Features, frontpage, Online, Student Articles — November 18, 2013 at 1:13 pm

The Reverse Draft: Bringing the Military and Society Back Together

By Lieutenant Joseph Hatfield*


If we cannot find a practicable political and economic rationale for inducing broader societal participation in military service, we should create a “reverse draft” that places active duty service members in schools, non-profits, and other areas of American society.

Sound crazy?  Actually, a reverse draft is a politically feasible alternative that solves several of the problems associated with the all-volunteer military without the drawbacks associated with conscription.

Last year General Stanley McChrystal came out in favor of the military draft—sparking a short-lived discussion over an issue most Americans probably assume was settled shortly after the Vietnam War.[1],[2],[3]  Sure, it crops up now and again.  But the issue has not featured in presidential politics seriously since Nixon-McGovern in 1972.[4]

General McChrystal offered the following reasons: the draft prevents the military from being unrepresentative of the population, the burden of war should be felt broadly across society, the all-volunteer military divorces public opinion about war from its human costs, and—as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown—too great a burden is placed on a small group of service members, doomed to multiple combat tours.

While these arguments are not new, demographic trends suggest the disconnect McChrystal feared has already developed.  When I was commissioned as a Naval Officer in 2006, less than 1 percent of the U.S. populace had ever served on active duty. [5]  This is a 900 percent decrease from when my grandfather departed Europe in 1945 after fighting Nazi aggression in Patton’s Third Army.  In 1975, as my father finished a tour with the U.S. Army’s Berlin Brigade, 70 percent of Congress had worn the uniform.[6]  Today, this has dropped to just 20 percent.

The disconnect between the military and broader American population leads some critics to characterize the all-volunteer military as merely “a mercenary army of the disadvantaged.”[7]  Critics worry that recruits fail to represent the nation’s citizenry and are increasingly drawn from disadvantaged families residing in poorer regions of the nation.

Yet in an economy that fails to provide disadvantaged groups a means to achieve the American dream, one could argue that today’s recruiting patterns play a positive role in achieving social justice.[8]  Though it would be better to cure the broader problem of economic inequality, military service offers an avenue of hope for the socially disadvantaged while such inequality exists.

In terms of technical military prowess, abandoning the draft was arguably the first step toward the modernized force that today has no symmetric rival. As General Petraeus argued in his U.S. Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency, it is this overwhelming conventional military superiority—which includes the professionalization of its members—that leads enemies of the United States to fight unconventionally.[9]  Still, better to be harassed by terrorists than on the brink of the Cold War’s nuclear holocaust.

Politically, a return to conscription seems impossible.  While rolling back the volunteer-nature of our military recruiting process might help glue our society and armed forces back together, it comes at the price of a significant loss in individual liberty.  Milton Friedman, an early supporter of an all-volunteer force, argued on the grounds of individual liberty (1966) and for economic reasons (1968) that in the long run a military draft could not and should not be maintained.[10],[11] What was libertarian advocacy then has become—justified or not—the common sense of today.

A reverse draft would “draft” active duty service members, already in uniform, to serve productive roles in American society as a dedicated tour of duty.  Draftees might serve on farms, at schools, or in non-profits.  They would connect with young and old, rich and poor, upending stereotypes about military service while providing useful social services.  Able draftees originally recruited into the military from disadvantaged backgrounds could have the opportunity to enter social networks previously denied to them.  More Americans, in turn, would be able to say they had some positive connection to military service.

Of course, the devil is in the details.  Critics might ask how having uniformed Wal-Mart greeters helps anyone.  Would draftees replace civilian jobs?  Who would match service members with particular organizations?  How long would draftees be off their military “career path”?  Would pilots have to re-qualify after time out of the cockpit?

Perhaps tours should be limited to “nation-building” enterprises such as schools, hospitals, public works, and the like.  Tax-incentives to accept draftees (by choice) may help induce broader participation on the part of private interests.  As in any draft, a skill-matching process could be implemented to ensure draftees can contribute to their assigned position. Some military jobs would simply need to be made exempt.

These particulars would have to be worked out.  But who said reconnecting the military to society would be easy?  The status quo is not a long-term solution.

The good news is we have already successfully accomplished similar initiatives.  For example, the “Troops to Teachers” program re-trains retiring service members to become schoolteachers. These newly minted teachers are often sent to inner city or troubled schools, thereby filling an important social need.  Other programs include: community involvement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), White House and other government Fellowships, ROTC programs on college campuses, voluntary community service provided by active duty service members, and more.

Admittedly, a reverse draft does not solve the uneven distribution of war’s human costs across American society.  But it goes a significant way toward addressing the increasing disconnect between military service and American society.  As a policy that preserves individual liberties and addresses issues of social justice, the reverse draft is a politically feasible proposal that should be on the national agenda.

Joseph Hatfield is an active duty U.S. Navy Lieutenant stationed in Sicily and a PhD Student at the University of Cambridge.  He has published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and the Armed Forces Journal.  His dissertation focuses on the ethics of war.

[1] Rogin, Josh, 2012. “McChrystal: Time to Bring Back the Draft,” Foreign Policy, (03 July 2012), Accessed: 30 October 2013. http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/07/03/mcchrystal_time_to_bring_back_the_draft

[2] Ricks, Thomas E., 2012. “Let’s Draft Our Kids,” New York Times, (09 July 2012), Accessed: 01 November 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/10/opinion/lets-draft-our-kids.html?_r=0.

[3] Rangel, Charles B., 2012. “Reinstating the Draft: Other Perspectives,” New York Times, (12 July 2012), Accessed: 01 November 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/13/opinion/reinstating-the-draft-other-perspectives.html.

[4] Glass, Andrew, 2012. “U.S. Military Draft Ends, Jan. 27, 1973,” Politico, (27 January 2012), Accessed: 30 October 2013. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0112/72085.html

[5] Tavernise, Sabrina, 2011. “As Fewer Americans Serve, Growing Gap Is Found Between Civilians and Military,” New York Times, (24 November 2011), Accessed: 31 October 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/25/us/civilian-military-gap-grows-as-fewer-americans-serve.html

[6] Eikenberry, Karl W., and David M. Kennedy, 2013. “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” New York Times, (26 May 2013), Accessed: 02 November 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/27/opinion/americans-and-their-military-drifting-apart.html.

[7] Goodman, Amy, 2004. “Noam Chomsky on Yasser Arafat, Iraq and the Draft,” Democracy Now! (15 November 2004), Accessed: 02 November 2013. http://www.democracynow.org/2004/11/15/noam_chomsky_on_yasser_arafat_iraq (at 56:00).

[8] Stiglitz, Joseph E., 2013. “Inequality Is a Choice,” New York Times, (13 October 2013), Accessed: 03 November 2013. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/inequality-is-a-choice/?_r=1

[9] Petraeus, David, and James F. Amos, 2006. Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. (Section A-5) http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-24.pdf.

[10] Friedman, Milton, 1966. “A Volunteer Army,” Newsweek, (19 December 1966, p. 100), Accessed: 01 November 2013. http://0055d26.netsolhost.com/friedman/pdfs/newsweek/NW.12.19.1966.pdf

[11] Friedman, Milton, 1968. “The Draft,” Newsweek, (11 March 1968, p. 82), Accessed: 01 November 2013. http://0055d26.netsolhost.com/friedman/pdfs/newsweek/NW.03.11.1968.pdf


One Comment

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