Bring Back the Draft? A Look at the American Experience With Conscription.



 I have misused the king’s press damnably. I have got, in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers, three hundred and odd pounds. I press me none but good house-holders, yeoman’s sons; inquire me out contracted bachelors, such as had been asked twice on the banns; such a commodity of warm slaves, as had as lieve hear the devil as a drum; such as fear the report of a caliver worse than a struck fowl or a hurt wild-duck.

Falstaff, Henry IV, Part I

(This post originally ran in 2012.  The idea of National Service is being mooted again, so I am running this again.  Some bad ideas never seem to go away.)

Former Washington Post Reporter Thomas Ricks, who now works for the liberal Center for a New American Security, a think tank focusing on defense issues and which has provided several top personnel in Defense slots for the Obama administration, thinks that it is now time to bring back the Draft.  He proposes it not because he believes that the Draft would improve the military, but because he believes that it would make the nation less likely to go to war.

The drawbacks of the all-volunteer force are not military, but political and ethical. One percent of the nation has carried almost all the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the rest of us essentially went shopping. When the wars turned sour, we could turn our backs.

A nation that disregards the consequences of its gravest decisions is operating in morally hazardous territory. We invaded Iraq recklessly. If we had a draft, a retired general said to me recently, we probably would not have invaded at all.

If there had been a draft in 2001, I think we still would have gone to war in Afghanistan, which was the right thing to do. But I don’t think we would have stayed there much past the middle of 2002 or handled the war so negligently for years after that.

We had a draft in the 1960s, of course, and it did not stop President Lyndon Johnson from getting into a ground war in Vietnam. But the draft sure did encourage people to pay attention to the war and decide whether they were willing to support it.

I believe that Mr. Ricks is completely wrong-headed, and to understand why it is necessary to review the Draft and American history. 

The American colonies had no standing armies and relied upon militias.  This was an inheritance from England, where all adult males in emergency situations had been liable to provide military service.  The militias varied wildly in quality depending upon the training and resources dedicated to them, and this meant that the militias were normally not a resource to be depended upon to fight a long war against a formidable enemy.  (All states still have laws on the books regarding militias and usually all adult males are part of the militia.  During World War II several states activated militia regiments to take the place of the National Guard units sent overseas.)

During the American Revolution the states were sometimes requested by Congress to draft men from militia units to participate in campaigns and to fill state quotas for the Continental Army.  The policy proved to be a failure when it came to the Continental Army, being both highly unpopular and ineffective in producing men willing to serve.  The states relied instead upon inducements to enlist, including bounties and land grants.

During the War of 1812 a proposal to draft 40,000 men was voted down in Congress.

In the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy resorted to the Draft and it was highly unpopular, North and South.  Conscription produced few troops in the North, the Union troops being overwhelmingly volunteers with only 2% being draftees and 6% paid substitutes for men who had been drafted.  The Draft was not applied in states that met troop quotas, and states offered high enlistment bonuses to spur recruitment.  The worst riot in US history was the anti-Draft riot in New York City in July 1863 by Irish immigrants.  The Confederate use of conscription, even with national survival clearly at stake, met with wide-spread resistance, often aided and abetted by state politicians, and draft dodging was fairly common.  The South put a high percentage of its adult white male population into the Army, but I think the vast majority of these men would have gone without a draft, and conscription probably did more harm than good to the Confederate struggle for independence.

The first modern Draft was implemented in World War I.  It encountered little resistance except from small minorities of German sympathizers and political radicals.  It helped that the war lasted for little over a year and a half.  US entry into World War I was highly popular and I doubt that the Draft was really necessary in order to fill the ranks of the military.

The Draft governmental apparatus remained in existence after World War I although the Draft ended. Congress passed the first peace time Draft in 1940, war looming with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  The Draft was fairly unpopular until Pearl Harbor.  After that attack, the US fought World War II more unified than any time in its history, before or since,  and Draft resistance was negligible.  Some eleven million men were inducted during the War, and I think it would have been difficult to raise that many troops by simply relying on volunteers.

The Draft remained in effect until December 1972.  Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a promise to end the Draft and implement an all volunteer army,  the Draft during Vietnam had proven highly unpopular.  Ironically, two-thirds of the men who fought in Vietnam were volunteers.

Since 1973, after a rough transition period in the mid-Seventies, the all volunteer military has proven highly successful, producing a professional, motivated force, with the military normally being able to meet recruitment goals while maintaining high standards for the volunteers accepted.  The days when the military would take virtually any warm body, no questions asked, are long gone.  I encounter, on a fairly regular basis, parents distressed because their children have attempted to enlist and been turned down for one reason or another.  The return to a volunteer military is a return to the way the nation has defended itself except in times of national crisis on the scale of a world war or a civil war.

The idea of Mr. Ricks that a return to the Draft would make the nation more wary about going to war is I think refuted both by Vietnam and Iraq.  Conscription during Vietnam certainly did not make the nation hesitate about embarking on that war.  The initial involvement in Vietnam was broadly popular.  Massive anti-Draft rallies did little to cut short the Vietnam War, as the demonstrations peaked in 1968 and US troops were in combat until the end of 1972.  George McGovern ran on a platform calling for an immediate pull out from Vietnam in 1972 and won only Massachusetts in the election.  The anti-Draft rallies may have solidified support for the war.  Absent those demonstrations, often complete with NVA flags and cheers for enemy troops fighting American troops, it is possible that a withdrawal may have occurred earlier with a majority of Americans concluding that the cost in blood and treasure simply wasn’t worth it.

In Iraq, the war was initially broadly popular as was the case in Vietnam.  The insurgency after the brief conventional war in 2003 quickly soured most Americans on the Iraq war, playing a large role in the Democrats taking Congress in 2006 and padding their majorities in 2008 and taking the White House.  Contrary to Mr. Ricks’  thesis, anti-war sentiment had a major political impact  during the Iraq war, and brought to power anti-war advocates far faster than was the case in Vietnam.

Mr. Ricks’ thesis is also flawed in his belief that an all volunteer force somehow insulates Americans from the reality of war.  Our volunteer force required continual use of National Guard and reserve units throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, unlike Vietnam where relatively few National Guard units were activated.  A symbol of this is a sign commonly seen in National Guard armories:  “One weekend a month my a–!”, an ironic reference to the old National Guard which usually saw service one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer for training, except in national or local emergencies.  Today, any American involvement of any size and duration is going to directly impact communities throughout the US when National Guard units are activated, and that immediately gets the attention of both local populations and local politicians.  What Mr. Ricks seeks to accomplish with the Draft, greater American awareness of the costs of American military involvements, is already happening due to the reliance on the National Guard as an immediate component of the regular forces.

Mr. Ricks’ proposal also has a practical problem:  the military already gets all the volunteers it needs.  Even if the politically impossible happened and Congress passed a Draft, there would be no draft calls because the military already is able to fill its ranks with voluntary enlistments.   Unless Mr. Ricks wishes to vastly increase the size of the military, a new Draft would be a dead letter.  I suppose that if the pay and benefits of our active duty military were slashed, we could make military service so unpopular that a Draft would be necessary.  We of course would then be substituting a highly professional force of volunteers with troops who desperately do not want to be in the military, which does not strike me as a wise move, to say the least.

Except in the case of the World Wars, conscription throughout American history has proven to be highly unpopular and largely ineffective and unnecessary.  Mr. Ricks’ call for a Draft to act as a brake on American military involvements would simply not accomplish what he wishes it to accomplish, is unnecessary with our current force structure, and is politically impossible.  Other than that, it is a grand idea!

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Not a few political thinkers have seen universal conscription as the logical counterpart to universal suffrage.

    Under the ancien régime, war had been seen as the task of the First Estate and the sword was everywhere the badge of the gentleman, so much so that the Scottish Convention of 1689 in requiring “all papists within the Kingdom, of whatsoever rank and condition, to deliver up their arms” added, “excepting gentlemen, their ordinary wearing swords.”

    The Revolution replaced this with the doctrine that no citizen should be denied the right, nor relieved of the responsibility of defending the nation under arms.

    The dangers to liberty of a mercenary army, inevitably drawn from the lumpen proletariat, was succinctly addressed by Rousseau: “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it.
    It is through the hustle of commerce and the arts, through the greedy self-interest of profit, and through softness and love of amenities that personal services are replaced by money payments.”

  2. “The Revolution replaced this with the doctrine that no citizen should be denied the right, nor relieved of the responsibility of defending the nation under arms.”

    We see how well that worked out for liberty MPS.

  3. I am wondering how much longer our voluntary army is going to work out with all of the social experiments being introduced. This will effect everything about the military negatively including moral & the willingness to serve–not to mention the ability to fight & win.

  4. The Christian Teacher wrote, “I am wondering how much longer our voluntary army is going to work out…”
    The pool of recruits for a mercenary army is inexhaustible. There will always be enough beggars, discharged convicts, swindlers down on their luck, petty criminals, tramps, chronic unemployed or unemployables, people who have been cast out by industry, and all sorts of declassé, degraded or degenerated elements that make up the lumpenproletariat. Then, in bad economic times, there are any number of young people, who cannot find an opportunity to enter into the social organism as producers. Add to that migrants hoping to obtain citizenship « par la sang versée »

  5. Not that it’s every stopped the stupid “only losers join the military” theme, especially from countries or subcultures where they love to hate on their military.

  6. Mac, You’re far better read in the Civil War than I. “. . . the Union troops being overwhelmingly volunteers with only 2% being draftees and 6% paid substitutes.” Additionally, many Union war veterans, having served their enlistments, re-enlisted and were formed in “veteran volunteer” regiments. I think this was the case for the soldier in the book, “Mother May You Never See . . “, which I read uncounted years ago.
    The point is this. Everything that liberals know; and everything that liberals believe; and everything that liberals want to do to us is complete and total BS. It’s why this country, in general, and black America, in particular, are suffering under such horrid conditions.

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