Yes, Virginia, there could be a draft

You don’t have to draft legions of grunts. The threat of conscription would be useful in recruiting scarce skills. Selective Service is updating the plans, just in case.

A Democratic reader writes in to question the ethics of Kerry’s charge that Bush policies might lead to a draft. Doesn’t everyone know that a modern army needs motivated soldiers and therefore can’t run on conscripts? And doesn’t that make the Kerry charge an unjustified scare tactic?

Well, yes and no. Yes, we need high-skilled, motivated servicemembers: the levee en masse is as out of date as knickerbockers.

But having the capacity to conscript would give the military leverage to secure “volunteers,” as in the case of a rich young Texan who volunteered to fly for the Air National Guard. That would be particularly valuable if the threat of conscription were targeted at high-value personnel: doctors and nurses, for example.

As Robert Pear of the New York Times reported today,

The Selective Service has been updating its contingency plans for a draft of doctors, nurses and other health care workers in case of a national emergency that overwhelms the military’s medical corps.

A Selective Service spokesman told Pear:

“The Selective Service System plans on delivering about 36,000 health care specialists to the Defense Department if and when a special skills draft were activated.”

A paper in the Wisconsin Medical Journal by Col. Roger A. Lalich, M.D., the chief physician for the Wisconsin Army National Guard, lays out the history and the current situation.

Pear reports: Colonel Lalich, citing Selective Service memorandums on the subject, said the Defense Department had indicated that “a conventional draft of untrained manpower is not necessary for the war on terrorism.” But, he said, “the Department of Defense has stated that what most likely will be needed is a ‘special skills draft,’ ” including care workers in particular.

Lalich’s paper shows that the famous “doctor draft” of the 1950-1973 period didn’t actually draft any doctors, except for fewer than 100 who were conscripted into the enlisted ranks for refusing to take commissions as medical officers. It merely got them to volunteer, with potato-peeling as the alternative.

Lalich quotes the report of the Selective Service System’s “Process Improvement Project” from last year as saying that DoD contemplates drafting “linguists, environmental engineers, computer specialists, and other professionals” as well as health care personnel.

So yes, even under modern conditions, a draft is a workable means of getting otherwise-scarce skills into uniform. (Of course, given the reduced stigma on homosexuality, we’d have to drop “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” but that’s likely to happen anyway. Reportedly, though the military is still bouncing Arabic-, Korean-, and Farsi-speaking linguists for being gay, not much of that is happening in the combat branches.)

So we can’t know that Bush’s policies will, if continued, lead to a draft, but it’s just wrong to say that they couldn’t lead to a draft because a draft wouldn’t work. After all, if a draft were really that useless — if, as a DoD spokesman told Pear, A return to the draft is unthinkable. There will be no draft., then why would DoD maintain the Selective Service System, when getting rid of it would save money and score political points.

As to the purported political unthinkability of returning to conscription, do you really imagine that the Congress would turn down the President if he asked for conscription authority, given a situation grave enough to force him to do so?

After all, we’re fightin World War IV. Or didn’t you get that memo?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “Yes, Virginia, there could be a draft”

  1. Impending Draft?

    If recruiting doesn't meet the needs then expect a push for a draft no matter what the candidates say today:Compounding the difficulty of recruiting, Nunes said, is the fact that seven out of 10 people who walk through the front door of a recruiting of…

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