Each draft in American history from the Civil War through the Vietnam War has been the subject of considerable criticism. America’s first conscription laws were passed during the Civil War. Criticism for how and when these drafts occurred, as the song lyrics above suggest, became almost immediately apparent. In northern urban areas the draft resulted in widespread anger and violence manifested particularly by the laboring poor and immigrants. During World War I legal challenges to conscription were brought before the courts. While these challenges were struck down by the courts, they nonetheless represented discontent over military conscription. Even in World War II, when President Roosevelt could clearly couch the draft as necessary against the aggression of Japan and Germany, conscription faced some opposition. Most recently, the draft for the Vietnam war proved so controversial that the armed forces has operated as an all volunteer force (AVF) ever since. What has been wrong with conscription in American history? Is it something that can be fixed equitably for all effected constituents, or is the practice so inherently flawed that it will always discriminate? Current arguments for and against conscription and the historical record may help shed light on the issue.
These are questions worth exploring in the face of contemporary widespread global commitments by the United States armed forces to fight a war on terror while maintaining our security alliances. Since 1980 when a new selective service law was passed, there have been various attempts by public officials to initiate some renewed forms of conscription into military service or into some type of national compulsory civil service. The fact that 9/11 attacks were clearly aimed at the United States and occurred in the United States suggests that the United States needs to be prepared and poised to defend itself at least at home against aggressors. One may also argue the nature of terrorism demands that in order to protect oneself at home it may be necessary to fight in distant parts of the world as we are now doing. At the very least it seems impractical and even unfair to our allies if the United State’s were to withdraw from world affairs as an isolationist nation as happened after World War I.
The debate over modern conscription includes debate over issues such as whether or not conscription will hurt the quality of a professional army, whether or not the United States has the resources to keep up it’s current military campaigns with an AVF, and or whether or not having a AVF leaves the rest of the country’s citizens, particularly our youth, to be ambivalent, isolated spectators instead of responsible, involved, and integrated citizens. Events may ultimately dictate as they did for the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War that conscription becomes a desirable and practical means of raising an army.