Monday, March 20, 2006

On the draft

Jo-Ann Mort at TPMCafe revisits the notion of conscripted national service, using the standard argument that universal service will make it politically harder to send people to war. This issue keeps cropping up from time to time in liberal intellectual circles. I'm not sure exactly how I feel about a draft, but I have three comments.

First, I find the spectacle of middle-aged pundits advocating a draft for young people rather suspicious. It reeks of the same somebody-else-pays mentality that the draft supposedly eliminates. If we're going to have universal national service, then let's make it really universal: make everybody eligible for the draft, except for retirees and people who have previously served. The military's so-called "tooth-to-tail" ratio --- i.e., the proportion between the number of "tooth" soldiers serving on the front lines, and the logistical "tail" that supports them --- is something like one to seven. There are plenty of support occupations, both stateside and overseas, that don't require great physical exertion. Anybody of reasonably sound mind and body could fill those roles, not just the young. This becomes even more true if we adopt the proposal, favored by many liberal draft proponents especially, that national service could encompass civilian service.

I don't really buy the usual arguments for drafting the young only. Do older people have careers that might be interrupted? So do young people, who often have once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that they'd be forced to pass up; consider what would have happened to Sergey and Larry if they'd been drafted in 1997, when they were in their mid-twenties. Do older people have families to support? So do many of the younger people who'd be drafted (a point that may be lost on pundits because children of the mandarin class tend wait till they're approaching thirty). And is it better for a parent to be absent when the child's learning to speak than when the child's in high school? Six of one, half-dozen of the other, it seems to me.

Furthermore, all the arguments for universal service for the young become even stronger when you expand the draft to all ages. It will be even harder to go to war, because an even larger fraction of society will be affected. Society will benefit even more, because there will be even greater mixing, not only among social classes but between generations.

Now, I've elided some distinctions here, and I should un-elide them. One can envision two forms of universal service. First, one could have a deterministic universal service requirement, akin to what Israel currently has --- i.e., mandatory national service, at a certain age, for everybody in society. Second, one could have probabilistic universal service, which is what happened to people 18-25 during the Vietnam draft --- i.e., you live your life as usual, and someday your number might come up. My proposal above, for universal service for all ages, could be interpreted in several ways:

  1. Adopt deterministic service, but use probabilistic service as a transitional proposal to "grandfather in" all the people who never had to serve.
  2. Adopt probabilistic service for all time; this proposal comes with two variations:
    1. Permit everyone to avoid the draft by volunteering anytime before their number comes up.
    2. Disallow some fraction of people born in each year from volunteering before their number comes up.

Proposals (1) and (2a) are relatively self-explanatory, and would probably work out fairly similarly in practice. Most people would take their service early in life, and at a time chosen so that they could control the disruption involved, in order to avoid being hit by an unpredictable draft.

The final sub-option --- disallowing some people from volunteering --- is, I think, the most interesting. The reasoning goes like this. When only the young serve, the burden of war falls disproportionately on the young. (Yes, people have families, but still, going to war personally is an even greater life disruption than sending someone in your family to war.) This disadvantage still holds when service is universal: although everyone serves, the current cohort of older people at any given time knows that it will not have to serve in any war that society undertakes. Therefore, one should always "hold back" some people from every cohort, preventing them from taking their service when they're young, so that every age group contains some people who might be drafted in any given war.

Next, my second point. Some people will always be able to avoid dangerous combat, one way or another: witness G. W. Bush and the National Guard. The point of a draft isn't to institute perfect universal service, but to drive a wedge between the extraordinarily well-connected and the merely well-to-do, or in other words between the top 0.1% and the top 2%, a split that (sadly enough) would have huge consequences for American politics. I confess I'm not entirely comfortable with using human life and death as a political instrument, but I also suspect that my analogues speaking for the top 0.1% don't feel the same squeamishness.

Finally, my third point: instituting a draft doesn't mean being forced to fight in unjust wars. Even if a draft were instituted, you would always have a principled way to avoid fighting in a war that you oppose: go to jail. That may not sound like much of a choice, but as a protest of last resort, it is always available.


  1. You didn't mention drafting women as well as men. I presume you meant it, but since the last American draft only included men, I think it's worth calling out specifically.

    Currently women are not assigned to combat in the US military, so they don't face the same dangers as men. (Although in modern warfare, the "front line" may be an obsolete concept.)

    Anyone who really didn't want to serve in the US military wouldn't have to go to jail. They could simply declare publicly that they are gay. (Unless our leaders become less homophobic.)

    You seem to accept that some people (eg: George W Bush) will manage to avoid service, or at least get a safe, cushy assignment. I consider this wholly unacceptable. If a draft were instituted, careful records should be kept on how many people from each race, education level, and income level serve in combat vs. non-combat roles. These figures should be published regularly. Offering or accepting influence to arrange safe assignments should be a felony. If a draft is to create national cohesion, then it's crucial that everyone serve. I simply can't accept that the top 0.1% will avoid service. Put another way, you can draft my kids after I see Jenna and Barbara get called up.

    Lastly, there is no chance in hell that Congress will reinstate the draft. That would be asking for personal sacrifice. Modern politicians don't do that. "Ask not what your country can do for you" is long gone. Bush hasn't even suggested that we ought to drive smaller cars. How is he going to suggest that our sons and daughters must die for our SUVs?


  2. Israel's draft includes women. I think that any potential future draft in America should also include women.

    Lying about your sexuality (or, for that matter, escaping to Canada) aren't principled ways of avoiding military service. Going to jail is.

    I don't think it's good that some people will manage to avoid dangerous service, but it seems inevitable. In general, some people will find ways to circumvent any given policy, ranging from income taxes to the laws against murder. The fact that people can find loopholes in a law is not, in itself, a good argument against a law. If you postpone instituting a draft until you can ensure perfect compliance, then you'll never get one. And in the case of the draft, the actual political purpose of the draft is not hindered in any way by the fact that a tiny minority of people can avoid service.

  3. If the state has to implement a draft to keep the war machinery operating, doesn't that sort of indicate that the average citizen isn't for the war?

    In a democracy populated with politicians who do what their voters want, noting a requirement for a draft would seem to indicate that the more popular course of action would be to stop the military action.

  4. I don't see how that follows. That's like saying that if the government has to employ police to collect taxes, it follows that the average citizen doesn't want government to exist. People often want a goal to be accomplished, while lacking the principles, the will, or the courage to voluntarily sacrifice personally for that goal.

    The more mundane burden of financing a government can be shared through universal taxation, but in war somebody has to go off and risk dying while some other people stay at home to keep the economy running. A draft lottery seems like a reasonable way to partition the population.

    One could claim that wars should be conducted by an all-volunteer army, which would be paid for by universal taxation, and that this would be more fair, on the grounds that everyone's paying, and those who are dying are doing so voluntarily. This is something like what we have now. And our present situation shows that this reasoning doesn't really work in practice. The burden of dying overwhelmingly falls on the lower classes, and the burden of taxation (and, in our case, debt) overwhelmingly falls on the middle classes, leaving the upper classes relatively untouched. Given the outsized role that the upper classes play in our political system, the only way to deter foolish wars is to shift some of the costs of war upwards. I suppose a Constitutional amendment that somehow required that wars be funded by taxing the rich might work as well as a draft, but I think the chances for that passing are even slimmer than for a draft.