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Defending liberty without compulsion

Defending liberty without compulsion

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Sociologist Charles Moskos and Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris set tongues a-wagging with their call for renewed conscription. Appearing as it did in the Washington Post, the duo's demand for a draft to fill not just the ranks of the military, but also the needs of domestic security, reached an audience of policy-makers who were already toying with the idea of mandatory national service.

Moskos and Glastris called for "a new kind of draft: One that would focus less on preparing men for conventional combat … than on training young men and even young women for the arguably more daunting task of guarding against and responding to terrorism at home."

Sounding a similar note, Robin Gerber of the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership opined in the Christian Science Monitor that "[n]ational conscription for national service is what America needs to ensure that when we win the war on terrorism we have a civil society as mighty as our military."

John Derbyshire, a contributing editor to National Review, also chimed in. In response to the military's call for people familiar with languages spoken in Afghanistan, he asked, "[i]f the army needs Pashto speakers, why can't it just draft them…?"

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks boosted the prominence of those who favor conscription. They created a political environment suitable to rallying the troops, willing or not. Within weeks of the attacks, the Selective Service system stepped up efforts to enforce compliance by young men with the country's draft registration law.

So, as Americans mull a possible return to lotteries and call-up notices, it's time to ask a basic question: Is the draft a good idea?

For starters, it's not clear that there's a crying need for more military manpower. True, an early flurry of inquiries about enlisting in the armed services produced relatively few new recruits. But if military leaders are hankering for more warm bodies in uniforms, they're not going out of their way to get the word out.

And yes, highly trained personnel, such as pilots, proved difficult to retain during the booming economy of the 1990s. Military pay couldn't compete with the temptations of private sector jobs. But the economy is now in the doldrums, making military service a more attractive prospect than it was just a short time ago. Even if that were not the case, conscription works best to round-up relatively unskilled cannon fodder for short terms of service. Draftees rarely stick around to acquire the skills needed for the high-tech wars of the 21st century.

A 1999 study by Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute found that "[o]nly 10 percent of first termers stayed in the military when service was mandatory compared with about 50 percent today under the [all-volunteer force]."

And from day one, volunteer troops tend to be better prepared than their involuntary predecessors. Bandow wrote that "[o]n the important measures of high school graduation and scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT), today's military is far superior" to the draftee military of the Vietnam era.

Morale and discipline are also better. That's because the service takes only those who wish to be in uniform, and is free to discharge problem personnel. In contrast, "the services must retain draftees at all cost, lest indiscipline become a means of escape."

The latest calls for conscription go farther than schemes of the past. Gerber wants to swell the ranks of Americorps with conscripts. Moskos and Glastris plan to use draftees as border guards, customs agents and even FBI agents. They would subject us to social workers and law enforcement officers who were forced into their jobs under threat of fine or imprisonment.

Draftees' compelled services aren't necessarily seen as important in themselves. Many advocates of a restored draft couch their program more in terms of social goals than in filling manpower needs. Moskos and Glastris argue that the "shared experience" of the draft of World War II and thereafter "helped instill in those who served a sense of unity and moral seriousness that extended to the national culture."

But World War II was probably the most popular war in America's history. Overwhelming public approval of that conflict explains a temporary sense of national unity that can't be expected during normal periods of cultural and political disagreement. It's hard to see that conscription necessarily produces a sense of unity, when instead it fed protests during its latest implementation for the Vietnam War, and fueled violent draft riots when first enforced during the Civil War.

And the argument that the draft contributed to an Eisenhower-era sense of "unity and moral seriousness" would likely be disputed by those who remember instead a period of stifling conformity.

What kind of "shared experience" do advocates of the draft have in mind anyway? Ironically, Gerber advocates conscription by saying, "Now is the time when the public will be receptive to the idea of compulsory service that teaches young people the meaning of being an American."

But America is a nation founded in liberty. The War of 1812 was at least partially sparked by the British habit of seizing sailors from American ships and forcing them into naval service. The Civil War is forever identified with the abolition of slavery. Men marched and died to end the extraction of labor and life from people against their will.

Just what part of that history of resistance to compulsion will be inculcated by a new round of involuntary servitude?

Since the terrorist attacks, many pundits have claimed that the U.S. was targeted because its open, tolerant society is anathema to totalitarian religious fundamentalists. That's an arguable claim, but it is rooted in an undeniable truth: the roots of America's political culture lie in a

philosophical commitment to personal freedom and limited government.

That commitment is honored only so long as the U.S. government fills its personnel needs with willing applicants. When Americans are dragooned to serve the state against their will, it's fair to ask just what it is that those conscripts are supposed to be defending.

J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff-based Senior Editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (

— Arizona Daily Sun


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