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War, Democracy and the Draft

JURIST Contributing Editor Geoffrey S. Corn, Lt. Col. US Army (Ret.) and former Special Assistant to the Judge Advocate General for Law of War Matters, now a professor at South Texas College of Law, says that Americans going to the polls with the Iraq war on their minds might reflect on how they would think about conflict and its consequences if the war were being fought by a military largely made up of draftees....

It’s the war, stupid! As Americans cast their ballots in mid-term elections, the news commentators keep reminding us that this election is really about the war in Iraq. Considering the duration of this war is about to surpass the duration of U.S. participation in World War II, it can’t be a bad thing that Americans consider this as a priority issue, regardless of individual views on the war. Considering this interest has emerged among a population that remains relatively disconnected with the human cost of this war, one cannot help but wonder how the prospect of a draft might impact this debate.

For the first time in a long time, the United States is involved in a conflict that simply cannot be considered a sideshow by most Americans. This is a significant contrast from so many of the military operations that have been executed by our armed forces since the end of the Vietnam conflict. While most of these were the focus of substantial attention within the military community, they never seemed to grab much public attention, with the predictable result that none of them evolved into the political lightening rod that Iraq has become. Of course, most of these operations were not “shooting wars”, and even those involving combat operations were “fast, furious, and finished” very quickly.

Iraq is a very different conflict, as most Americans clearly appreciate. The obvious difference is that it has involved deadly combat that has been anything but “fast and finished”. Indeed, the constant drone of “bad news” coming out of Iraq is offered by commentators as the explanation for the continuing loss of support for the war. But it is the other unique aspect of this war that has perhaps been “under analyzed”: the fact that Iraq is the first war of substantial duration fought by the U.S. in modern history with an all volunteer force.

Of course, as political lightening rods go, the word “draft” is off the chart. Those few politicians who have raised the prospect of national conscription have been quickly condemned as engaging in political gamesmanship of the highest magnitude. Besides, why should any politician propose such an “antiquated” concept when there is such unified opposition to a draft by the military? The answer may lie in the question itself: is the purpose of conscription only to fill the ranks? Or, does it involve something more profound in the relationship between the people and the wars that are waged in the name of this nation?

As the news of eroding support for the war in Iraq continues unabated, it seems appropriate to contemplate how this debate might be impacted if the men and women fighting the war were not doing so because they volunteered to serve their nation, but because they were required to serve their nation. With more and more Americans questioning the wisdom of continuing this fight, less and less of whom have likely contemplated a personal “stake in the venture”, it seems reasonable to assume that the prospect of mandatory military service would profoundly impact views on the war. Unlike the current civil/military environment, a draft would “re-connect” most Americans with the consequences of initiating, waging, and sustaining war. Today, however, as most Americans know, the all volunteer force, and the increasing reliance on unprecedented numbers of civilian contractors to provide a wide array of support for these forces, has enabled the nation to avoid mandatory service to fill the ranks.

This is not to say that a draft would necessarily produce an “anti-war” impact. It is well to recall that most of this nation’s wars were fought and won by forces composed largely of conscripts. Even support for the conflict in Vietnam remained solid for a number of years when the bulk of those Americans fighting and dying were conscripts. What does seem certain, however, is that a draft would establish a true “stake in the venture” among all Americans. Such a stake would ideally compel each citizen to analyze the wisdom of war with much greater focus, a goal many believe the founders of this nation had in mind when they developed checks and balances related to war-making. Sticking a flag or yellow ribbon sticker on a car would have a very different meaning, as those with family and friends in harms way understand so well. Rhetoric such as “cut and run” or “stay the course” would be dissected with much greater clarity because of the common connection to the cause we would all share. And perhaps most importantly, politicians who voted for or against war would do so with full knowledge that the people who put them in office will share a common burden to execute their decisions, a knowledge that might motivate much greater debate when war is proposed, and not just when it goes badly.

The political impact of establishing such a “draft” connection to the current war is impossible to predict. While many assume that it would undermine support for the war, perhaps it would actually trigger more intense political pressure to adjust the strategy in order to ensure we prevail in our national goals. In this regard, it seems particularly revealing that the four armed service oriented newspapers (Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps Times) this week ran a joint editorial this week calling for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Obviously, Americans most connected to the war are unwilling to tolerate perpetual ineffective strategic execution, even when they oppose “cutting and running”. However, regardless of the direction in which a draft would push national leaders, it would be a direction much more palpably connected to “the people” as a result of an inability to displace the burden of war onto the limited number among us who choose to volunteer.

Of course, the bitter memories of the draft lingering from the Vietnam conflict, along with the perpetual resistance of such a move by military leaders (which itself perhaps merits greater scrutiny) make its resurrection so unlikely that it is not even a part of our national debate regarding this war. Nonetheless, as Americans contemplate the issue of war as they visit the polls (or maybe even as they contemplate whether they will visit the polls), perhaps they should consider for a moment whether their views on the war would be altered if the draft were resurrected. If this nation continues to rely upon only those among us who choose voluntarily to fight our wars (as is almost inevitable) it seems only appropriate that when the rest of us cast our ballots we carefully consider whether the burden they are called upon to shoulder in the name of our nation is one we would – even if reluctantly – share with them.

Geoffrey S. Corn is a Professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston. He is also a retired LTC from the Army JAG Corps. His last assignment was as Special Assistant to The Judge Advocate General for Law of War Matters.

November 07, 2006

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If anything, the experience of conscription in Vietnam, so applauded by the author, showed national leaders do not listen to the public and especially not those conscripted or those who might be. Why should anything be different now? Simply so CNN can have footage of demonstrations in the streets?

Moreover, once invested in military service, citizens no longer have the prerogatives of non-military, since service imposes a gag order upon loud criticism. Even today, with the all volunteer, military families are reluctant to criticize "commanders in chief", whether SecDef or the President. With conscription, this gag would extend to a broader segment of the public. "Stay the course."

No, what's needed is a different view of the United States, one in which use of the military and military service do not play such an overbearing role. What's needed is to hold national political leaders accountable until they realize the choice of sending troops is an admission of failure. What's needed is reallocation of government financial resources from funding builders of weapons systems to both military pay for the volunteer forces and to improving our support in education and in particular math and science.

What I fear is that we as a nation so treasure our self-image as empire and savior of mankind and are becoming inept at doing the things we did to earn us that role, including science and technology, that sending bodies into conflicts with sophisticated weapons systems are all we're good for. Even that is bound to fail, as increasingly, the parts of those systems are made in Taiwan, Singapore, and Chennai.

November 07, 2006  

There is nothing wrong with being "anti-war". The customary and convential laws of war essentially are an attempt by civilized people to avoid losing its humanity when---it loses its humanity and engages in the barbaric practice of killing one another to achieve political ends. Anything that encourages Americans to focus on the ramifications of failed diplomacy and makes us "anti-war" would be a good thing. If that means people should be forced to wear the uniform, well, as Secretary Rumsfeld and the rest of the Administration believe "maybe the ends justify the means."

November 10, 2006  


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