You can rarely go wrong by assuming the government is lying. Right now, the Pentagon denies any plans to restore the draft, even though the military clearly has too few soldiers. I’m the sort of person who grabs an umbrella whenever Donald Rumsfeld says the sun is shining. But in this case, the administration faces disbelief even though it’s telling the truth.
Allowing for all the uncertainties of this world, the chances of conscription being revived are roughly the same as the chances of William Shatner winning a Grammy. As a way out of our current military predicament, the draft amounts to a clanking irrelevancy. It would create all sorts of new problems without solving any of the existing ones.
It’s no surprise that paranoids would worry. Overwhelmed by the challenges of occupying Iraq, the administration has had to move heaven and earth just to maintain a force that is barely adequate in size. Units have been kept in Iraq months beyond their scheduled departure date, soldiers have been forced to keep serving beyond their terms of enlistment, and the Defense Department wants to move some troops out of Germany and South Korea. John Kerry says we need to expand the active-duty Army from 480,000 troops to 520,000.
But bringing back conscription to enlarge the Army by 8 percent is like using a flamethrower to light the barbecue. In 1990, the United States had more than 2 million men and women on active duty. Today, we have about 1.4 million. It’s hard to imagine why we would need a draft to attain a troop strength far below what we had back then.
Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant defense secretary for manpower under President Reagan, points out that the Army currently needs only about 75,000 new bodies each year. A bigger force might raise the number to 150,000.
In a country where some 4 million people turn 18 each year, it’s hardly an insurmountable task to find that many enlistees. In 1990, after all, the pool of 18-year-olds was smaller than it is today. What makes the task easier still is the Air Force and Navy are cutting their numbers, which means they’ll need fewer recruits.
A larger Army, however, is not an answer for Iraq — any more than a sapling planted today will provide firewood tomorrow. Increasing the size of the active-duty force is a slow process, since you have to find, train and equip all those extra people. The Congressional Budget Office says it would take three full years just to add a single Army division (about 16,000 soldiers) — by which time, with any luck, we’ll have bid Iraq adieu.
Reinstating the draft wouldn’t speed things up. In fact, putting the Selective Service System machinery back on line, after three decades in mothballs, would delay the expansion even longer. Nor would it save money. Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, says that unless we want to slash the pay of those defending the nation, a conscript army would be more expensive.
Why? Draftees, he notes, typically serve just two years, and only 10 percent can be expected to re-enlist. In the current all-volunteer force, by contrast, newcomers sign up for four years, and about half stick around after their original term is up.
The cost of training an individual soldier for the modern Army is far higher than it was during Vietnam — and higher turnover means more soldiers have to be trained. Spending money to train draftees makes about as much sense as putting 65-year-olds through medical school: They won’t be around long enough to provide a decent return on the investment.
The other practical problem is the draft would replace men and women who choose to put their lives on the line with youngsters who would rather be doing anything else. Does anyone think you get better performance in any venture from unwilling teenage participants than from self-motivated volunteers? It’s hard to find generals singing the praises of conscription, because they know a volunteer army is a higher-quality army.
If we’re ever looking for a policy that would degrade our military power at great expense while infringing on the liberty of hundreds of thousands of young people, the draft would be the perfect answer. Until then, it won’t be coming back.
Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate.