Bring Back the Draft? A Look at the American Experience With Conscription.

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 I have misused the king’s press damnably. I have got, in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers, three hundred and odd pounds. I press me none but good house-holders, yeoman’s sons; inquire me out contracted bachelors, such as had been asked twice on the banns; such a commodity of warm slaves, as had as lieve hear the devil as a drum; such as fear the report of a caliver worse than a struck fowl or a hurt wild-duck.

Falstaff, Henry IV, Part I



Former Washington Post Reporter Thomas Ricks, who now works for the liberal Center for a New American Security, a think tank focusing on defense issues and which has provided several top personnel in Defense slots for the Obama administration, thinks that it is now time to bring back the Draft.  He proposes it not because he believes that the Draft would improve the military, but because he believes that it would make the nation less likely to go to war.


The drawbacks of the all-volunteer force are not military, but political and ethical. One percent of the nation has carried almost all the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the rest of us essentially went shopping. When the wars turned sour, we could turn our backs.

A nation that disregards the consequences of its gravest decisions is operating in morally hazardous territory. We invaded Iraq recklessly. If we had a draft, a retired general said to me recently, we probably would not have invaded at all.

If there had been a draft in 2001, I think we still would have gone to war in Afghanistan, which was the right thing to do. But I don’t think we would have stayed there much past the middle of 2002 or handled the war so negligently for years after that.

We had a draft in the 1960s, of course, and it did not stop President Lyndon Johnson from getting into a ground war in Vietnam. But the draft sure did encourage people to pay attention to the war and decide whether they were willing to support it.

I believe that Mr. Ricks is completely wrong-headed, and to understand why it is necessary to review the Draft and American history. 

The American colonies had no standing armies and relied upon militias.  This was an inheritance from England, where all adult males in emergency situations had been liable to provide military service.  The militias varied wildly in quality depending upon the training and resources dedicated to them, and this meant that the militias were normally not a resource to be depended upon to fight a long war against a formidable enemy.  (All states still have laws on the books regarding militias and usually all adult males are part of the militia.  During World War II several states activated militia regiments to take the place of the National Guard units sent overseas.)

During the American Revolution the states were sometimes requested by Congress to draft men from militia units to participate in campaigns and to fill state quotas for the Continental Army.  The policy proved to be a failure when it came to the Continental Army, being both highly unpopular and ineffective in producing men willing to serve.  The states relied instead upon inducements to enlist, including bounties and land grants.

During the War of 1812 a proposal to draft 40,000 men was voted down in Congress.

In the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy resorted to the Draft and it was highly unpopular, North and South.  Conscription produced few troops in the North, the Union troops being overwhelmingly volunteers with only 2% being draftees and 6% paid substitutes for men who had been drafted.  The Draft was not applied in states that met troop quotas, and states offered high enlistment bonuses to spur recruitment.  The worst riot in US history was the anti-Draft riot in New York City in July 1863 by Irish immigrants.  The Confederate use of conscription, even with national survival clearly at stake, met with wide-spread resistance, often aided and abetted by state politicians, and draft dodging was fairly common.  The South put a high percentage of its adult white male population into the Army, but I think the vast majority of these men would have gone without a draft, and conscription probably did more harm than good to the Confederate struggle for independence.

The first modern Draft was implemented in World War I.  It encountered little resistance except from small minorities of German sympathizers and political radicals.  It helped that the war lasted for little over a year and a half.  US entry into World War I was highly popular and I doubt that the Draft was really necessary in order to fill the ranks of the military.

The Draft governmental apparatus remained in existence after World War I although the Draft ended. Congress passed the first peace time Draft in 1940, war looming with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  The Draft was fairly unpopular until Pearl Harbor.  After that attack, the US fought World War II more unified than any time in its history, before or since,  and Draft resistance was negligible.  Some eleven million men were inducted during the War, and I think it would have been difficult to raise that many troops by simply relying on volunteers.

The Draft remained in effect until December 1972.  Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a promise to end the Draft and implement an all volunteer army,  the Draft during Vietnam had proven highly unpopular.  Ironically, two-thirds of the men who fought in Vietnam were volunteers.

Since 1973, after a rough transition period in the mid-Seventies, the all volunteer military has proven highly successful, producing a professional, motivated force, with the military normally being able to meet recruitment goals while maintaining high standards for the volunteers accepted.  The days when the military would take virtually any warm body, no questions asked, are long gone.  I encounter, on a fairly regular basis, parents distressed because their children have attempted to enlist and been turned down for one reason or another.  The return to a volunteer military is a return to the way the nation has defended itself except in times of national crisis on the scale of a world war or a civil war.

The idea of Mr. Ricks that a return to the Draft would make the nation more wary about going to war is I think refuted both by Vietnam and Iraq.  Conscription during Vietnam certainly did not make the nation hesitate about embarking on that war.  The initial involvement in Vietnam was broadly popular.  Massive anti-Draft rallies did little to cut short the Vietnam War, as the demonstrations peaked in 1968 and US troops were in combat until the end of 1972.  George McGovern ran on a platform calling for an immediate pull out from Vietnam in 1972 and won only Massachusetts in the election.  The anti-Draft rallies may have solidified support for the war.  Absent those demonstrations, often complete with NVA flags and cheers for enemy troops fighting American troops, it is possible that a withdrawal may have occurred earlier with a majority of Americans concluding that the cost in blood and treasure simply wasn’t worth it.

In Iraq, the war was initially broadly popular as was the case in Vietnam.  The insurgency after the brief conventional war in 2003 quickly soured most Americans on the Iraq war, playing a large role in the Democrats taking Congress in 2006 and padding their majorities in 2008 and taking the White House.  Contrary to Mr. Ricks’  thesis, anti-war sentiment had a major political impact  during the Iraq war, and brought to power anti-war advocates far faster than was the case in Vietnam.

Mr. Ricks’ thesis is also flawed in his belief that an all volunteer force somehow insulates Americans from the reality of war.  Our volunteer force required continual use of National Guard and reserve units throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, unlike Vietnam where relatively few National Guard units were activated.  A symbol of this is a sign commonly seen in National Guard armories:  “One weekend a month my a–!”, an ironic reference to the old National Guard which usually saw service one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer for training, except in national or local emergencies.  Today, any American involvement of any size and duration is going to directly impact communities throughout the US when National Guard units are activated, and that immediately gets the attention of both local populations and local politicians.  What Mr. Ricks seeks to accomplish with the Draft, greater American awareness of the costs of American military involvements, is already happening due to the reliance on the National Guard as an immediate component of the regular forces.

Mr. Ricks’ proposal also has a practical problem:  the military already gets all the volunteers it needs.  Even if the politically impossible happened and Congress passed a Draft, there would be no draft calls because the military already is able to fill its ranks with voluntary enlistments.   Unless Mr. Ricks wishes to vastly increase the size of the military, a new Draft would be a dead letter.  I suppose that if the pay and benefits of our active duty military were slashed, we could make military service so unpopular that a Draft would be necessary.  We of course would then be substituting a highly professional force of volunteers with troops who desperately do not want to be in the military, which does not strike me as a wise move, to say the least.

Except in the case of the World Wars, conscription throughout American history has proven to be highly unpopular and largely ineffective and unnecessary.  Mr. Ricks’ call for a Draft to act as a brake on American military involvements would simply not accomplish what he wishes it to accomplish, is unnecessary with our current force structure, and is politically impossible.  Other than that, it is a grand idea!


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  1. I would be interested to learn if Mr. Ricks has any close friends/peers that have actively served in the military. I suspect that he is one of many in America that express concern that only 1% of the citizenry serve, yet is himself totally insulated from the experience.

    The military is not a dumping ground for individuals unwilling to work for the common good, nor is a reform school to change societal expectations. If Mr. Ricks has a problem with the the makeup of the armed forces, he needs to address the lack of dedication by the average citizen both in serving and in keeping the politicians accountable. As President Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

    Unfortunately, too many people have forgotten this challenge.

  2. JACK: The capsule biographies of Mr. Ricks I could find indicate that he was a military correspondent for first the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post over a period of 16 years, and that he was a reporter or editor for a period of 29 years ‘ere his current employments. It mentions no military service. He has a baccalaureate degree from Yale and grew up in Westchester; his father was a professor. He is familiar with the military, but from the outside.

    I think it is telling that his understanding of what constitutes optimal recruiting practice is something other than building the most effective force possible given available resources. He seems to regard the military as a social problem you have to work around.

  3. Well, if the neocons have their way (i.e. Republican Party), more cannon fodder will be needed. Among them William Kristol, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, have all beat the war drums against Iran, Syria, North Korea, or any other faraway place where they believe American bombs should be dropping.

    And I know this will get a rise out of the Lincoln Cultists, which dominate the historical view, it was Abe himself who was widely criticized in the North as a “bloody tyrant” and a “dictator” for his “arbitrary arrests, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the suppression of newspapers . . .” More specifically, imprisoning tens of thousands of Northern civilians without due process for verbally opposing his policies; shutting down over 300 opposition newspapers; deporting an opposing member of Congress; confiscating firearms and other forms of private property; intimidating and threatening to imprison federal judges; invoking military conscription, income taxation, an internal revenue bureaucracy, and huge public debt; and ordering the murder of hundreds of draft protesters in the streets of New York City in July of 1863 are all good reasons why Lincoln was so widely despised.

    I now don my flame-retardant suit in preparation for the onslaught from the “Father Abraham” crowd who know doubt will come out with guns blazing.

  4. Ironically, two-thirds of the men who fought in Vietnam were volunteers.

    The uncles I know that volunteered did so because being drafted meant you had zero choice in where you’d go. I don’t know how many of the other volunteers were being similarly smart.

    Joe Green-
    it’s off topic and silly, so why bother chasing after your red herring?

  5. Good post, Don.

    Another thing that strikes me (and this ties in with Art’s point that Mr. Ricks appears not to be thinking about the military in relation to its actual purpose — winning wars — but rather as a political and sociological lever) is that the draft suggestion fails to account for the fundamental change in how the US wages war which the volunteer military has helped accelerate, though it was present before. The US does not pursue a “cannon fodder” approach to war, rather it uses technology and highly trained troops to achieve objectives while seeking to minimize its casualties. This makes the US’s approach to warfare much like that of the British Empire 100 years ago, only we have gone much further down that path, and very much unlike the large “universal conscription” powers who based their military might on the ability to pour tens of millions of men onto the battlefield. In the last century, this manpower approach was followed most of all by Russia, but also by Germany and in WW1 by France. Today we see it in the fact that Iran, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Russia all maintain armies with significantly more soldier than our own.

  6. There have been two traditional arguments for conscription, one practical, one political.

    The practical argument is that universal conscription, with one or two years of enlistment, coupled with an efficient system of reserves allows a mass of trained troops to be mobilised, when needed, without the cost of maintaining a large standing army. The innumerable branch lines maintained by Continent railway systems until the 1950s bear witness to this philosophy; their primary purpose being the rapid mobilisation of reservists and any freight they earned was viewed as a subsidy.

    The political argument was essentially a moral one, regarding universal conscription as the counter-part to universal suffrage and republican equality: the belief that no citizen should be denied the right, nor relieved of the responsibility of defending the nation under arms. Under the Ancien Régime, by contrast, the nobility had been responsible for the defence of the realm and the sword was everywhere the badge of the gentleman.

    In the UK, primarily a naval power, conscription was unknown until 1916, although, traditionally, merchant seamen had been liable to impressment, in time of war, just as merchant ships had been liable to requisition, under the prerogative.

  7. Fox, what’s off-topic about hundreds of draft resisters killed in 1862 on orders from Lincoln? It’s facile to dismiss arguments as “silly” when one is unable to rebut in a reasonable fashion. However, this is not the first time I’ve been chastised on TAC for roaming outside the bounds of conformist thinking and I know it won’t be the last.

  8. If they draft them, they don’t need to report them as unemployed . . .

    Here is another one of them rats that wants America to fail.

  9. Darwin-
    our military also has a HUGE wealth of baked-in knowledge, since it’s much easier to train volunteers and volunteers are more likely to do a decent pass-down.

    if you think objecting to a rant about “neocons” is a facile dodge and about conformist thinking, I can’t help you.

  10. I now don my flame-retardant suit in preparation for the onslaught from the “Father Abraham” crowd who know doubt will come out with guns blazing.

    However, this is not the first time I’ve been chastised on TAC for roaming outside the bounds of conformist thinking and I know it won’t be the last.

    Joe, can the martyr act, please. You’re not chastised for thinking outside the box. You’re chastised for ranting based on faulty sources of information. I also find this complaint amusing since on another live thread you’re the one engaging in conformist thought with regards to Hamilton and Jefferson.

  11. There has never been a draft in America without a war. Conscription would not only encourage an undeclared war (we used to call it a “police action”), but it would guarantee a continued supply of “fresh meat” to prolong our involvement. In addition, I don’t see much clamoring to draft women, let alone are they presently required to register, even as we tout equal opportunity for them in the military.

  12. There has never been a draft in America without a war.

    In the interests of precision, military conscription was in effect from September of 1940 to January of 1973. We were under a national mobilization from 1940 to 1946 and something very like one from June of 1950 through the end of 1954. The rest of the time, no. (Re Indochina, the ratio of military expenditure to domestic product was declining throughout most of the war).

  13. “ordering the murder of hundreds of draft protesters in the streets of New York City in July of 1863 are all good reasons why Lincoln was so widely despised. ”

    First and last warning Joe. My tolerance for bad history is at a low point. Here is what really happened in the New York draft riots.

    The American Catholic does not exist so that people can have a forum to spout historically ignorant idiocy. If that is what you wish to do you might wish to post elsewhere.

    You and T.Shaw are on moderation for the time being.

  14. Don, as to events that occurred 100 years or so ago, since neither of us was there we have to rely on historians and it’s simply a matter of whose research and scholarship you wish to subscribe to. I didn’t mean to stray off the reservation.

    As for Fox, I’ll pass on any “help” you might have to offer but appreciate the gesture.

  15. Historical facts are historical facts Joe. There are historians who strive for accuracy and then there are lying cranks like Dilorenzo. Factual debates about history fascinate me, but the history has to be accurate or such debates are a complete waste of everyone’s time.

  16. Not to belabor the point, Don but how do you determine which version of history is “accurate.” ? Contemporary witnesses are perhaps the best we have to go on, which is a strong argument for the Gospel writers even though they did not set paper to pen right away.

    Still, the closer in time to an event one is the more reliable the account, biases notwithstanding — a strong caveat to be sure. Contemporary journals, diaries, newspaper accounts, personal memoirs etc., carry more weight, it would seem, than an historian looking back 100 years and trying to “interpret” events through a lens colored by a particular political persuasion or, as Bill O’Reilly does in his absurd “Killing Lincoln,” trying to tell us what is in peoples’ minds. Though a popular best-seller, serious scholars point out numerous inaccuracies and distortions in his book even though it makes for a good read, much like a romance novel.

    DiLorenzo, by the way, praises David Donald, an ardent admirer of Lincoln, as the best of the “mainstream” Lincolnogists, putting him in the middle of a spectrum that, on the far left, includes the likes of Marxist Eric Foner and pop historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin.

    Lastly, there are more than 14,000 books written about Lincoln. Surely, it would take more than a lifetime to read them all and decide which are historically “accurate.”

  17. I have a little bit different take as a Viet Nam era officer. First of all the “US’s” draftees, performed as well as their “RA” brethren. Secondly, I think it is unconscionable that most of our current guys have served three and four tours in Iraq/Afghanistan. I work with PTSD vets and it is madness.

    I do believe a strong case can be made for some form of national service like many other countries including Israel. It gives them an experience of accountability and responsibility at a young age and perhaps for the first time in their lives. If I were king, I would have them doing airport security in place of the abject silliness we have now. They could also be deployed for increased port and border security. It’ll never happen politically, but I do think it would be a good thing. And yes, girls , too.

  18. Don

    Great post that only begins to touch on the subject.

    I have noticed that liberal groups that support a return to the draft always mention “alternative Service,” apparently mandatory, Since the military does not need that many people.

    But they also support all sorts of “grand projects” that can’t be accomplished if they pay going (or fair or living) wages.

  19. The idea of a Draft Hank, in my mind, can only be justified in a war where the survival of the nation is at stake. Forcing people to put their lives on hold and be part of the military is antithetical to a free society except in a dire emergency. I have never understood the enthusiasm so many politicians have for some sort of an involuntary national service simply as a matter of course.

  20. I am a right wing type who from a military stand point has been there and done that, Dr. McClarey, as well as being one of those zealous Catholic converts who was baptized at the tender age of 57, and have been an RCIA catechist beginning several months after I emerged from the font in 2005. National service is an honorable concept, not as a matter of course, but to help change the entitlement mindset in this country and provide a way for these kids to learn and contribute.

    They’re not getting love for this country from their parents nor the public schools.

    I have a tremendous amount of respect for you and this blog, but in my opinion , your comment:

    “Forcing people to put their lives on hold and be part of the military is antithetical to a free society except in a dire emergency. I have never understood the enthusiasm so many politicians have for some sort of an involuntary national service simply as a matter of course.”

    is very naive, and quite frankly very Euro!

    I’m sorry, and don’t mean to offend, but there are many, many of us who do not accept your view that putting our lives on hold, was antithetical to a free society. Nor would the Founders in my view.

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

  21. Well Jerry, back in my mispent youth I joined the Army. Most of my male family members did the same, including an uncle who fought in Korea and two other uncles who fought in World War II. A great uncle of mine served in the Royal Army during World War II. My father joined the Air Force during the Korean War although he did not see service in that conflict. My brother commanded a tank platoon in Germany in the early eighties. As regular readers of this blog know I hold in the highest esteem those who put their lives on the line defending this nation. However, I do not retract one iota of my antipathy to the Draft except in dire emergencies. Compulsory service is antithetical to everything this country stands for. As for my comment being Euro, actually most European nations have traditionally relied on conscription to fill their militaries and have only recently embraced the concept of a volunteer force. More than a few of the immigrants to these shores from Europe were seeking to avoid this compulsory service. Traditional American antipathy to the Draft I view as a healthy sign of a reluctance to infringe on the personal liberty of our citizens.

  22. Trying to imagine a job so worthless that having Mandatory Volunteer labor by high school graduates would be an improvement….

    Can’t think of one, frankly. You think TSA is bad, especially with things disappearing during screening? Good heavens! And then there’s the way that enterprising young mandatory volunteers would line their pockets if put on watch….

    Kids these days are the way they are in large part because they’ve spent over a decade being pumped through a gov’t run school. How is mandating an additional required term going to fix that? Good heavens, even with a volunteer force military service doesn’t “fix” a lack of love of the country– if it ever did, the military is far too bureaucratic now!

    Totally ignoring that giving the government the presumed right to not just years of our citizens’ lives, but to their actual labor… very bad idea.

    Want to fix kids’ entitlement mentalities?
    Fix the labor laws so that kids can get jobs, then if you really want gov’t to have workers, hire the kids to pick up trash in parks for something like two bucks an hour, plus bounty on recyclables, under supervision of one or two adults. (Fixes would have to include lowering the cost of hiring someone, fixing minimum wage, etc. I’d suggest making a new category for employment called “cash labor,” basically formalizing what happens under the counter right now, but I’m digressing.)

  23. As Rousseau says, in the Social Contract:

    “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it.”

    And again, “The better the constitution of a State is, the more do public affairs encroach on private in the minds of the citizens. Private affairs are even of much less importance, because the aggregate of the common happiness furnishes a greater proportion of that of each individual, so that there is less for him to seek in particular cares.”

  24. Did he have any musings about what happens when we think the State is supposed to serve the common good, rather that the people serving the State? Or when people don’t want to serve them with as much cash as they’re getting right now? Or anything about the state shifting to serving itself by bribing small sections of the public? Or when too much power for too little cause is given to the state?

    I haven’t read Rousseau myself, but that quote sounds a lot like someone shifting religious values over to the state. Dangerous thing.

  25. Foxfier

    He does indeed!

    “each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest: his absolute and naturally independent existence may make him look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will do less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to himself; and, regarding the moral person which constitutes the State as a “persona ficta,” because not a man, he may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without being ready to fulfil the duties of a subject. The continuance of such an injustice could not but prove the undoing of the body politic.

    In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free [qu’on le forcera d’être libre]; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.”

  26. Such as the absurd tyranny of forced service to the public not to prevent a threat to the general community, but for your own good?

    In context, it looks like he’s dancing around democratic and republic style gov’ts, and trying to build a philosophy on that fence from pure reason. (Explains why I keep having flashbacks to libertarian texts….)

    Yeash, what a wordy fellow. (As those who are familiar with my comments can testify, I’m in a position to recognized wordy when I see it.)

  27. I generally concur with Donald’s assessment.

    I think it worth noting that the turning of the American public’s opinion regarding Iraq was due in no small part to the Bush Administration’s bungling in terms of articulating the importance of seeing the fight in Iraq through. Condalezza Rice’s tin eared response (“I thought we were making a strong case.”) to question regarding why the administration didn’t make a strong enough case when things got bad during the insurgency There was also the problems of Bush’s rather naive trust of the State Department prior to the invasion.

    To get a real sense of how things got so badly out of hand with the post invasion insurgency, I would highly recommend the book “War and Decision’ by Doug Feith (Undersecretary of Defense for policy from July 20012 until August 2005) and Don Rumsfeld’s memoirs.

    I am afraid that the left is going to be so successful in gutting our military, a draft may very well be needed if a significantl scale war were to break out, which may very well happen. Also worth noting is the fact that no republican president since Reagan has done anything to substantively counteract the left’s erosion of our defense.

    This I think is the not so soft underbelly of Mr. Rick’s motivation.

  28. With all respect to those actually engaged in combat, most servicemembers have a rosy, well-paying existence–which draftees never did.

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