February 12, 2016
Should women be registered for the draft? Now that Defense Secretary Carter has removed the exclusion of women from all combat jobs, the Army chief of staff, the Marine Corps commandant, and Senator McCaskill of Missouri want all women registered. The secretary himself says that’s up to the Congress, but Senator Ernst of Iowa is at least urging the Obama Administration to take a stand on the issue. Congressmen Hunter of California and Zinke of Montana introduced last week the appropriately-named Draft Our Daughters Act, but only to instigate debate. Hunter is particularly unimpressed with the idea of drafting women and then assigning them to the infantry—as we could expect the bureaucrats to do. Senator Lee of Utah, saying that he “can’t trust this president or the courts” to get it right, has introduced legislation to ban the government from requiring women to register. But here’s another idea: don’t register anyone. Because whatever the moralizing, conscription is just stupid on the economics.

It’s not that draftees make universally bad soldiers. John Sloan Brown argued in his book Draftee Division (University Press of Kentucky, 1986) that the all-conscript 88th Infantry Division performed well in the Second World War, at least in contrast to similar formations with volunteers. In the Vietnam War, though, the draft was a disaster, sending unmotivated soldiers into combat in an unpopular war. Thus Senator McCain of Arizona, the volunteer veteran of that war who chairs the Senate Armed Service Committee, sees “no scenario” that brings back a draft, because “conscription didn’t work.” And yesterday, Congressmen Coffman (Colorado), Polis (Colorado), DeFazio (Oregon), and Rohrabacher (California) introduced a bill to abolish the registration system and shut down the agency. DeFazio called the system "mean-spirited.” Coffman said that the whole business “simply makes no sense,” noting that the Pentagon has never seriously considered asking for another call-up since the draft ended in 1973.

In truth, a draft would make even less sense now, and on simple economics. It has been long commonplace to cite Alan and Heidi Toffler’s 1993 dictum that nations make war the way they make wealth (see their War and Anti-War, Little Brown & Company). At least they should make consider making war that way, as it’s probably more cost-effective. Despite some “sloppy generalizations,” as Eliot Cohen put it, the overall message was prescient: “some serious change [was] afoot.” And since the precision revolution of the 1990s, the balance of combat power has shifted towards airpower. Ground troops remain a vital input to victory, but American ground troops are expensive, and should be committed sparingly. In contrast, the review back then in Publishers Weekly extolled a future “knowledge strategy” that relied on robots, drones, surveillance satellites, non-lethal weapons, and commandos—basically the Obama Administration’s 2016 strategy for defeating Daesh, Al Qaeda, and the rest of the barbarians. And I have not noticed that this Third Offset business extols any American advantage in bayonet fighting.

But this is not just a matter of roboterkrieg. Frederick the Great said that he favored hiring mercenaries because each was one like three soldiers: one in the Prussian Army, another not in his enemies’ armies, and a third Prussian civilian working a job, and thereby economically supporting the Army. The point is not that the Pentagon should rehire Blackwater (or whatever it’s called these days) for kinetic activities. It’s that Americans are too valuable, and that the  opportunity cost to not allowing them to work productively is far greater than it is for the subjects of any of America’s potential enemies. As Horowitz, Simpson, and Stam wrote in 2011, there is a reason that historically “volunteer democratic armies suffer especially few casualties”—governments either avoid hazarding voter-soldiers wantonly, or  equip them robustly for battle (see “Domestic Institutions and Wartime Casualties,” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, December 2011, p. 909.) Their conclusion? “Conscription, like other non-market-based property takings, [is] a wasteful means of mobilizing military manpower.”

In short, McCain is right. There is no plausible reason for a draft. Any war is a questionable idea if the government can’t find enough volunteers to wage it the right way. I note that the chiefs of the Navy and the Air Force have expressed no such enthusiasm for dragooned labor, but are always asking for more capital. On a blog for the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Felicia Schwartz acknowledged that draft registration doesn’t cost much—according to the agency itself, $21.5 million this year—but a total waste is still a total waste. That money will produce zero soldiers, but would buy a thousand JDAMs annually. The Air Force was complaining last week that sequestration has cut into its precision weapons budget, and that stocks for fighting in Iraq and Syria are dwindling. Well, don’t worry, gentlemen. I just found your money.

James Hasík is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

RELATED CONTENT