By John Thorlin —
Should the United States reinstitute the draft?
In the Summer 2010 edition of the Yale Journal of International Affairs, Dr. Joseph Vasquez questions the wisdom of using private military contractors (PMCs) and suggests that reinstitution of the draft might be preferable on moral and economic grounds. He cites a 2007 shooting incident which led to manslaughter charges being brought against Blackwater. The Blackwater employees were later exonerated, but Dr. Vasquez maintains that such incidents are to be expected due to a lower level of military control and accountability in PMCs. Dr. Vasquez argues that the lower cost of PMCs (due to fewer benefits and more efficient administration) leads inexorably to their greater usage and, subsequently, a multiplication of incidents such as the 2007 Blackwater incident.
Dr. Vasquez’s case for the draft rests on three key assertions. First, it would dramatically increase available manpower for the armed forces, thereby reducing strain on volunteer soldiers. Second, it would increase the public’s awareness of foreign policy issues if more people had to serve. Finally, the draft would decrease the need for PMCs.
Dr. Vasquez’s first point is true, but ignores important differences between volunteers and draftees. Draftees are, by definition, people who would not otherwise join the military. This trivial observation suggests two equally clear facts about draftees.
First, they have far lower morale than volunteers. This means they will do their work less effectively. They will also tend to drag down the morale of volunteers who are forced to work with draftees, a well-recognized effect of the draft in the Vietnam era.
Second, the act of drafting a citizen has a large, clear economic cost, both to the individual citizen and the country as a whole. Educations and entry level job experiences are deferred. May citizens are not soldiers because they have a comparative advantage in a different field. For example, a skilled programmer’s talents are wasted if he is forced to be a soldier for two years. We would do well to wonder how much value would have been lost in the world if Mark Zuckerberg had been patrolling Ramadi instead of creating Facebook.
Dr. Vasquez’s second point, that the draft would increase the public’s awareness of foreign policy issues, is debatable. The information available to the public regarding the wars is already quite detailed (perhaps even too detailed given the recent Wikileaks imbroglio.) Perhaps what Dr. Vasquez means is that the public would be more sensitive to the death of draftees in war. If that is true, it may be simply because we all pity the unwilling draftee who is sent off to die regardless of whether he is sent off to fight a “good” war. Imposing that emotional tax may cause lawmakers to think twice before sending soldiers off to fight, but it will not be because of any rational policy consideration. The same emotional tax might deter an otherwise laudable mission such as ending genocide or protecting our allies.
While Dr. Vasquez raises several legitimate concerns about the current policy toward PMCs, his article does not offer any fundamental reasons why the use of PMCs should be curtailed. The one incident he cites resulted in exoneration of the contractors involved. Even if the contractors had acted criminally in that case, it would remain unclear why we should be against PMCs generally. After all, U.S. military personnel have committed many morally culpable acts in the current wars (such as the detainee scandals at Abu Ghraib), but we do not allow the depraved acts of individual soldiers or units to impugn the efforts of all the rest.
The use of PMCs (or, to use a less politically correct appellation, mercenaries) is an ancient tradition. Xenophon’s Anabasis, one of the key works of Ancient Greece, describes the travails of ten thousand Greek mercenaries. Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a hero of the American Revolution, was a mercenary. A particularly illuminating argument regarding mercenaries and the draft arose when General Westmoreland was questioned by Milton Friedman regarding the Vietnam-era draft. Westmoreland said he did not want to lead an army of mercenaries, to which Friedman responded, “General, would you rather command an army of slaves?” Westmoreland answered, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.” Friedman retorted, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general.”
Friedman’s point was simple: there is nothing fundamentally immoral about mercenaries (or, perhaps synonymously, paid volunteers). Resorting to a draft raises entirely different moral concerns and would likely be far less economical. Dr. Vasquez’s provocative article notwithstanding, there remain good reasons not to spurn volunteerism in favor of a draft.
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