Pros and Cons of the Military Draft

female Air Force soldier in her fatigues
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The Army is the only branch of the U.S. Armed forces which has relied on conscription, popularly known in the U.S. as "The Draft." In 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War, Congress abolished the draft in favor of an all-volunteer Army (AVA).

The Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard are not meeting recruiting goals, and junior officers are not re-enlisting. Soldiers have been forced to fight in Iraq for long tours of duty, with little relief in sight. These pressures have caused some leaders to insist that reinstating the draft is inevitable.

The draft was abandoned in 1973 in large part due to protests and a general belief that the draft was unfair: that it targeted less affluent members of society because, for example, of college deferments. However, that was not the first time Americans had protested a draft; that distinction belongs to the Civil War, with the most famous riots occurring in New York City in 1863.

Today the all-volunteer Army is criticized because its ranks of minorities are disproportionate to the general population and because recruiters target less affluent teenagers who have poor job prospects after graduation. It is also criticized for its access to the nation's youth; high schools and colleges that receive federal monies are required to allow recruiters on campus.


Conscription for military service 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?

George Washington makes the case for mandatory 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 defence of it.

It was this ethic that led the U.S. to adopt mandatory militia service for white males in the late 1700s.

The modern equivalent is voiced by Rep. Rangel (D-NY), a veteran of the Korean War:

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.

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. This differs from a draft lottery, however, as its goal is to apply equally to all.


Modern warfare is "high tech" and has changed dramatically since Napolean's march to Russia, the battle of Normandy or the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. There is no longer a need for massive human cannon fodder. Thus one argument against the draft is that the Army needs highly skilled professionals, not just men with combat skills.

When the Gates Commission recommended an all-volunteer Army to President Nixon, one of the arguments was economic. Even though wages would be higher with the volunteer force, Milton Freedman argued that the net cost to society would be lower.

In addition, the Cato Institute argues that selective service registration, which was reauthorized under President Carter and extended under President Reagan, should also be eliminated:

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.

And an early 1990s Congressional Research Service report 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.
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Gill, Kathy. "Pros and Cons of the Military Draft." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Gill, Kathy. (2021, July 31). Pros and Cons of the Military Draft. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "Pros and Cons of the Military Draft." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).