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Bringing Back the Draft Won’t Stop Unnecessary Wars

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 [1] 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.

Fallows wrote:

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.

58 Comments (Open | Close)

58 Comments To "Bringing Back the Draft Won’t Stop Unnecessary Wars"

#1 Comment By F Newman On October 29, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

Maybe I missed it, but the Iraq and Afghan wars were fought with contractors or the draft would have been needed. Those contractors are still about with more in Afghanistan than US troops. The draft laws were changed at the end of the Vietnam war so the college escape wouldn’t work. I will limp until my death but I’m lucky to be live. “RA all the way”

#2 Comment By jcastarz On October 29, 2017 @ 4:31 pm

Dakarian: We have so successfully removed the (near term) costs of war from the average citizen, that they can be psychologically drawn into wars by all the various patriotic and emotive methods you describe. The personal price barrier is just too low. I still believe that assessing a war’s cost to each citizen in blood (and treasure; levy the war tax) will clear each citizen’s mind enough to make independent decisions in spite of political pressure.

I have proposed in comments elsewhere on TAC to maintain the Draft as a backup to the All-Volunteer and National Guard forces, to be auto-invoked when the front-line forces are cycled beyond a fixed limit. The threat of starting up the Draft might keep our national leaders focused on the… efficiency of our foreign adventures. Just imagine running for re-election with the stigma of having ‘effed-up a war so badly that the Draft had to be invoked on YOUR watch. Great political incentive to avoid risky wars in the first place if you ask me.

And, if citizens accept the Draft being invoked, then that means they also accept the cause it supports – and the extra cost it will require. Which I feel is important; we’re all either in this together, or we’re not.

#3 Comment By freeman On October 29, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

Wow, steve b, wow.

Woodrow Wilson is the president who led America into the war in Europe that became known as World War One. He was a “progressive” Democrat.

Roosevelt was president before and during nearly all of World War Two. His death is the only reason he did not go all through that horrible war. Roosevelt was a Democrat.

Truman all by his lonesome issued an executive order launching the Korean War. Truman was a Democrat.

JFK and LBJ are the presidents who plunged the US into Vietnam. They too were Democrats. JFK at least was looking for a way out of Vietnam before his head was blown off.

Clinton — another Democrat — involved the US in wars in Africa and Europe, including the big bombing campaign in the Balkans. Clinton was a Democrat.

Obama bombed several countries in the Middle East and put thousands of “special forces” killers in Africa. The Libyan and Syrian crises have Obama’s fingerprints all over them. Obama was a Democrat.

Republicans and Democrats for decades have had military operations going in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe.

When it comes to war, steve b, Democrats and Republicans march in virtually lockstep. Obama continued and in some ways expanded the GW Bush wars. The ongoing atrocities in Yemen are being committed by Saudi Arabia using American planes, missiles, bombs and bullets supplied by a US government that Obama was running and now Trump is running.

Perhaps you should look at the world through clear eyes instead of through ideological lenses.

#4 Comment By William M. On October 29, 2017 @ 9:26 pm

The arguments against having conscription are numerous and well documented so I will not go into them here.

A much better way to limit pointless wars would be to go back to “for the duration” enlistments, where, after a declaration of war by Congress, the ranks are opened up to a large influx of fresh recruits who enlist for the duration of that war in the burst of popular enthusiasm that accompanies it.

This will limit wars in two ways: first of all, it will limit the number of wars to those for which popular enthusiasm can be aroused. Secondly, it will limit the duration of those wars to the maximum amount of time before that large influx mutinies.

A system like this will never be implemented but that is utterly irrelevant to this discussion.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 30, 2017 @ 2:31 am

“Laughing. We have prisons. We don’t have a draft. False equivalency.”

No. we have prions inspite of not placing people who should be there in them and despite the fact that we have people who shouldn’t be are.

The fact that people may escape the draft is not cause for not having one.

The comparison is not only accurate it makes the point. In other words we had a draft that worked despite the reality that some people escaped the process.

The point of comparison is not on the object, but rather the rationale for having said object. Just because people who qualify for said process avoid it is not cause for not having it.

In my view, it’s rather obvious that prisons are not the draft and the draft is not a prison. Though both are usually accompanied by a specific term of service. I am sure some draftees might disagree.

In either case we need them both. One we have one and one we don’t but would be of service.

#6 Comment By Dakarian On October 30, 2017 @ 7:08 am


I can get much see the use of such a concept. But if we go that way, let it be financial instead: don’t let us go to war without being forced to fund it by a combination of a flat tax increase and a drop in spending on all non military spending, including government pay, all of which cannot be revoked before ending the conflict.

It stops funding wars by credit card and puts two sacred cows for slaughter, government services and taxes. Bush 1 had a very well regarded war but couldn’t survive a tax hike so we know it works to rile up the public.

Stuff like this is not going to stop wars, just act as punishment for abusing war. And I’d rather people go to the voting booth saying “you left me broke and hungry” rather than “you killed my child.”

Sidenote on the, if the public us ok with the draft, the last war that the public thought was a great idea was Iraq. I trust them to decide when it’s ok to send masses of people to die about as much as I trust the Government they voted for.

#7 Comment By MEOW On October 31, 2017 @ 9:23 am

JFK plunged the US into Vietnam? Not sure that is right. Ike had advisers there. Many believe three of JFK’s goals just before his assassination were – use Treasury money (Lincoln – thus demote the Fed system of money creation), pull out of Vietnam, and ensure Israel did not get nukes. We’ll never know?

#8 Comment By N. Joseph Potts On November 7, 2017 @ 7:23 pm

The draft is a government program – a tax, if you will, on you and/or your children. That’s IN ADDITION to the tax taxes.

More government is more war is more government.

That’s how it goes.