As I watched the Memorial Day services, I wondered how many of the people being honored were drafted into service. This then led me to consider how a free country could stomach such immoral-and-illegal drafts and then celebrate the liberty-trampling presidents who put them in place.
The wartime draft has been a part of many of America's wars. It was in place during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam War. It speaks volumes about U.S. leadership that at least three of the wars were discretionary with a distant relation to American interests. It is no coincidence that the recent wartime drafts were put in place or maintained by leftist Presidents (Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) who had little respect for the Constitution and historical American liberties. On a side note, Nixon's aggressive expansion of the government into new areas and wage-and-price controls qualify him as a leftist. At least two (for example, Wilson and Roosevelt) ran on anti-war platforms and then took actions that they knew broke the spirit of their promises and made it much more likely that the U.S. would join the wars. That we should celebrate these men on Presidents' Day is a sad statement about how we can paper over liars and serfdom.
During Vietnam, the threat of being drafted was used to coerce young men into volunteering for the military. On one defense-recruiting study found that in 1970, 50 percent of the volunteers did so to avoid being drafted. On another estimate of the Vietnam War, the possibility of avoiding combat led as many as 4 out of 11 million eligible men to enlist. A previous head of the Selective Service System (Gen. Hershey) estimated that during the Cold War, for every man drafted three or four were scared into volunteering. During World War II, more than 11 million men were inducted.
It is a little hard to see why men drafted into serving the military or forced to do so by the threat of a draft should be celebrated on Veterans Day or Memorial Day. Consider someone who is physically forced to give up a kidney for some randomly selected citizen. We might owe them serious compensation, a sincere apology, and a promise not to do this sort of thing again, but it is a little hard to see why we (or even the kidney recipient) should be grateful. After all, the kidney donor didn't choose to do anything for the recipient, rather it was done to him. To the extent that the draft forces people to fight against their will, and perhaps the draft didn't always do so, draftees and other coerced soldiers are similar to the kidney donor. The fact that the kidney donor might later be proud of what he did and that others want to cheer him on still does not establish that citizens should be grateful to him. We normally think that an individual who voluntarily gave his time or money is owed gratitude by a beneficiary, but people forced by guns or jail didn't voluntarily give to others.
The draft is morally repugnant. First, it tramples on liberty. Forcing men to serve in the military is like forcing them to serve in some planter's cotton field. It is a form of forced labor, although it is orders of magnitude less harsh and wrong than the chattel slavery that characterized America's past.
Second, the draft is inefficient. The U.S. can always fill its recruiting ranks by paying market wages to induce people to join. A draft does not make the military cost less; it just transfers the cost from taxpayers, who would normally have to pay market wages, to the young drafted men who have to pay the cost of soldiering without being paid a fair wage. This is no different than the government confiscating lands for public schools without payment rather than buying out the owners. The various deferments and exemptions (for example, for marriage and family, War industry work, and teaching) further direct people into areas that they prefer not to be in and does not put them to the most efficient use (as determined by the free market).
Given that a draft was in place, the one draft mechanism that was efficient was allowing Civil War draftees to buy out of fighting by paying for a substitute or commutation. Purchasing a substitute benefits both the draftee and his willing substitute. Of course, this sensible policy was discontinued as part of the usual envy of the rich.
Third, the draft is riddled with unfairness as the government has to decide who are expendable. For example, during the Kennedy administration, married men with children were put at the bottom of the call-up list and married men with wives but no children second to the bottom. The administration apparently thought single men more expendable. The same sense of expendability led local draft boards during World War I to more often conscript poor men. During that war, some religions were allowed conscientious objectors (for example, Amish and Quakers), others were not. Non-religious objectors were also not recognized. Apparently, the poor and people of some religions were more expendable.
Fourth, wartime drafts, especially ones with the many deferments and exemptions for the upper classes, allow politicians to shift the costs of the war toward smaller and more vulnerable subclasses: young men and the poor. This makes discretionary wars more likely. Presidents such as Wilson, Truman, and Johnson might have been less likely to plunge the U.S. into war if they had to jack up taxes to pay for their international adventures.
One argument given for the draft by people like Vietnam General William Westmoreland is that without it the U.S. would have an army of mercenaries. Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman responded that it was better to have a mercenary army than a slave force. He further responded that if being paid makes someone a mercenary, then our doctors, lawyers, and professors are mercenaries.
A second argument for the draft given by Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY and corrupt) is that a draft should be reinstated because it would spread military service equally between the rich and poor. It is a little hard to see why this would benefit the poor when it involves paying poor drafted men less to do a job than what they find acceptable. Also, many opportunities are not equally distributed in our society between the rich and poor (for example, line jobs in factories) and this is not a bad thing. It is troubling that Congressmen in addition to Rangel (for example, John Conyers D-Mich. and John Lewis D-Ga.) should be willing to sponsor the draft on the basis of such a half-baked argument.
Wartime drafts are an unappreciated evil in the U.S.'s history. It should blacken the reputation of the presidents who imposed them and undermine our gratitude toward any veterans who were forced to fight against their will.
Stephen Kershnar is a philosophy professor at the State University of Fredonia. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.