Certain objects of public dialogue – such as “supply-side” economics, or whether or not human overpopulation will have catastrophic results – rise and fall cyclically, coming and going and coming back once more, as if they had never been discussed in the first place. Another of these is the wisdom of the United States’ “all-volunteer” military.

The past few months have ushered in a rising din of calls to reinstitute the draft. New York Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel in 2005 introduced House Bill 2723 – the Universal National Service Act – and then again broached the subject in 2006 after his party took control of Congress. In recent weeks, news media outlets have latched onto and aired this issue. Interestingly, most of the coverage is coming out of small, rural media markets such as Sheboygan Wisconsin, Bradenton Florida, and Lexington Kentucky, where the burden of the all-volunteer military is felt most keenly.

There are forceful and eloquent arguments on both sides of the issue – with both camps citing compelling (and often contradictory) social science research.

Proponents of the all-volunteer system, such as Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation, argues that “the persistent and widespread myth that poor, less-educated minorities are overrepresented in the enlisted ranks is simply untrue.” They cite data which indicates that 18-24 year olds from affluent households are “over-represented” among enlistment ranks. Meanwhile, some free-market economists cite the efficiency of an all-volunteer military; and libertarians such as those at the Cato Institute claim – tongue-in-cheek, one hopes – that an all-volunteer military facilitates dissent, and that there is “nothing wrong with avoiding forced participation in a war of dubious moral validity and strategic value.”

Apologists for conscription, on the other hand – decrying the “gross unfairness” of an all-volunteer military – claim that it is in fact the nation’s poor and rural communities who are over-represented in the military. They cite fairness, and shared responsibility for shared security. Charles Moskos, a military sociologist, bemoans the lack of America’s elite in the military ranks, noting “in his 1956 graduating class at Princeton, there were 750 students, all male, of which 450 went into the military. Last June, there were 1,100 in the graduating class, of which nine went into the military.”

Rangel, when he first began his campaign to reinstitute the draft, argued this: “I truly believe that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that’s involved, the sacrifice that’s involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility… Those who love this country have a patriotic obligation to defend this country. For those who say the poor fight better, I say give the rich a chance.”

Arguments for and against an all-volunteer military play off of the themes of economic efficiency and equity that are common to policy channels. While many would argue that it is not the role of government to create societal consciousness – but rather to facilitate and condone society’s natural developmental course – we as a nation would be wise to evaluate the sociocultural effects of our military policy.

The military, as structured today, is a self-selected one. By hook or by crook, the men and women serving today in Iraq and Afghanistan, at bases domestic and abroad, chose to be there. Regardless of an individual recruit’s economic background, it was their decision to engage the military lifestyle; and, regardless of their experience in the military – glorious or horrifying – they have no one to thank but themselves.

In addition to the equity arguments made above, one would argue that it is important – from a sociocultural perspective – to have a broad cross-section of Americans in the military. Why? Because, inevitably, some of them will not want to be there; and these dissenters, these bad apples, are the Americans who will exit their military service to remind us all of the horrors of war.

Even with the daily reports of deaths – military and civilian – coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, we are no longer a country which appreciates the true dread of war, and its true impact upon those who serve in it. A disparate and diverse military once guaranteed films like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, which artfully portrayed the grisly and dehumanizing impact of war upon the individuals afflicted by it.

Ours is the first generation of Americans in the past century to not have to fear war. We see films like Band of Brothers which – while not avoiding war’s violence and personal impact – emphasizes the friendships tempered in the trenches. Films like Jarhead – while drenched in irony and cynicism – treat war as a source of boredom, when in reality it is a source of anxiety, and treat soldiering as a profession, when in reality it is a sacrifice.

Military law was established and evolved precisely because of the inevitability of dissent and unwillingness, and fears of an uncooperative, ineffective military are misplaced. The potential for court marshal and harsh military discipline will keep all but the most sociopathic dissenters in line… we need not fear from compulsory service a stunted and weakened military machine.

We should, however, fear future generations’ eager willingness to engage in war without a thought to or a sense of its true impact. We should fear heedless nationalism. We should fear politically-convenient jingoism. We should fear soldiers whose psychology – and “wanting to be there” – is such that it turns a blind eye to – or worse, creates – situations like Abu Ghraib.

War is horrible. It should be avoided at all costs, and utilized only as a last resort. It may be time to start reminding ourselves of this, and a draft may be the only way.

One Reply to “The Virtues of an All-Volunteer Military?”

  1. The draft question baffles me — especially from a policy analyst perspective, there seems to be no contest. The efficiency argument is barely a free-market one. The difference between a volunteer military and a drafted one is switching out some people who want to be there, and telling them they can not, and taking some people who don’t want to be there, and telling them they have to. This makes no sense to me. It might be true that our society would decide that war is such a special thing that it deserves a place in every young person’s growth to experience it, or the risk of it, but certainly this seems like an area that policy analysts has little useful to say. Why should we conscript soldiers, but not the other jobs that face the horrors of the world, such as firefighters, refugee aid workers, coal miners, ambulance EMT’s… Calling for the draft seems to me like a shallow political move if it is for any reason other than if we can not get enough volunteers to fill the ranks.

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