Time to Re-consider National Military Service


On June 30, 1973, Dwight Elliott Stone, a 24- year-old plumber's assistant, became the last man conscripted into the United States Army. With the Viet Nam War winding down, President Richard Nixon ended the draft after years of complaints over its inequities. The all-volunteer force that followed has kept this nation supplied with manpower for almost 40 years, through almost 30 years of peace and ten years of war.

Ask any high ranking American military officer if they are in favor of reinstating a national military draft and the answer would probably be "No thank you." The common thread is that there are enough challenges training and motivating troops in the face of extended deployments in two protracted wars. Dealing with some conscripts who don't want to be there at all only adds to their already impressive workload. And it's hard to argue with success. The nation's all-volunteer service has given the United States perhaps the most motivated, effective and professional military in its 235-year history.

But after almost a decade of war, the services are stretched and worn thin. And there are officers, as well as those outside the military, who are reconsidering the question.

There are serious downsides to the all volunteer service. With less than one percent of the population serving in the military, most Americans are so removed from the defense of their nation - many don't even know anyone in uniform - that a huge and uneven divide exists in our country today. The concept of the citizen soldier that our Founding Fathers envisioned has long since vanished. A tiny spec of the population carries the burden and suffers the consequences, which can involve death, serious injury and long absences that place tremendous burdens on families.

Without national service, one more cohesive element that bound all Americans together during periods of our history has been lost. And vital decisions such as going to war in the first place, the rules of engagement in war and the treatment of our armed forces afterwards are often made by those who are not personally impacted in the slightest. Wars are often initiated and extended by those with no skin in the game. Can you imagine the national debate if everyone including the children of Senators, CEOs and movie stars had to endure these challenges? Therefore, it may be time to reopen a national conversation on reinstating national service.

The U.S. has only used conscription in 30 years of its entire history and it has not always had a great record in getting it right. The draft was first implemented in the Civil War on both sides and with mixed success. Wealthy conscripts could buy their way out of the Union Army by purchasing a substitute which helped start America's first great urban riot in New York in 1863 that left over 100 dead (it took three battalions of Union soldiers to quell the mayhem). The next draft implemented in World War I made attempts to overcome the unfairness during the Civil War, putting married men with children behind single men and offering some form of release for religious convictions. World War II offered a further refinement of that system - trying to find the correct fit for everyone.  Interestingly, in all cases, the draft only brought in about 30 percent of the needed manpower with the vast majority coming from volunteers.

But Viet Nam led to some of the most glaring inequities of the Selective Service System when the working poor were sent off to an unpopular war in greater proportions while many with college deferments and access to doctor's excuses excluded them from serving.

Since the all-volunteer system was put in place, its first 30 years showed mostly positive results, but the military was never immune from the general problems in American society. A 1993 GAO report looking at first term attrition - that's the number of soldiers expelled from the service before their commitment is up - showed that almost a third (31.7 percent) could not complete their first term at a cost of 1.3 billion dollars to taxpayers. More men left than women mostly for misconduct, drug and alcohol abuse. The chief reason that women left was pregnancy.

Today's all volunteer service is also under-represented by both ends of America's social stratum. The young people at the very bottom are disproportionately under-represented as are the graduates of the country's elite universities. The vast majority of those serving today are from the middle of the country - mostly white, middle class and many from Middle America.

But national service is no panacea. If government mandated conscription were re-instituted, perhaps as many as 40 percent of the 18-24 male cohort would not qualify because of behavior issues, lack of education, testing positive for drugs or all of the above. The issue of bringing women into service should be raised as well. With pressure from women's organizations for equal treatment and the great strides women have made in the armed services over the past 40 years, should a new draft be open to both sexes? Some countries have adopted this with great success.

All of this raises the question of using the military as social engineer. In a rapidly diffuse society, where fewer and fewer national traditions bind us together, should the military take on this responsibility along with its more pressing assignment of defending the nation in a very dangerous world? The U.S. armed services did this brilliantly in 1947 when President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the military and the services accomplished this decades ahead of the rest of American society.

And with the very nature of war evolving, America's reliance on a World War II style infantry division is vastly antiquated with challenges coming from cyber-warfare, non-state sponsored terror as well as nuclear, chemical and biological threats.

There is no doubt that a new call for national service would be ultimately better for the country and its young people, giving them real life lessons in commitment and responsibility. It would undoubtedly make them better citizens. Would this be better for the military? Perhaps not.  If we want to be fair, an equitable form of national service is the answer. If we want to sustain the quality of our military, this could be the worst option.

We raise the issue of national service realizing valid arguments on both sides. However, we think it is important to start a national dialogue on this issue along with an honest assessment of the threats America faces and how it will rise to these challenges in the future. Bringing all Americans into this effort is important, if for no other reason than correcting the abject unfairness of the sacrifices made by a very small segment of our national body.

Dwight Stone - the last man drafted in America - served for 17 months all within the continental U.S. He has said it was a positive experience and he is not against military service. "Serving your country is not a bad idea," he told the Seattle Times in 1993, "as long as you include everybody."

Mr. Kozak is the author of "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay" (Regnery, 2009).


Paul E. Vallely (MG, US Army) retired in 1991 from the US Army as Deputy Commanding General, US Army, Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. General Vallely graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point and was commissioned in the Army in 1961 and is now Chairman of Stand Up America and the Legacy National Security Advisory Group. He with LTG Tom McInerney authored the book, "Endgame" -The Blueprint for Victory in the War on Terror.


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