An Indecent Proposal: Tom Ricks Calls for the Return of Conscription

Tom Ricks has an op-ed this week in the New York Times proposing that America reinstitute the draft to alleviate its military, economic, and societal ills. And why not? Apparently retired General Stanley McChrystal thinks it’s a good idea. Of course, Ricks’s entire case for returning to the military draft is not built on the former Afghan commander’s opinion, but it doesn’t get much better from there.

The proposal is to conscript both men and women who could choose different lengths of service. Option Ricks specifies is an 18-month stint that would provide “low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition” in return for performing menial tasks such as paperwork, barracks maintenance, or serving as chauffeurs for various four-stars. There are other types of service options available in Ricks’ scenario though, including non-military, national service of various types, “teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.” (Ricks helpfully allows that libertarians can opt-out of service, but not taxes, in exchange for forgoing all future government benefits such as Medicare, college loan subsidies, and mortgage protection).

Perhaps what’s most disturbing about this call for national military service as a panacea for various economic and social ills is its relationship to an essay Ricks himself favorably reviewed in 1993:  “The Origins of the Coup of 2012” by then-Colonel Charles Dunlap. In the essay (PDF), written in 1992 and published in the Army War College journal Parameters, Dunlap outlines a fictional scenario where General Thomas E.T. Brutus, commander-in-chief of the Unified Armed Forces of the United States, has ousted the civilian government. The reasons behind the coup came from a military ill-prepared to fight a war with Iran when the Islamic Republic attacked American allies in the Persian Gulf in 2010. The lack of military readiness had come about for a number of reasons including being tasked to fight the drug war, an overabundance of humanitarian missions, undertaking domestic policing operations in crime-riddled urban areas, providing medical care and education for civilians, and cleaning-up environmental hazards. The military was viewed as the only remaining part of the government that “worked,” so it was tasked to cure all of society’s ills.

Of course, the military is already involved with several of those missions, and the national service program suggested is likely to add even more. Ricks would likely argue that in Dunlap’s parable of the then-not-too-distant future, the additional tasks outlined were performed by a volunteer military—thus further degrading the military’s readiness and engendering the type of animosity that led to the eventual coup. Under his proposal in the Times, all members of society would share the military’s burden for providing additional services, therefore forestalling degradation of the military’s ability to fight and averting resentment by service members tasked with duties for which they are ill-equipped. A military coup in America is unlikely under any circumstances, but the large conscript force Ricks proposes as “cheap labor” for additional tasks like cleaning parks for states and local municipalities will likely create a demand for more low costs services. Eventually that demand will have similar detrimental effects on military readiness that the volunteer force has experienced—with the added cost of forced service by entire generations of America’s youth.

Given America’s perpetual admiration for the military over all other sectors of government, who will be called upon to provide the social services such as child and elder care that Ricks proposes if the civilian national service program envisioned provides less-than-ideal results? The more demand created by the allocation of cheap labor, the more “soldiers” the military will need to supply to fulfill more and more menial tasks—perpetuating the same problems Ricks currently bemoans. Additionally, the proposal ignores the quality of service that will be provided by 18-year-olds forced into service of the state—how many people want to take a chance that “Private Pyle” is chosen to provide care for their child, elderly parent, or grandparent? A more equitable system of conscription than the one in place during Vietnam would still include the dregs of society serving right alongside the scions of the “one percent.”

The long-run savings Ricks envisions from his plan are also unlikely to materialize. Among the likely culprits is Ricks’s plan to have free college tuition as one of the benefits conscripts accrue in exchange 18 months of military service at a lower level of pay than the average volunteer. As the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble points out, “[W]e can expect tuition to skyrocket as soon as college administrators realize that the taxpayers are on the hook to pay for these new conscripts’ secondary education.”

Finally, Ricks concludes by parroting McChrystal’s assertion that a draft will lead to less war. This contention ignores the two major engagements—Korea and Vietnam—and numerous limited operations undertaken the last time conscription was practiced. But, as Daniel Larison notes, the type of system that Ricks proposes is even less likely to have salutary effects on American willingness to rush off to war.

According to Ricks’ system, conscripts would be put to work doing menial tasks for the military here in the U.S., they would be sent into some form of civilian national service, or they could opt out all together (and thereby forego all benefits from the federal government). If there were a war, it seems that none of these conscripts would be expected to fight, since none of them would have been trained to do so. If a future administration were contemplating an unnecessary war, I don’t see why it would face any additional political resistance because of this revived draft.

The divide between the U.S. military and the society it serves is not a new theme for Ricks, but the solution always seems to be the same:  instead, of asking the military to do less, civilians should be forced into military service. The social services provided by military nannies and camouflaged caregivers are a new, and excruciatingly bad, twist on this idea.


4 comments to An Indecent Proposal: Tom Ricks Calls for the Return of Conscription

  • “The long-run savings Ricks envisions from his plan are also unlikely to materialize.” I totally agree. I estimate the cost of using conscripts to mow the grass to be about $60 an hour. See details here:

  • Fire Brand

    Doesn’t seem you need much of a brain to be a general if you have such people thinking it much better to have newly qualified medics, dentists, lawyers, teachers etc., not doing the jobs they qualified to do but mowing the grass and cleaning the toilets instead. Said generals could save themselves rather a lot of money if they simply learned to drive and did their own typing instead of having soldiers do it.

    On a rebellious note, if such proposals became reality and I were that age again I would stick two fingers up. I am sure much of today’s youth would do the same. He forgets that sentiments like mine can nowadays be easily mobilised via the internet. We all know about the burning of the draft cards. And those incidents happened through simple word of mouth. Today, multiply the number of those events and those attending by many thousands. What would the generals do? Imprison the lot of us? Where would they get all the extra prison warders from – the army? And if I had any decent qualifications I’d be taking them to a country more interesting in using them than one forcing me to do its dirty work for nothing or barring me from a full life if I failed to comply.

    I am a Brit which might make you think why I am sticking my nose in here. The issue is that what America does today the UK government always considers tomorrow – even if it doesn’t always copy. The current UK government is from the right, and one that before being elected proposed a compulsory citizen service. I hope they get kicked out before that one resurfaces.

    So, despite being safely out of conscription age I hereby declare I will be manning the barricades and burning the cards against looney generals everywhere if ever their wild ideas reach fruition.

  • Lynda Petek from

    General Barno, a highly decorated military officer with over 30 years of support, has served in a variety of command and staff positions in the Usa and around the globe, to contain command at every level. He served several of his early years in special operations forces with Army Ranger battalions, to include fight in both the Grenada and Panama invasions.