Conscription, which is mandatory mass military service, served as an informal ancient tool. Service in war often was expected for men, whether as subjects of an aggressive empire, members of an embattled tribe, or citizens of a political community, such as the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. This form of military service differed greatly and varied over time. This most powerful empire, Rome, however, relied on a professional military.
Complex feudal rules governed military service in medieval Europe. Kings could call up troops, but often did not directly organize these forces. Men who were resident in free towns could be obligated to defend their communities when these cities were threatened, and even peasants sometimes were organized into local militias. In addition, soldiers could be impressed. Localities often were required to provide a certain number of troops for the military. Mercenaries also became a common staple of Western European warfare. The Ottoman Empire relied on a professional, hereditary force, the janissaries, as well as troops raised by provincial governors.
For a time, war was dubbed “the sport of kings,” conducted with only limited forces and imposing only limited costs. Indeed, mercenaries had a distinct incentive to avoid undue bloodletting. However, concern about expense, loyalty, and efficiency eventually inclined courts and governments toward various forms of mandatory service. The consolidation of centralized state power led to practices more akin to modern conscription.
By the mid-16th century, militia service became obligatory in a number of countries when Sweden began the process of creating a standing military based on mandatory military service. In the 18th century, Russia inaugurated a system of lifetime conscription, although the draftees were selected by their local communities. With a smaller population, Prussia—informally known as an army that incidentally possessed a country—obligated all young men to serve, first in the active forces and then in the reserves.
It was revolutionary France that inaugurated the modern era of mass conscription, imposing a levée en masse in 1793. Only by impressing the entire population (and executing tens of thousands of regime opponents during the great Terror) did the government believe it could resist the invading forces of France’s multiple hostile neighbors. It was in France during the revolutionary period that the notion of “the nation under arms” was born. Imperial France under Napoleon relied on a more systematic draft of young men. As a result, one-time limited dynastic struggles were turned into unlimited national wars. John Hackett, the military historian, has observed:
What was new in a Europe in which war had recently been little more than the sport of kings was the enthusiasm of a revolutionary nation in arms. In this the impulse to defend the Revolution was fused with and then dominated by a passion to defend the country, just as in Soviet Russia in the Second World War.
By the end of the 19th century, conscription was pervasive. Among the continent’s major military powers, only Great Britain maintained a volunteer military. Amid growing fear of war, nations such as France and Germany made their drafts more rigorous, expanding call-ups and lengthening service terms.
The vast carnage early in the “Great War” led Britain to institute conscription in 1916. The resulting controversy split the government and led to Lloyd George’s ascent to the prime ministership.
Although America had long maintained a history of mandatory militia service of varying sorts, the nation’s Founders were suspicious of a standing military. The Madison administration’s proposal for a national draft during the War of 1812 was not well received even before it was obviated by the end of hostilities. For the most part, the national government relied on a small force of Regulars for defense and called up national volunteers and state militiamen during conflicts, such as the Mexican American and Spanish American wars. The first resort to national conscription in the United States was during the Civil War, when both the North and South drafted soldiers after casualties mounted and voluntary enlistments declined.
Following the end of the Civil War, America returned to a volunteer military, but attitudes toward government power and individual liberty shifted during the Progressive Era, leading to a well-organized preparedness campaign. Prior to America’s entry into World War I, a strong movement emerged that promoted universal military training and service. Conscription was then almost immediately imposed shortly after Congress declared war on Germany in 1917. However, the United States ended conscription and rapidly demobilized after the end of hostilities.
The perceived virtues of war attracted some advocates of civilian service. For instance, shortly before World War I, William James wrote of the need for a “moral equivalent of war,” in which all young men would be required to work for the community. He argued that “the martial virtues, although originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods,” and that national service provided a method for instilling those same values in peacetime. “Our gilded youths would be drafted off,” he wrote, “to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”
Anachronistic though his vision may seem today, his rhetoric has become the touchstone for national service advocates. In succeeding decades, a host of philosophers, policy analysts, and politicians proffered their own proposals for either voluntary or mandatory national service. Some smaller, voluntary initiatives were turned into law—the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal, the Peace Corps and ACTION in the 1960s, and AmeriCorps under President Bill Clinton.
Military service, however, remained the only form of mandatory duty in America. After World War I, the United States maintained only a small, voluntary peacetime force, whereas most of the European states retained drafts. As part of the Versailles Treaty, a defeated Germany agreed to maintain only a small professional force; however, the Nazi regime reinstated conscription as part of its military buildup before World War II.
With Europe at war and tensions rising with Japan, the United States initiated peacetime conscription in December 1940, the first peacetime draft in American history. Like it had in World War I, the draft expired after the end of World War II. However, in 1948, while mired in the steadily chilling cold war and with garrisons still occupying the newly defeated Germany and Japan, America reinstated the practice. Conscription faced little opposition during the Korean War, but the lengthy and ever more unpopular Vietnam War led to increasing public criticism and sometimes violent opposition.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara proposed tying civilian service to the draft in the early 1960s, but that idea died amid growing hostility to conscription. In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed the Gates Commission, among whose members was the famed economist Milton Friedman. Named after its chairman, Thomas Gates, the Commission studied a return to voluntarism. Following its recommendations, Congress ended conscription in 1973 and created an all-volunteer force (AVF).
The AVF had a difficult birth because the Vietnam experience had tainted the idea of military service, making recruitment difficult. Advocates of a return to the draft remained active until the early 1980s, when Reagan administration policies led to a marked improvement in the AVF. In succeeding years, the U.S. military demonstrated its capabilities as the finest military in the world. In each of America’s wars, draft advocates made a brief appearance, but were quickly rebutted. Only as recruiting and retention proved increasingly difficult during the lengthy Iraq occupation did the argument for returning to conscription gain any resonance.
However, other nations were then following America’s lead in moving toward voluntarism. France abandoned conscription, which was formally abolished in 2001. Russia debated professionalizing its force. China was downsizing its large and ill-trained volunteer army. In Germany, the draft remained, but its strongest supporters were not advocates of an efficient military, but rather social service agencies that benefited from cheap labor as young men chose “alternative” service to avoid the military.
America’s experience with the AVF has demonstrated the clear superiority of volunteer military service, in which personnel choose to join and make the military a career. Professionals serve longer, are better trained, and desire to succeed. The fact that recruits choose to enlist and the military chooses whom to accept creates a much more positive institutional dynamic than conscription, in which draftees want to get out and the military must take and keep most everyone. The advantages of a professional force have grown more obvious as military technology has improved, putting a premium on education and training. The strongest supporters of the AVF now work in the Pentagon.
The most serious argument for conscription revolves around making military service a duty of citizenship. The claim that “everyone should serve” remains powerful motivation for conscription advocates today, although a draft military would be less effective than the AVF.
The libertarian response is that a military that is required to defend a society based on individual liberty should be raised in the manner most consistent with individual liberty (i.e., voluntarily). A system without the moral legitimacy to rouse its citizens in its own defense has little claim on the mandatory service of those same citizens. Moreover, weakening today’s military by reinstating conscription would impose a high practical price on soldiers who would be at greater risk in combat—as a result of an unnecessary attempt at abstract social engineering. Indeed, treating military service as a citizenship obligation is demographically infeasible because barely 5% of today’s 18-year-olds would be called to arms. Such a system would be inherently unfair and would generate far more resentment than patriotism.
The most serious threat to the volunteer military in America is today’s foreign policy of global intervention. Some day young Americans might tire of being sent to fight conflicts and garrison countries that are irrelevant to U.S. security. Then Americans will have to choose between their military and their foreign policy. In such a case, one can only hope that they remember what America is supposed to be and choose wisely.
Anderson, Martin, and Barbara Honegger, eds. The Military Draft. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1982.
The Anthropo Factor in Warfare: Conscripts, Volunteers, and Reserves. Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1987.
Bandow, Doug. “Fighting the War Against Terrorism: Elite Forces, Yes; Conscripts, No.” Cato Institute Policy Analysis 430 (April 10, 2002).
———. “The Volunteer Military: Better Than a Draft.” Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing 6 (January 8, 1991).
Berryman, Sue. Who Serves? The Persistent Myth of the Underclass Army. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988.
Chambers, John Whiteclay II. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America. New York: Free Press, 1987.
Corvisier, Andre. Armies and Societies in Europe: 1494–1789. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1979.
Hackett, John. The Profession of Arms. New York: Macmillan, 1983.
O’Sullivan, John, and Alan Meckler, eds. The Draft and Its Enemies: A Documentary History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.
Originally published .