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Reviving a Peculiar Institution


In a recent New York Times op-ed column, Thomas Ricks called for reinstating military conscription. He quoted Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who said at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, and every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”

Ricks, a veteran military-affairs journalist and senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, was so impressed with the general’s remarks that he felt compelled to elaborate on his own plan to give to America’s youth the ennobling experience of involuntary servitude:

This was the first time in recent years that a high-profile officer has broken ranks to argue that the all-volunteer force is not necessarily good for the country or the military. Unlike Europeans, Americans still seem determined to maintain a serious military force, so we need to think about how to pay for it and staff it by creating a draft that is better and more equitable than the Vietnam-era conscription system.

A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.

Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.

Now, for those “libertarians” who might object to being forced marched into boot camp or made to work in a sort of domestic Peace Corps program, Ricks proposes an opt-out plan. “Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.”

I suspect many Americans, especially younger ones, would accept that deal if it included an exemption from all the taxes Uncle Sam imposes to pay for those benefits. But Ricks proposes no such thing. He doesn’t seem to understand that whatever the government gives away, it must first take. To Ricks, America’s youth are sheep that must be herded, sheered, and apparently occasionally slaughtered in Washington’s foreign wars.

Nevertheless, in proposing to revive military conscription, Ricks is drawing on a regrettable yet well-established American tradition.

Originally the power to conscript resided with the various states, where young men of “military age” were required to join the militia, although this mandate was sporadically enforced and most men complied voluntarily out of a sense of duty.

The federal government, for its part, maintained a small, all-volunteer army and navy but had no power to conscript. The militias were under the authority of the state governors but were subject to being called up by the federal government “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel invasions.” However, many governors reserved the right to reject such call ups.

A case in point was the War of 1812, or “Mr. Madison’s War,” as some critics derisively called it. New Englanders were skeptical of President Madison’s motives in securing a declaration of war from Congress against Great Britain. They suspected the war had little to do with defending American shipping from the depredations of the British navy and much more to do with annexing Canada.

So when federal government called up the militias in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the two states refused to comply, claiming that the conditions set forth in the Constitution authorizing a mobilization did not obtain. After all, no laws were being violated, nor was there an insurrection to suppress or an invasion to repel. As Massachusetts’s Governor Caleb argued,

As this power is not delegated to the United States by the federal constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, it is reserved to the states, respectively; and from the nature of the power, it must be exercised by those with whom the states have respectively entrusted the chief command of the militia.

The War of 1812 was also the first time the federal government attempted to impose a military draft. When a conscription bill was introduced in Congress, fierce opposition arose throughout the country, especially in the northeast, where many saw it as a “war-hawk” scheme to impose military despotism on the country. Among those vehemently opposing the bill was Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who said on the floor of the House of Representatives,

The administration asserts the right to fill the ranks of the regular army by compulsion.… Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No, sir, indeed it is not.… Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden, which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty?

The proposed legislation failed to pass, but even if it had become law, it is doubtful that it would have been enforced, for the federal government had no means to enforce it, and many Americans would have probably refused to comply with this unconstitutional decree.

During the so-called American Civil War, both the Union and the Confederate governments resorted to military conscription. These measures provoked widespread and violent opposition in the North and South, and they were never effective in mustering troops. While the South could boast of mobilizing 90 percent of her adult white male population, the vast majority of these soldiers enlisted voluntarily. The same could be said of the North, where only 2 percent of the 2.1 million Union soldiers were draftees.

The watershed event in regards to military conscription was America’s entry into World War I. Wilson had secured a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, largely by providing vague assurances that U.S. belligerency would not require sending an army to Europe (see Walter Karp’s The Politics of War). But only a few months later, Congress passed the Conscription Act of 1917 for the express purpose of raising an expeditionary force to fight and die in the trenches of France.

The 1917 draft law’s constitutionality did not go unchallenged. Opponents claimed it violated the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude. And indeed the law did seem to violate the simple language of that amendment. However, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the draft law, citing Congress’s powers to declare war and raise and support armies.

That was semantic nonsense, of course. The 13th Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude could not be clearer, but the court declared it constitutional because to do otherwise would have been inconvenient for the U.S. government’s war effort.

Franklin D. Roosevelt exploited the crisis atmosphere created by Nazi Germany’s conquest of France in the early summer of 1940 to get Congress to pass a peacetime draft, the first of its kind in American history. By then the American people had been conditioned to at least grudgingly accept military conscription; and after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, most opposition evaporated in the heat of patriotic fervor.

The World War II draft system operated from 1940 until 1947, when its legislative authorization expired. During the war, more than 11 million men had been inducted into the military services, and this had a profound impact on American society. The war had forged a bellicose collectivism that the burgeoning national security state would adroitly exploit in the coming years.

The supposed threat of international communism provided the justification for the next phase of military conscription in America. Congress passed the Selective Service Act of 1948, which subjected all men of ages 18 to 26 to the draft. The law also included a “Doctor Draft,” which aimed at inducting medical professions into the armed services. However, it wasn’t until President Truman’s unilateral decision to send troops to fight in the Korean conflict that the U.S. government began drafting large numbers of men again. During the Korean War, the U.S. armed forces drafted 1.5 million men, and another 1.3 million volunteered, usually choosing to serve in the Air Force or Navy. Despite the war’s unpopularity, there were no widespread protests. The generation that fought “the Forgotten War” had come of age during “the Good War” and had been conditioned to accept marching orders.

The U.S. government had been meddling in Vietnam since the end of World War II but did not commit large numbers of troops until 1964. Between 1964 and 1975, U.S. armed forces enlisted approximately 8.7 million men; of those, 3.4 million were deployed to Southeast Asia. The draft raised 2.2 million men for military service during the Vietnam War. Of course, the risk of being drafted into the infantry encouraged millions to “volunteer” for the Navy or Air Force.

Mounting U.S. casualties and the apparent inequities of the draft system soon aroused fierce opposition to the war, especially among those subjected to the draft. Street protests against the war became a common feature of American society in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but their frequency and intensity waned considerably after President Nixon delivered on his 1968 campaign promise to end the draft in 1973. Since then the U.S. military has been an all-volunteer force.

The Vietnam War proved traumatic for the United States. The war pitted hippies and student protestors against “the silent majority.” Many decent Americans were disturbed by the anti-war movement’s apparent radicalism and nihilism, and they reflexively backed the government against the protestors. They did not question seriously the morality of their government’s war against a distant country. Nor did they question the morality of conscripting supposedly free men to fight and die in that war.

Now many see military conscription as a necessary evil, something the government must resort to in order to defend the country from attack. The problem with that point of view is that it not only justifies a form of slavery, which is immoral and unconstitutional, it also assumes those entrusted with the power to conscript will use it judiciously. There is nothing in history to justify such a view. The history of America’s wars is the history of elite policymakers treating America’s youth as pawns on their grand chess board.

Military conscription is also an invitation to abuse. When the government is given first claim on society’s resources, including its labor, it is encouraged to waste them on political boondoggles and crackpot schemes, among which should be included most of the U.S. government’s wars.

Moreover, conscription, military or non-military, is an abrogation of the values of a free society. As Murray Rothbard said, the draft “is slavery pure and simple, and because slavery is a moral evil, to use slavery in order to defend the ‘free world’ is a grisly joke.”

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    Tim Kelly is a columnist and policy advisor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator, and a political cartoonist.