Joseph Epstein calls for reviving conscription:
The remedy for this fundamental unfairness is of course at hand, and it goes by the name of the draft.
Bringing back a military draft is a bad idea in and of itself. It should be normal for free citizens not to owe any time of service to the state, and we shouldn’t lament the fact that Americans are free from this obligation today. Ending the draft was one of the more significant improvements to modern American life in the last fifty years, and throwing away those gains would be a huge mistake. Especially when the U.S. no longer faces foreign threats comparable to the USSR, a draft would be nothing but an inexcusable intrusion into the lives of Americans.
It also won’t produce the results that Epstein wants. For instance, Epstein asserts that resuming the draft would “would be to make the American electorate generally more thoughtful about foreign policy.” I have no idea why this should be true, and there’s no evidence that democratic governments with conscription are any more thoughtful or wise in their foreign policy decisions than those that don’t have it. For good or ill (and lately it’s been mostly for ill), foreign policy is one area where the government’s actions are least influenced by public opinion. Bringing back the draft can’t change that. Restoring the draft would just mean that more Americans would be exposed to harm the next time a president and his advisers have some half-baked notion that the U.S. simply “must” intervene on the other side of the planet.
It is possible that a draft might make it harder for policymakers to continue ill-advised wars for a very long time, but it won’t stop them from starting or joining them. Even with the draft, U.S. forces were stuck fighting in Vietnam for the better part of a decade, and U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia in one form or another lasted much longer than that. If the U.S. has plunged into unnecessary, pointless wars with the All-Volunteer Force, it also did the same thing when it had the draft. The U.S. keeps making reckless, costly mistakes in foreign policy whether or not its military is made up entirely of volunteers. Policymakers have made terrible decisions to commit the U.S. to unnecessary wars because of thoroughly faulty assumptions about the efficacy and desirability of U.S. military action and because of extremely poor judgment about threats to the U.S. and its allies. Drafting people to serve in the military isn’t going to fix what is at its core a problem of bad policymaking, and focusing on the composition of the military distracts us from the reality that the recurring problem is with the civilians we elect and their appointees. Resuming the draft wouldn’t prevent the U.S. from engaging in unnecessary, pointless wars, and the problem would likely be made worse by making those wars larger and costlier.
The last war fought by America that had the durable support of the nation was World War II.
That may be true, but it doesn’t prove what Epstein thinks it does. There was broad and durable support for U.S. involvement in WWII after Pearl Harbor because of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the later German declaration of war on the U.S. Americans supported the war effort because the U.S. had been attacked. Almost every other U.S. foreign war since 1945 has not been a war that the U.S. was compelled to fight, but was almost always one that our government chose to fight when it didn’t have to. Americans naturally tire of wars that have no direct or obvious connection to U.S. security, and they usually tire of them even more quickly when they seem to drag on endlessly without success. Our wars of choice have been made possible by the possession of a large, well-equipped military that can go to war at the president’s discretion even without Congress’ approval. A draft would not make it harder for the U.S. to blunder into costly conflicts, but rather would increase the resources available to future administrations that they could squander even more easily.
The rest of Epstein’s case for reviving the draft is also not very persuasive. For example, it might be true that conscripting gang members into the military will help them to reform, but there must be a better way to address this than conscription. Besides, the military isn’t there to serve as a glorified penitentiary, and we shouldn’t want to make it into one. While it may be interesting for draftees to live and work with people from a wide range of backgrounds, that hardly justifies compelling people to give up years of their lives in forced service. And even though Epstein found his brief stint in the Army to be illuminating and valuable, there would probably be even more people that would see military service as a major interruption and a huge waste of their time.
Epstein seems oblivious to the strong principled objections to conscription, and he dismisses arguments against bringing back the draft as “mainly technical.” On the contrary, the main argument against reviving conscription is that it is intolerable for free people to be compelled to work for the government. Even if conscription produced the desired results that Epstein describes, it would be a terrible mistake to bring it back because it is an unnecessary infringement on the freedom of Americans. Even if the draft were a partial “remedy” for bad foreign policy decisions, it comes at an unacceptable cost. However, as I hope I have shown here, it isn’t a “remedy” for anything, and would compound the problems that its new advocates think it will solve.