Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 1, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BRING BACK THE DRAFT?....Do we need to reinstate the draft? Phil Carter and WM editor Paul Glastris suggest the answer is yes in "The Case for the Draft" in the current issue of the Washington Monthly. If I can summarize (and I can!), their argument goes like this:

  • Every 20 years or so the United States needs to put half a million or more soldiers in the field. This happened during WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War. It's foolish to think it won't happen again.

  • As the Iraq war demonstrates, we're no longer able to do this. Our current military, stretched to the limit, can field about 300,000 troops for a short time (a year or less), or about 100,000 troops over an extended period.

  • What to do? Relying on foreign assistance or private contractors is implausible, and increasing the size of the standing army (or the reserves) is politically impossible. What's more, we don't need a bigger standing army. We need a "surge" capability that we can call on in the rare cases where we need large numbers of troops.

  • The best way to get this surge capability is a draft. Phil and Paul have a suggestion for a specific kind of draft (one that's universally required for admittance to university, with draftees given a choice of either national service or military service), but what's more important is the purpose of the draft: to create a pool of experienced recruits who can be called up when necessary. They suggest their plan would produce 100,000 military recruits per year, so after a decade the military would have a pool of a million former soldiers who could be called up in an emergency.

Politically, this proposal strikes me as being every bit the nonstarter that any other draft proposal would be. What's more, it all hinges on the very first point, namely that we need to have the ability to field a large army in the future and this is the only way to do it.

I'm skeptical on both counts. The U.S. military is already overwhelmingly powerful, and it's hard to see the case for making it yet more overwhelming. If we can't protect U.S. national interests with our current military including its sizable nuclear deterrent there's something wrong with our perception of our national interest.

I'm also skeptical that an ongoing draft is the only way to field a large army anyway. After all, if we ever found ourselves needing a million-person force we could still do what we did during World War II and the Vietnam War: start drafting and training soldiers then. Sure, it would take a while, but it would take a while to build up the equipment to outfit their combat brigades anyway. It's true that having a large pool of trained former soldiers would nonetheless be a benefit, but would it really be such a large benefit that it makes an ongoing draft worth the cost?

I don't see it. Any danger to U.S. interests that requires a fast response will be the job of the current volunteer military, and it's hard to foresee any danger that requires both huge numbers of troops and an immediate reaction. This seems like a solution in search of a problem.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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