Rethink and Restructure

It happened thirty years ago, but I still recall my absolute outrage the day my draft notice arrived. How dare they? I didn’t even bother to read the thing, just sent it back with a hand-scrawled note:
I will never serve in the United States Army. Stop wasting my time and the government’s postage. Sincerely yours. P.S. I recently joined the Marines.

Today, only the Marines, God bless ’em, are meeting – exceeding, actually– their recruitment goals. No other service met their quantity or quality goals last year. The Army, which needs about 74,500 new bodies a year, estimates that it may come up 10,000 short in 1999. The Navy requires over 53,000, and expects a shortfall of several thousand. Ditto the Air Force, which hopes for only 33,800.

In good American fashion, the services are trying to push the product by hyping it up (slick, expensive advertising campaigns); dumbing it down (more high school dropouts, more lower mental categories); and piling on the cash inducements (enlistment bonuses up to $12,000, college money, etc.).

Still, few people working this problem harbor great expectations. As they say in the advertising world, “Sometimes the problem isn’t the promotion. Sometimes the problem is the product.” So, last fall, Rep. Floyd Spence, chair of the House National Security Committee, suggested that it might be prudent to consider returning to a draft of some sort. In fine Beltway/Punditry fashion, his remark triggered an array of op-eds, editorials, and think tank ponderings. The question is clearly in play:

Is it necessary, perhaps even desirable, to return to some form of conscription?

The short answer: Absolutely positively no way. Or, if we must, let’s start by drafting every middle-class Baby Boomer male who wiggled through in the 1960s, along with their former “Girls Say Yes to Guys Who Say No” girl friends, assuming we can find them.

It would make about as much sense.

Herewith a half-dozen reasons why conscription is an idea whose time has not come… followed by a quickie meditation and a caveat, of sorts.

First, a properly structured military wouldn’t need it to meet its present responsibilities. Today’s uniformed defense establishment, about 1.4 million people with another million or so in the Guard and reserves, is a labor-intensive, Industrial Age behemoth. Instead of drafting adolescents, it needs to restructure and downsize by adopting smaller combat units, closing excess bases, increasing reliance on the citizen-soldiery, and privatizing everything that can be privatized.

If the present force is unsustainable, it is also a few hundred thousand too large.

Second, the military is, to put it bluntly, a lousy employer. Who wants to be overworked, underpaid, and mal-appreciated in an organization riven by scandal, crazy policies, and contempt for the senior leadership? This lousiness has two components: the physical and the spiritual. More money, better quality-of-life, more rational and predictable operating tempos will help, of course. But the military must also recover its professional self-esteem and renew its standards of excellence. After the Clinton reign of terror and error, that won’t be easy. But it’s essential. A good military attracts–and keeps–good people.

And keeping is as essential as attracting; the recruitment problem merges with the retention problem. The military, unlike private enterprise, can’t raid the competition for middle-level managers and senior leadership. Recruiting must at least try to plan for requirements ten or more years from now.

Improved retention of the best people, like further downsizing, would also alleviate the entry-level crunch.

Third, do we draft women? Gender quotas, anyone?

Fourth, conscientious objection, as presently defined, would create a godawful mess… although a national debate on the ineffable silliness of two Vietnam-era Supreme Court rulings might be fun.

Prior to that war, conscientious objection meant an individual’s total opposition to participation in all war, based upon “religious training and belief.” Then the Supreme Court, de facto, shifted the criterion for exemption from the theological to the psychological, and from “knowing together” (the etymology of the word “conscience”) to, in effect, “conscience without content.”

In United States v Seeger (1965), the Court held that:

“The test of religious belief within the meaning of the exemption… is whether it is a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualified for the exemption…. Local boards and courts are to decide whether the objector’s beliefs are sincerely held and whether they are, in his own scheme of things, religious; they are not to require proof of the religious doctrines nor are they to reject beliefs because they are not comprehensible.”

The Court did hold that those who opposed war on the basis of mere intellectual conviction did not rate the exemption. Then, in Welsh v United States (1969) the Court granted objector status to a man who avowed that he wasn’t qualified under Seeger; his opposition was purely intellectual, not religious. The Brethren demurred:

“In view of the broad scope of the word ‘religious,’ a registrant’s characterization of his beliefs as ‘non-religious’ is not a reliable guide to those administering the exemption . . . . it places undue emphasis on the registrant’s interpretation of his own beliefs.”

A few score thousand court cases, anyone?

Fourth, throughout the Cold War and its brace of shooting wars, America indulged a strange notion about conscription. Most democracies also drafted during this period. But conscription was tied to specific uses and limits, either homeland defense or meeting defensive NATO obligations. The Swiss could draft because Switzerland wasn’t about to invade anybody. Ditto NATO’s European members. By law, French conscripts could not be sent out of France involuntarily. By law, the German Army couldn’t leave Germany. Only the United States assumed that draftees could be sent anywhere to do anything. Vietnam proved the folly of that assumption.

Deja vu all over again?

Fifth, in the absence of a firm national consensus on national purpose, akin to “unconditional surrender” in World War II or Cold War containment, or some overwhelming threat to which conscription would be relevant, there is no political or military justification for the disruption of millions of lives. Indeed, conscription seems to be a vanishing phenomenon among the world’s democracies. Even Israel’s moving away from it.

Finally, some advocates claim, there may be a moral justification. They tout “national service” with military and non-military “options,” as a means of healing the (alleged) rift between military and society, and as a means of instilling patriotism or responsibility or some such virtues in the young. There can be only one rational response to such proposals: Show us the plan.

How many millions of unskilled or semi-skilled young people every year? How large a bureaucracy to administer it? How expensive? Who gets deferred and/or exempted? Who decides who dodges bullets and who plays patty-cakes in day care centers? What would be the real-world effects of all this subsidized labor on the civilian work force? On people trying to get off welfare? On immigrants?

To quote a great American philosopher: Sheesh.

But enough about the present. Let’s consider, for a moment, the past and a possible future.

Ten years or so after I returned my induction notice (kinda wish I’d kept it as a 60s souvenir), the Hoover Institution held a symposium, assessing the performance and prospects of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). During the conference, economist Milton Friedman, long a staunch advocate of recruiting the military via the market methods used by Harvard and Mickey D’s, defended his approach against the AVF’s dismal 1970s recruiting record:

“Are there any problems,” he asked, “that are not at bottom economic?”

And some one in the audience responded, “There had better be.”

Absolutely. And so it is with the relationship between citizenry and military. From Athens to America, democracies have always drawn a firm nexus between citizen military service and the inculcation of civic virtue. The Radical Whig philosophy that provided much of the theoretical justification for the American Revolution made this nexus explicit. One of the great dangers of professional armies was that it relieved the citizenry, especially the propertied classes, of this obligation.

As English philosopher James Harrington wrote over three centuries ago in “Oceana”: “Men accustomed unto their arms and their liberties will never endure the yoke.”

The Founders conceived of military service as more than an obligation. It was also a right, collectively exercised. The preamble to the Constitution makes it clear that “the common defense” is something We the People provide. The Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” has less to do with individual liberties than with the functioning of a “well-regulated” (an archaic term, meaning “proficient in marksmanship”) militia.

Of course, the Founders lived in an era when strength could be measured by massed bodies, and it was impossible to conceive of threats to the state that would not require massed bodies to counter. But today, given the world situation and the changing nature of warfare, is it even possible to conceive of a situation wherein compulsory military service would be relevant? If mere personnel shortfalls cannot justify conscription, what would?

The answer may lie with two currently fashionable military buzzwords: “expeditionary” and “homeland defense.”

Expeditionary forces, those active, reserve, and Guard formations intended for foreign deployment, need to be highly trained and undistracted. Homeland defense forces, especially those required for counter-terrorism event response and consequence management, also need special skills. Expeditionary forces can be small, high-tech, and effective. Homeland defense forces may have to be much larger and labor intensive, since major disasters tend to overwhelm local response capabilities very quickly.

The active forces, with some justice, consider the bulk of their forces “general purpose.” So does the National Guard,which fiercely resists any attempt to diminish its expeditionary and combat missions and capabilities. But it may not be possible to do both missions But the question must be asked:

When, if, and as homeland defense and disaster management becomes a serious requirement; when, if, and as this nation experiences major and recurring attacks, especially involving weapons of mass destruction and cyber attacks… would a homeland defense draft make sense?

It doesn’t now. Hopefully, it never will. But the requirement and the right of the people to defend themselves and be defended is inalienable. A homeland defense draft would certainly accord with the Founders’ notions of civic virtue.

And defense, like charity, begins at home.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.