

Even if there would to be a draft, it would act as a dark cloud, acting as the one of the worst lotterries ever created by man. Gary S. Becker worked at the Rand Corporation, an American nonprofit global policy think tank originally formed by Douglas Aircraft Company to offer research and analysis to the United States Armed Forces, in 1957 and wrote a case against the draft. He wrote how the draft would act as an imposing death sentence that may or may not happen;

Conscription is inequitable, causes bad feeling, and unnecessarily increases the uncertainty surrounding decisions. Fewer than 150,000 men are drafted each year, although about 1.3 million males reach age 20 each year; if the military only drafted 20-year-olds the chances that anyone in this age group would be taken would be less than one in eight. Most of them would not be, and this would cause much ill-feeling, regardless of whether the criterion to exclude some was physical condition, occupation, education, marital status, etc. Even when the draft is confined to 20-year-olds there would be some uncertainty surrounding one’s chances of being taken. When the draft takes men of different ages (as at present) the uncertainty is multiplied; those eligible do not know if they will be taken this year, next year, etc.

Imagine waking up to the thought that your brother, friend, or yourself may be whisked away because your number came up. The mental burden to bear would be unimaginable to us who have not had to face this reality every day.

John’s Closing Statement:

The Draft is still an important tool to our national defense, but we must choose leaders we trust to use it sparingly and judiciously. It is a last resort, and should only be used as such. While its use to bolster U.S. strength during the Cold War was highly controversial and diminished the integrity of the government in the eyes of many Americans, and while that has led many Americans to be categorically anti-draft, we should continue to maintain the infrastructure of the Selective Service System. In times of war, when our country and our way of life are genuinely under threat, time is crucial and not measured in days and weeks but in minutes, even seconds, and we must elect political leaders whom we trust to only call on the Draft in those most absolute dire circumstances. The Selective Service System is easy to attack and flambe because its usefulness is not immediately apparent, but it is simply one of the few things which rest in the category of “better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.” So let’s continue to improve the draft. If we’re going to do it, let’s make it equal and include all people of appropriate ability and age in it, not just our nation’s young men. Let’s create further routes for conscientious and religious objectors to either abstain or serve in noncombat roles. But let’s not scrap the whole thing just because we haven’t really needed it in a while.

Winston’s Closing Statement:

Regardless of the lack of military need or the unreasonable economic cost, a free society allows individuals to make choices. It allows bodily autonomy. While I do not, and will not, make the argument that the state should not have any control over one’s body, such as requiring vaccinations for public schooling or setting punishments for murder, there is a distinct and obvious difference when a state compels individuals to take place in a war.

The principles of freedom, choice, and bodily autonomy are all violated under the draft for the state’s benefit. Our country is based on those principles and we should never unwillingly sacrifice them. If our country compels us to give up our most important liberties whenever it feels like going into combat, then we really are not truly free. We are only merely free for when it is convenient for the state. This is should not be the type of country that we live in, we are “The Land of the Free.” We should be able to make our own decisions, decide our own fate. If a state is worth defending, those who live in it will come to its defense. The draft only helps to entrench those state’s that are not worth protecting. Compelling a citizen to participate in combat is not freedom, it is servitude.

Have an opinion we didn’t express here? Have more you’d like to add to the conversation? Please comment below, send us an email, or head over to our Facebook Page. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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