Military Conscription, Recruiting and The Draft

1. Overview

Mature military officer meeting with young recruit to discuss enlistment
asiseeit / Getty Images

27 June 2005

The US Armed Forces are composed of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Of these, the Army is the only branch which has relied on conscription, popularly known in the US as "The Draft." In 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War, Congress abolished the draft in favor of an all-volunteer Army.

Until the prolonged military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army had met its annual recruiting goals.

However, that is no longer the case, and many soldiers and officers are not re-enlisting. This pressure on existing resources has led many to speculate that Congress will be forced to reinstate the draft. For example, retired General Barry McCaffrey, former head of the U.S. Southern Command and division commander during Operation Desert Storm said:

  • We broke the Army after World War II and paid for it in Korea. We broke the Army after Vietnam and paid for it with the "hollow force" of the 1970s. We are doing it again, with an Army that is overcommitted and underfunded. And if we end up in an unprovoked war with North Korea, then the United States could pay a very heavy price as a result.

President Bush is equally adamant that the all-volunteer Army is sound and no draft is needed:

  • Our all-volunteer army will remain an all-volunteer army... We will not have a draft... The only politicians that supported a draft are democrats, and the best way to avoid a draft is to vote for me.

    What Is Conscription?

    Conscription is probably as old as mankind; in general, it means involuntary labor demanded by some established authority and is mentioned in the Bible as means to build temples. In modern use, it is synonymous with required time in a nation's armed forces.

    At least 27 nations require military service, including Brazil, Germany, Israel, Mexico, and Russia.

    At least 18 nations have volunteer armies, including Australia, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US.

    That modern society still rely on conscription says much about the power of the state and how this tool eases the creation of an Army. It is also an artifact of government policies instituted worldwide in the late 1700s:

     

    • To meet its defense needs, the Convention of the French Republic raised an army of 300,000 men through national service [in 1793]. This was soon followed by other nations such as Sweden in 1812, Prussia and Norway in 1814, Spain in 1831 and Denmark in 1849. Conscription enabled the raising of mass armies at little cost and completely changed the scale of warfare. It enabled Napoleon to raise the first great conscription army of 0.6 million French soldiers which he led against Russia in the late 1790s. It also allowed the Northern German Alliance to raise 1.2 million soldiers against France in the 1870s.

      By the 20th century, most major powers were relying on conscription for their military. In World War I, the German Emperor Wilhelm II drafted 3.4 million conscripts while Russia drafted 15 million soldiers for its army. Conscription sustained the armies of both Allied and Axis powers during World War II as well NATO and Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. In addition, it was also widely adopted in many other countries, especially newly independent countries who had to build up their defense capability quickly. By the second half of the 20th century, conscription was firmly entrenched as a prominent feature in modern societies.

      Conscription in the US
      The young United States created a militia in 1792, mandatory for every white male age 18-45. Attempts to pass federal conscription legislation for the War of 1812 failed, although some states did so.

      In April 1862, the Confederacy adopted the draft. On 1 January 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the Confederacy. Acknowledging an undersized military, in March 1863, Congress passed the National Enrollment Act, which subjected all single men age 20-45 and married men up to age 35 to a draft lottery. Enlistment bounties led to immigrants (25 percent) and southern blacks (10 percent) forming a sizeable portion of the Union army.

      The draft was controversial, especially among the working class, because the wealthy could "buy their way out" for $300 (less than the cost of hiring a substitute, also allowable).

      In 1863, a mob burned the New York City draft office, touching off a five-day riot that targeted anger at the city's black population as well as the wealthy. The draft resumed in August 1863, after the federal government stationed 10,000 soldiers in the City. Draft opposition occurred in other cities throughout the north, including Detroit.

      1. Overview
      2. 20th Century
      3. The Present
      4. Arguments For The Draft
      5. Arguments Against The Draft

      US Conflicts and The Draft

      ConflictDrafteesArmed Forces Total
      Civil War - Union
      (1983-1865)
      164,000 (8%)
      inc. substitutes
      2.1 million
      WWI
      (1917 - 1918)
      2.8 million (72%)3.5 million
      WWII
      (1940 - 1946)
      10.1 million (63%)16 million
      Korea
      (1950 - 1953)
      1.5 million (54%)1.8 in theatre,
      2.8 million total
      Vietnam
      (1964 - 1973)
      1.9 million
      (56% / 22%)
      3.4 million in theatre,
      8.7 million total

      World War I led to the Selective Service Act of 1917, which prohibited enlistment bounties and personal substitution. However, it provided for religious conscientious objectors (COs) and was implemented through the Selective Service System. About three-quarters of the WWI army of 3.5 million was generated via conscription; slightly more than 10 percent of those who registered were called into service.



      The Civil War riots were not repeated, although there were protests. For example, about 12 percent of those drafted failed to show up for duty; 2-3 million never registered.

      After France fell in 1940, Congress enacted a pre-war (sometimes called peacetime) draft; conscriptees only had to serve one year. In 1941, by a one-vote margin in the House, Congress extended the one-year draft. After Pearl Harbor, Congress extended the draft to men age 18-38 (at one point, 18-45). As a result, approximately 10 million men were drafted through the Selective Service System, and nearly 6 million enlisted, primarily in the U.S. Navy and Army Air Corps.

      The draft helped maintain the armed forces throughout the Cold War, despite a brief hiatus in 1947 and 1948. The Selective Service System drafted 1.5 million men (18-25) during the Korean War; 1.3 million volunteered (primarily Navy and Air Force). However, COs increased ten-fold, from 0.15 percent during each World War to nearly 1.5 percent during Korea.



      In the early days of the Vietnam war, draftees were a minority of the total US armed forces. However, their higher percentage in the Army meant that they formed the majority of infantry riflemen (88 percent by 1969) and accounted for more than half of Army battle deaths. Deferments, including college students, caused the draft and the casualties to be judged unfairly.

      For example, African-Americans (11 percent of the U.S. population) "accounted for 16 percent of Army casualties in Vietnam in 1967 (15 percent for the entire war)."

      The draft resistance movement was supported by students, pacifists, clergy, civil rights and feminist organizations, as well as war veterans. There were demonstrations, draft-card burnings, and protests at induction centers and local draft boards.

      The most common form of resistance was evasion. There were 26.8 million men who reached draft age between 1964 and 1973; 60 percent did not serve in the military. How did they avoid service? Legal exemptions and deferments exempted 96 percent (15.4 million). About a half million are thought to have evaded illegally. COs grew from 0.15 percent during each World War to nearly 1.5 percent in Korea; by 1967 that number was 8 percent. It jumped to 43 percent in 1971.

      • Between 1965 and 1975, faced with well over 100,000 apparent draft offenders, the federal government indicted 22,500 persons, of whom 8,800 were convicted and 4,000 imprisoned. As the Supreme Court expanded the criteria from religious to moral or ethical objections, CO exemptions grew in relation to actual inductions from 8 percent in 1967 to 43 percent in 1971 and 131 percent in 1972. Between 1965 and 1970, 170,000 registrants were classified as COs. (Reader's Companion to American History)

        President Nixon was elected in 1968 and had criticized the draft in his campaign. The first draft lottery drawing since World War II was held 1 December 1969; it determined the order for conscription into the Army for men born between January 1, 1944, and December 31, 1950. Reinstating the lottery changed the existing procedure of "draft the oldest man first."

        The first date drawn was September 14; this meant all men born on September 14 in any year between 1944 and 1950 were assigned lottery number "1." The drawing continued until all days of the year had been drawn and numbered. The highest lottery number called for this group was 195; thus, if your number was 195 or smaller, you were required to show up at your draft board.

        Nixon reduced draftees and gradually recalled US troops from Vietnam.

        Subsequent drawings were held July 1970 (largest number: 125), August 1971 (largest number: 95) and February 1972 (no draft orders issued).

        The draft ended in 1973.

        In 1975, President Gerald Ford suspended compulsory draft registration. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter reinstituted it in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan extended it.

        1. Overview
        2. 20th Century
        3. The Present
        4. Arguments For The Draft
        5. Arguments Against The Draft

        At the end of the Vietnam War, Congress abolished the draft, ending the Woodrow Wilson endorsed conscription policy passed by Congress in 1917. It followed the recommendations of a Nixon-initiated Commission on an All-Volunteer Force (Gates Commission). Three economists served on the commission: W. Allen Wallis, Milton Friedman, and Alan Greenspan. Although we have embraced an all-volunteer army, we still require Selective Service registration for males age 18-25.


         

        By the Numbers

        It's difficult to compare statistics on US armed forces across this 100+ year history. This is because of the emergence of the standing army and US military presence around the globe.

        For example, during the Vietnam era (1964-1973), the US armed forces consisted of 8.7 million on active duty. Of this number, 2.6 million served within South Vietnam borders; 3.4 million served in southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and South China Sea waters).

        Draftees are a relatively small percentage of the total armed service population during this period. Except for isolated statistics (88 percent of infantry riflemen), data are not easily found which support or refute the theory that draftees were proportionally more likely to be deployed to Vietnam.

        However, they died in higher proportion. "[D]raftees made up 16 percent of battle deaths in 1965, [but] they were 62 percent of deaths in 1969."

        In fact, it is not until the Korean War that one can find statistics that break out "in theatre" numbers from the total armed services.

        For Korea, 32 percent were in theatre; for Vietnam, 39 percent; and for the first Gulf War, it was 30 percent.

        Status of the All-Volunteer Army

        The All-Volunteer Army (AVA) put the Army in the same position as the other four branches of service. Today there are two issues are impacting the AVA: missing recruitment goals and involuntary contract extensions.



        In March 2005, the Christian Science Monitor reported that

         

        • A study conducted by the Army last year [2004] and posted recently on a Defense Contracting Command website (but since removed after news stories discussed the study) indicates that women and young black men are increasingly staying away from the Army. The poll, based on interviews with 3,236 youth ages 16 to 24, showed that "recruiting an all-volunteer Army in times of war is getting increasingly difficult."

        The stats: blacks make up about 23 percent of today's active-duty Army, according to Fox News. This is disproportionate to their 13 percent of total US population. The percent of blacks in each year's recruits has dropped steadily since 2001 (22.7 percent). For 2004, the percentage was 15.9 percent. In February 2005, the percentage was 13.9, closer to proportional representation.

        The AVA is not a representative snapshot of America: only three of five soldiers are white; two of five are African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander.

        This decline comes in the face of ever more generous enlistment bonuses and more recruiters in high school and campus halls, courtesy of a Congressional mandate that schools must allow recruiters on campus.



        Missing recruiting numbers puts pressure on current soldiers because the military is extending tours of duty and contracts. Extending contracts has been called a backdoor draft.

        The Seattle Times reports that an Oregon National Guardsman, who finished his eight-year enlistment in June 2004, was told by the Army in October to ship "to Afghanistan and reset his military termination date to Christmas Eve 2031."

        Santiago's unit refuels helicopters, not what most of us would think of as a high-tech position. The Army added 26 years to his enlistment; his lawsuit says "Conscription for decades or life is the work of despots. ... It has no place in a free and democratic society."

        His lawsuit, Santiago v Rumsfeld, was heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle in April 2005. It was the "the highest court review of the Army's 'stop-loss' policy, which affects about 14,000 soldiers nationwide."

        In May 2005, the court ruled in favor of the government.

        Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, about 50,000 soldiers have been subjected to stop-loss, according to Lt. Col Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman.

        1. Overview
        2. 20th Century
        3. The Present
        4. Arguments For The Draft
        5. Arguments Against The Draft

        What are the arguments for and against the draft? The issue is a classic debate between individual liberty and duty to society. Democracies value individual liberty and choice; however, democracy does not come without costs. How should those costs be shared?

        The next two sections examine the concepts of national service, draft registration and conscription into the armed services.

        The Case For The Draft

        Our first President eloquently stated the rationale for national service:

         

        • "... it must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our (democratic) system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government owes not only a proportion of his property but even his personal service to the defense of it.”

        Israel has often cited an example of a highly-trained and effective armed services -- one peopled by mandatory national service. However, unlike a "draft" which selects only a subset of the population, "Most Israeli citizens are required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for a period of between two and three years. Israel is unique in that military service is compulsory for both males and females."

        The closest that the US has come to such a policy was at the time of Washington when white males were required to be part of the militia.

        National service has been proposed and debated in Congress intermittently since Vietnam; it has not been successful.

        In fact, Congress has reduced funding for voluntary forms of service, such as the Peace Corps.

        The Universal National Service Act (HR2723) would require all men and women aged 18-26 to perform military or civilian service "in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, and for other purposes." The required term of service is 15 months.

        It was introduced by Rep. Rangel (D-NY), a veteran of the Korean War. Prior to action in Iraq, when he first introduced this bill, he said:

        • 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.

         

        It's not hard to find passionate calls for mandatory national service for all. It's more difficult to find similar calls for a draft lottery. The conservative American Enterprise Institute quotes former draftee Charles Moskos:

        • A draft would dramatically upgrade the quality of U.S. recruits because it would give the military access to a true cross-section of our youth. Due to enticing economic and educational alternatives elsewhere, the number of military enlistees who achieve advanced scores on qualifying tests has dropped by a third since the mid-1990s. In the fiscal year 2000, the Army actually took in some 380 recruits with felony arrests.

          Most telling, over a third of new military members currently fail to complete their enlistments. Contrast this with the one in ten draftees who didn’t complete their two-year obligations when we last had a draft. It’s much better to have most soldiers serve a short term honorably than to have large cohorts discharged for cause.

          Many people who talk about bringing back the draft are raising the issue because they believe the US armed forces are stretched too thin. Anecdotally, this position is supported by regular news reports of troops having their time in Iraq extended.

          This argument rests on what's called a backdoor draft: the issuance of stop-loss orders which prevent soldiers from departing at the end of their contract. The military says this practice was authorized by Executive Order 13223 issued by President Bush on Sept. 14, 2001.

          1. Overview
          2. 20th Century
          3. The Present
          4. Arguments For The Draft
          5. Arguments Against The Draft

          Arguments Against The Draft

          Warfare has changed dramatically since Napolean's march to Russia or the battle of Normandy. It has also changed since Vietnam. There is no longer a need for massive human cannon fodder. Indeed, the military has gone "high tech," with missions in Iraq being guided by military minds located on US soil, according to Thomas Friedman in The World Is Flat. (How, then, to define "in theatre" in this scenario?)

          Thus one argument against the draft makes the case that highly skilled professionals are needed, not just men with combat skills.



          The Cato Institute argues that even draft registration should be abandoned in today's geopolitical climate:

           

          • The notion of security insurance sounds superficially appealing, but in the case of registration, we should ask, Insurance against what? Virginians have little need of earthquake insurance; farmers who till Nebraska's cornfields need not purchase hurricane insurance. America, the world's sole remaining superpower with by far the most powerful and technologically sophisticated military, does not need draft registration.

            The sign-up was always intended to quickly generate a large conscript army--similar to America's 13-million-man military in World War II--for a protracted conventional war against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact centered in Europe. Today that kind of conflict is a paranoid fantasy. Consequently, the premium for registration "insurance" would be better spent elsewhere.

            Likewise, Cato endorses an early 1990s Congressional Research Service report that says an expanded reserve corps is preferable to a draft:

            • A requirement for major increases in combat forces could be met much more quickly by activating more reserves than by instituting a draft. A draft would not provide the trained officers and non-commissioned officers to man effective units; it would only turn out freshly trained junior enlisted recruits.

              Cato's author also notes that there is "nothing wrong with avoiding forced participation in a war of dubious moral validity and strategic value."

              Even veterans remain divided on the need for a draft.
               

              Conclusion


              Compulsory national service is not a new concept; it is rooted in government policies of the late 1700s. A draft changes the nature of national service because only a sub-set of citizens must serve.

              At two key points in American history, the draft was highly divisive and resulted in massive protests: the Civil War and Vietnam. President Nixon and Congress abolished the draft in 1973.

              Reinstituting the draft would require an act of Congress; President Bush opposes the draft.

               

              1. Overview
              2. 20th Century
              3. The Present
              4. Arguments For The Draft
              5. Arguments Against The Draft

              Sources