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Were Wars Bloodier and Longer When We Had Conscription?

Brian O’Brien rejects the idea that bringing back conscription would keep the U.S. out of unnecessary wars:

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.

O’Brien makes a compelling case that the U.S. fought longer, bloodier wars when it had conscription than when it has not had it. The U.S. did not stay out of wars of choice during that same period. While there is a certain logic behind the assumption that policymakers with draft-age children would be less inclined to support a foreign war, it still doesn’t keep those wars from happening. Even if we could bring conscription back tomorrow, prevailing assumptions about the U.S. role in the world and the definition of our “vital interests” would remain unchanged. The U.S. would end up fighting even more unnecessary wars with the increased manpower available to the government.

The difficulty in preventing unnecessary wars is that the government usually manages to persuade most Americans that the war is anything but unnecessary at the time. The president and his allies exaggerate a foreign threat, declare it to be unacceptable, and then “reluctantly” conclude that war is now the only way. War supporters also routinely minimize the dangers and costs of the wars, and they promise that it will be quick and completely successful. War supporters also rile up the public with nationalistic feelings and denounce critics as unpatriotic, and that has the effect of reducing public opposition to the proposed war. All of these things would still be true if we had conscription, and the hostility to dissent would probably be even greater than it already is. Practically the only thing that immunizes the public against pro-war rhetoric is a lack of trust in government, and a society with conscription will tend to have more of that rather than less.

The U.S. starts and joins so many wars that it could avoid because of a political culture that applauds “action” and a foreign policy establishment that fetishizes “leadership” regardless of the consequences. Because U.S. interests are so broadly defined that they practically cover the entire globe, joining almost any conflict can be spun as a “defense” of those interests despite the fact that it is usually a war of choice that has nothing to do with self-defense. Minor and manageable threats are routinely blown out of proportion and dubbed “existential” without any justification. Preventive war is treated as a normal, legitimate policy option instead of the crime that it is. Until all these things have been significantly changed, it won’t make any difference whether we have a military full of conscripts or an all-volunteer force. Our leaders will continue to take us into wars that have nothing to do with the security of the United States.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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