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Resuming Peacetime Conscription Bad Idea that Would Clog Courts

There they go again.
A few days ago, Rep. Floyd Spence, chair of the House National Security Committee, suggested that if military recruitment and retention continue to erode, Congress might have to consider reinstating the draft, or some form of national service with military and non-military options.

No, conscription’s not imminent. But Mr. Spence’s comment may be taken as a signal to the Beltway and academic National Service hucksters, America’s Global Purpose babblemeisters, and assorted policy intellectuals to start cranking out the op-eds, sound bites, and journal articles on behalf of the absolutely positively worst idea since Bill sent Monica out for pizza and Ken found out about it from Linda.

Forget the national service notion. It would generate nothing but massive disruption, expense, inefficiency, and inequity. Let’s just concentrate on certain aspects of conscription.

The United States–a nation at peace with no mortal enemies (in military parlance, “peer competitors”) on the planet–currently maintains an active establishment of about 1.4 million people, with well over another million in the reserves, National Guard, and other mobilization categories. Our total Army forces alone number well over a million. Before we start forcing young people into the pipeline, the Pentagon and the Congress might consider facing two facts.

First, the present military is an Industrial Age, labor-intensive structure ill-suited to 21st century technologies and threats. Properly organized, equipped, and with more superfluous bases closed and many support functions privatized, it could easily drop to 1.2 million or less.

Second, the military can’t attract and retain people in adequate quantity and quality because, to put it simply, it’s a lousy employer. Who wants to be overworked, underpaid, unappreciated, and part of an organization riven by scandal, crazy PC policies, and (far too often) contempt for the leadership? Not just the Clinton Factor. How many American know, for example, that young naval aviators routinely refer to anyone over the grade of lieutenant commander as “The Dark Side”?

As they say on Madison Avenue, sometimes the problem isn’t the promotion. The problem is the product.

Beyond the fact that a properly structured and administered military would not need conscription, return to the draft would raise two issues perhaps best left in their present comatose condition.

Would women be drafted? Back in the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter reinstituted draft registration as a way to intimidate the Soviet Union and Iran, the Supreme Court ruled (Rostker v Goldberg) that women didn’t have to register. Would that ruling hold today? Gender quotas, anyone?

Also, the problem of conscientious objection, which only arises via conscription. Adjudication here could make gender issues seem positively benign by comparison.

The United States has always recognized a right of conscientious objection, based upon “religious training and belief.” Until the 20th century, this applied mostly to “well-recognized peace sects” such as the Quakers. In World War I, Woodrow Wilson by executive order expanded the right to members of mainstream religions who opposed participation in all wars. This became law for World War II and held until Vietnam.

Then came a series of Supreme Court cases (Seeger, Welsh, and Gillette) that shifted the criterion for CO status from the theological to the psychological. In effect, the Court ruled that anybody could qualify for the exemption, provided their beliefs served “in their own scheme of things” as the “functional equivalent” of the religious convictions of those already qualified. Further, the Court ordered local boards and courts to rule only on the “sincerity” of the applicant, not on the “truth or comprehensibility” of their beliefs.

Curiously, the Court rejected “selective conscientious objection” (picking your wars on the basis of their presumed justice or injustice). But today, anybody who wants out of the draft just gotta feel it strong enough.

A few million court cases, anyone?

But even beyond the lack of military need and the incredible legal messes conscription would generate, lies a fundamental question. What makes conscription acceptable in a democracy?

Throughout the 20th century, most democracies have drafted. By and large, this was acceptable to the citizenry because they clearly understood what those draftees would be used for.

Conscription was acceptable in Switzerland because Switzerland wasn’t about to invade anybody: home defense, only.

Conscription was acceptable in the old West Germany because the German Army was forbidden to leave Germany.

Conscription was acceptable in France because, at least after the Algerian war, draftees could not be sent overseas involuntarily. Special units, such as the Foreign Legion, paras, and marine commandos, handled those chores.

Conscription was acceptable in Israel, at least until the Intifada, because national survival was at stake.

Only the United States, among democracies, has assumed since World War II that draftees could be sent anywhere to do anything. And only the United States, among democracies, has since World War II tied conscription to a bevy of other issues, from “national service” to social engineering via student deferments, marriage exemptions, etc. Vietnam proved the folly of basing conscription on such military premises, and using conscription to attain nonmilitary ends.

Do we really want to go there again?

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.