Draft Reinstatement Is a Bad Idea

Bad ideas flourish in tough times. Calls to reinstate the draft offer a case in point.

Americans today rely on the service and sacrifice of our military. The global war on terrorism (search) has put our soldiers, sailors, marines, Air Force and Coast Guard into harm's way in numbers unprecedented since the Vietnam War. National Guard and reserve troops have been posted overseas at record levels.

All the men and women of today's military volunteered to serve. They swore an oath to put aside their personal aspirations and obligations for the service of all Americans. But some politicians argue that these volunteers are victims, and legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress that would resume military conscription for the first time since the Vietnam era.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. (search), says we need a draft because the burden of fighting the nation's wars falls disproportionately on the poor and minorities. The rich, he argues, opt out of war.

That argument denigrates the service of all men and women in uniform. People do not become soldiers because they can't do anything else. Anyone who has served a day in the military knows there are easier ways to make a buck. They don't see themselves as hapless mercenaries.

Additionally, a draft is more -- not less -- likely to place the burden of military service on the poor. In his book "Unheralded Victory," combat veteran Mark Woodruff (search) points out that 76 percent of those who served in Vietnam had working-class backgrounds.

Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., proposed reinstating conscription because he worries the military relies too heavily on the use of the National Guard (search) and reserves. The sacrifice, he argued, needs to be shared.

Sharing sacrifice, however, is exactly why we have reserve forces. The reserves offer Americans an opportunity to pursue civilian careers and serve the nation in moments of need. That's why we call them citizen-soldiers. They, too, take up arms for their nation because they want to, not because they have to.

In Vietnam, the United States had to use the draft because the National Guard wasn't prepared for such an undertaking. After the conflict, the military was reorganized so guard units could be used in any major operation. Employing the guard and reserves is how we ensure the burden of national service is shared.

Plus, we should be wary of those who urge us to scrap the all-volunteer military force (search) that has served this nation well for three decades. Nearly every expert who studies the issue concludes that all-volunteer -- or professional -- militaries perform more efficiently, more bravely and with less corruption and other breakdowns than conscripts.

The U.S. military stands as a shining example of this. Our all-volunteer service is the most skilled, disciplined and motivated force on the planet. From the jungles of Panama to the sands of Iraq to the skies over Kosovo and the mountains of Afghanistan, our military has performed nearly flawlessly over the last 30 years. Abandoning this -- disrupting this professional force -- makes no sense.

The United States has resisted a draft for most of its history because the draft is not part of our tradition. Americans view voluntary military service as a hallmark of democracy.

Conscription makes sense only in moments of extreme national peril such as the Civil War and World War II. During the Second World War, for example, virtually all able-bodied men of draft age -- about 12 million -- were needed to defend the republic. In short, the draft was fair because virtually everybody that could serve had to serve. But those moments are rare. Imposing a draft at any other time creates not shared sacrifice but a lottery for the unlucky.

Returning to the draft represents a failure of democracy, not a means to ensure its future. Citizenship carries both duties and privileges, but democracy thrives only when citizens hold both equally precious. When virtue is imposed, it ceases to be virtue.

If the United States cannot field an all-volunteer force to fight the global war on terror, then we have problems far worse than those that trouble Sen. Hollings and Rep. Rangel. It would mean we have lost the will to defend our nation. No draft can give a country the will to fight; only its citizens do that. If we start thinking of military service as anything less than virtuous, we will have suffered a crippling and perhaps fatal defeat.

James Jay Carafano, a 25-year veteran of the armed forces, is a senior research fellow in defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.