Every now and then the old argument that the draft should be reinstated pops back up. Most recently it appeared here at The American Conservative in a piece by Dennis Laich and Lawrence Wilkerson that contended America’s all-volunteer force is deeply unfair. Without directly stating it, they implied that the draft should be brought back.
“Said more explicitly,” they write, “if the sons and daughters of members of Congress, of the corporate leadership, of the billionaire class, of the Ivy Leagues, of the elite in general, were exposed to the possibility of combat, would we have less war?”
It seems like a reasonable question. Fortunately, history gives us the answer: No, we would not have less war. In fact, when we’ve had a draft we’ve actually had more war and more Americans killed in battle by several orders of magnitude.
In one 33-year period from 1940 to 1973 when conscription was in effect, we had three of the largest wars in American history, resulting in 497,271 Americans killed. In the 44 years since the end of the draft, we’ve engaged in a series of small overseas conflicts and three undeclared wars with about 7,000 Americans killed. About as many of our countrymen were killed in the Normandy landings than in all the wars since the end of the draft.
America has never fought a war with volunteers in which more than 10,000 Americans were killed in action. America has never fought a war with draftees in which there were fewer than 30,000 KIAs. There is no question about it: our biggest and highest-casualty wars have been fought with drafted troops.
The Korean War had the lowest body count of our conflicts fought with draftees, with 33,686 Americans killed in combat. Of our wars fought with volunteers, the Revolutionary War had the highest body count with about 8,000 Americans killed in combat. If you include the 17,000 deaths by disease and other causes, the total dead in the Revolutionary War are still fewer than combat deaths alone in the Korean War.
American combat deaths in all our wars fought with draftees total 641,007. This does not include the hundreds of thousands of servicemembers who died of disease. All American combat deaths in wars fought with volunteers totals 25,434. This includes the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the conflicts and skirmishes in between.
Wars fought with draftees have resulted in 25 times more combat deaths than in all our wars fought with volunteers. Not twice as many. Not three times as many. Twenty-five times the number of KIAs.
The line of argument from Laich and Wilkerson goes like this: A volunteer military places the burden of war on Americans who opt for military service, often out of economic necessity. The government is thus more likely to go to war because a volunteer has given his consent and knows that combat was part of the deal. Our elites have no skin in the game, and neither does the 99 percent of our population that doesn’t serve. Thus, people will not protest in the streets to prevent wars from occurring, or stop them once they start, because the burden falls on the often invisible 1 percent.
This reasoning arose during the Iraq War when it was proposed that a draft might have stopped the invasion because young people would have felt personally at risk of being deployed and would have protested. Because there was no draft, that fear wasn’t there and there was no uprising as during the Vietnam War when massive demonstrations were held across the nation.
Consider those claims for a moment. In Vietnam, we lost 58,220 American lives. In Iraq, we lost 4,424 American lives. The Vietnam War lasted 19 years with 13 times the number of American casualties in the Iraq War, which lasted eight years.
Yet by 2005, the Iraq War had broken the U.S. Army. Young people had stopped enlisting. Captains and junior NCOs, the leaders most needed in the fight on the ground, were leaving the ranks for good rather than face another combat deployment. Our leaders knew that each new American death was a liability and that tactics needed to change. Concern for casualties was high, unlike in Vietnam where conscripted troops were thrown into the meat grinder by the hundreds of thousands.
In 1968 and 1969, more than 500 Americans were killed a month in Vietnam. The U.S. Army’s volunteer force could not have sustained anywhere near that kind of death rate and still continued the war in Iraq. Americans have different reasons for volunteering to serve, but going overseas to be used as cannon fodder is not one of them. It takes a draftee for that.
Most of the protests against Vietnam didn’t occur until tens of thousands of Americans had been killed after nearly two decades of war. If the Vietnam War or the Korean War had been fought with volunteers rather than draftees, it is unlikely the body counts would have reached the numbers they did. It was the draft that allowed our government to plow hundreds of thousands of young Americans into those conflicts, as well as into the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
The draft never brought fairness to any of our wars either. If anyone believes conscription would result in Eric Trump or Malia Obama carrying a rifle in the infantry, he is sorely mistaken. The rich and the connected have always found ways to avoid the front lines. Years ago, the journalist and Rhodes Scholar James Fallows documented in Washington Monthly how his draft number came up after he graduated from Harvard while the Vietnam War was still raging. He then proceeded to lose enough weight as to not meet the Army’s height and weight standards. A skeptical doctor marked him down as unqualified for military service.
I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day. It was, initially, a generalized shame at having gotten away with my deception, but it came into sharper focus later in the day. Even as the last of the Cambridge contingent was throwing its urine and deliberately failing its color-blindness tests, buses from the next board began to arrive. These bore the boys from Chelsea, thick, dark-haired young men, the white proles of Boston. Most of them were younger than us, since they had just left high school, and it had clearly never occurred to them that there might be a way around the draft. They walked through the examination lines like so many cattle off to slaughter. I tried to avoid noticing, but the results were inescapable. While perhaps four out of five of my friends from Harvard were being deferred, just the opposite was happening to the Chelsea boys. … We returned to Cambridge that afternoon, not in government buses but as free individuals, liberated and victorious. The talk was high-spirited, but there was something close to the surface that none of us wanted to mention. We knew now who would be killed.
The rich and the connected will never be sent to the front lines if they don’t want to go. They will fake illnesses or get plush appointments to staff jobs. They will stay in school or fling urine at the draft board. They will find a way out.
There are other arguments for conscription, such as providing direction and employment for young people—that through compulsory service to their country they will be instilled with discipline and patriotism.
All those reasons are smokescreens. The true purpose of the draft is to provide large numbers of young bodies for overseas invasions—invasions in which tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of Americans have been killed.
We do not need a draft for the defense of the United States. If Americans believe their nation is worth fighting for, they will choose to protect their homes and communities of their own free will and self-interest.
In 2017, the number of Americans serving in the active-duty component of our armed forces is 1,281,900, with another 801,200 in our reserve components. Every last one is a volunteer. Our volunteer military is professional and certainly large enough to defend our nation from attack from any enemy. We are in a much stronger position today than we were in Washington’s time.
What we really need to do is drastically reduce our military spending and the size of our armed forces. In this age of nuclear weapons, the possibility of America being militarily conquered is zero. Giving up our role as a global police force and instead concentrating on the defense of the North American continent would enhance our safety and security while also increasing our prosperity and domestic tranquility.
Brian O’Brien is the author of The Tyranny of the Federal Reserve.