Let me tell you why GEN McChrystal is wrong about bringing back a draft.

So, in the latest from Thomas Ricks at FP, we hear that retired General Stanley McChrystal thinks that the next time the US goes to war, it should enact a draft:

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said this week that the United States should bring back the draft if it ever goes to war again.

“I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn’t be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population,” McChrystal said at a late-night event June 29 at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival. “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”

I’ll stipulate that GEN McChrystal is smarter than me, and more of a warrior than I ever was. But in this instance, he’s just wrong.

The argument in favor of reinstituting a draft is the idea of “shared sacrifice” across the nation. There has been over the years a good deal of concern about a disconnect between the military and the society as a whole. And there is some validity to that concern I think. Only about 1% of the population is directly involved with the military.

But unless we as a nation are willing to vastly increase the size of our armed forces, changing the source of accessions to the services won’t affect any disconnect between the culture and the service.  And the plain fact of the matter is, we cannot greatly increase the size of our armed forces. The available pool of qualified military age manpower would allow some increase, but not as much as you’d think, without greatly changing the standards of service. And of course, unless we are willing to forego any qualitative edge in equipping our forces, we simply can’t afford to buy the equipment these new troops would need. Heck, over the years, the infrastructure of the services has sloughed off so much excess that we’d be hard pressed simply to house large new numbers of forces.

So increasing the size of the service is a non-starter. Given a relatively static size of military forces, what advantages would draftees bring to the services? While I have no doubt that much like their predecessors in other times of conscription, the vast majority of draftees would serve honorably, if reluctantly, I’m equally certain there would be a small but significant slice of the population that would adjust very poorly to the military life, and cause no end of disruption. And time spent dealing with problem children is time a commander isn’t spending on training his troops and securing the best possible quality of life for them.

As to getting every state and city to have skin in the game, that’s already the case. While there is a greater propensity in some geographic regions to enlist, that’s all it is, a propensity. It’s not like there are vast swaths of the country that have no accessions at all. And with regard to socio-economic status, the services right now are actually a fairly good reflection of the population as a whole. The average status of accessions, based on ZIP code and census data, shows that the source of manpower for the services is smack in the middle of the middle class.

Finally, if a draft is instituted, but the size of the forces is not vastly magnified, there will not be anything approaching universal military service. Accordingly, that means the draft would only induct a relative handful of the population pool. So how would the draft choose who gets picked? I guarantee you, no matter what methodology is employed, the politicians who design the system will include deferment and exclusion loopholes that could be exploited either to exempt their own families and friends, or for political gain for favored constituents.  Is that what we really want? Another lever of power over our lives in the hands of politicians or bureaucrats? You campaigned against a powerful local politician? Contributed to a campaign of an opponent? Surprise, your son just won the two-year lottery! Totally unrelated. Honest!

The age of military conscription was the age of the industrial revolution and massive conventional armies, where weight of combat power was the sole determinant of the victor in war. European nations could ill afford large standing armies, but could quickly mobilize vast forces for war. The essential strategy behind the conscript army of yesteryear was to field the largest possible army in the shortest possible time. Does anyone today think that strategy is valid? In an age where conventional war is constrained by the fear that the losing side will resort to nuclear weapons to avoid defeat, the former strategy of overwhelming an opponent is no longer viable.

Absent the need to field masses of troops, there is simply no valid justification for conscription, and any supposed social benefit from doing so would be greatly overshadowed by the harm done to the services as an institution, and by the corruption and graft that would almost certainly result.

9 thoughts on “Let me tell you why GEN McChrystal is wrong about bringing back a draft.”

  1. Reblogged this on danmillerinpanama and commented:
    Social experimentation in the military often does not work very well. I was an Army JAG Corps officer in Korea in the late 1960s – 1970 and during my second tour of duty there I served as a Special Court Martial military judge. A disproportionate number of the defendants I tried had been brought into the Army under the Mcnamara 100,00 program, designed to

    provide remedial training to recruits who could not pass the military’s physical or written aptitude tests. This program was created for two reasons: first to provide men from disadvantaged backgrounds with the training needed for them to succeed in the military and later in civilian life; second to provide more troops for the military to relieve the pressures of the draft quotas. The program was instituted in 1966 and 40,000 men were brought into the military with a goal set of 100,000 men per year after that.

    Although the program may have produced some benefits, it was disruptive overall to the smooth functioning of the Army and diluted the effectiveness of the competent troops. It necessitated additional training and, worse, disciplinary proceedings on commanders and thereby diminished their effectiveness in performing more militarily necessary tasks. Other programs intended to ameliorate social inequalities rather than to enhance military capabilities also tend to reduce military effectiveness in doing the things that have traditionally been the job of the military. Similarly, with rules of engagement designed to win hearts and minds rather than to win battles, we win too few and lose to many that we could otherwise have won. True, some hearts and minds can sometimes be won; many more are simply beyond our reach.

  2. Of course if Obama unilaterally does away with our nukes–as he is proposing to do (or rather reducing them to a level below which they have no deterrent effect, the functional equivalent of total disarmament) all your calculations change, XBrad.

  3. I think one of the strongest arguments for the all-volunteer military is its outstanding performance over the past several decades. Why mess with success?

    I remember a history professor in college making arguments about the dangers of a disconnect between the military and society at large. He was worried about coups. Thirty years later we have no coups nor any serious problems with the all-volunteer force. McChrystal is suggesting that we make a huge change to solve an insignificant problem.

  4. McChrystal’s reason is the same that the post Vietnam generals gave for engineering the Army to require Reserves to be activated for any future war. In terms of making the whole country feel like they were involved, it didn’t work, and neither would McChrystal’s draft. We just can’t effectively use that many people in the Military.

  5. A war such as WW2 could not have been fought without conscription. But, and this is key, the war was declared and when that happens the entire country is mobilized.

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