The High-Tech Case For Bringing Back The Draft

As drones, cyberattacks and other high-tech developments change the nature of war, two prominent scholars argue that we must also rethink who fights our wars: the time has come, they say, to bring back the draft.

The article, "Universal Conscription as Technology Policy," appears in Issues in Science and Technology, a journal published by the National Defense University. The authors are Mark Hagerott — a distinguished professor of cybersecurity studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, who was cited by Foreign Policy as one of "The Top 70 Military Thinkers "— and Brad Allenby, President's Professor of Sustainable Engineering, and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, at Arizona State University.

Allenby and Hagerott base their argument on a contradiction inherent in today's military — technology reduces casualties, making it easier for U.S. policymakers to commit the country to war; yet technology is also increasingly complex, requiring more of the types of skillsets that we see in Silicon Valley startups:

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator, for example, separate the airman physically from the battlefield, thus placing him or her at far less risk. Protecting military personnel from harm is necessary and desirable, but it may also lower the social, political, and psychological barriers to moving from negotiation and policy to military engagement. We believe that broader social participation in the military could ensure an appropriate balance in democratic decisionmaking about when to make the momentous transition to military action.

At the same time, the accelerating evolution of technology across its entire frontier, driven by advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communications technology (ICT), robotics, and applied cognitive science, is challenging the adaptive capabilities of modern militaries. If the military is to be able to remain competitive globally in such a difficult and complex environment, conscription will be required to bring into the military a broader array of necessary skills. For example, cyberconflict poses not just a technological and geopolitical challenge, but also a challenge to internal military culture: The geeks that, feasting on Coke and Skittles, are fearsome in ICT capability are not the kinds of personalities that will be easily attracted to a traditional, strongly hierarchical, heavily bureaucratic, military organization. Nor do we expect that the institutional leaders, entrepreneurs, and change-makers who work with the geeks, and who understand the political sensitivities and social concerns about privacy, data management, open source, and the like, will be volunteering for military service. Not just cyberskills, but appropriate management skills, will be critical competencies for tomorrow's military.

The real question here is whether technology is truly a game changer. Allenby and Hagerott make some intriguing points, but they also echo existing arguments for bringing back the draft — arguments that span the political spectrum. For instance, Charles Rangel, a liberal Democratic Congressman from New York, recently stated:

Currently the burden of defending our nation is carried by less than 1 percent of the American population. The 2.2 million members of the armed forces in active duty, the National Guard and the Reserve have become a virtual military class that makes the ultimate sacrifice of laying down life and limb for our country.

Since we replaced the compulsory military draft with an all-volunteer force in 1973, our nation has been making decisions about wars without worry over who fights them. I sincerely believe that reinstating the draft would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation. That is why I wrote the Universal National Service Act, known as the "draft" bill, which requires all men and women between ages 18 and 25 to give two years of service in any capacity that promotes our national defense.

Similarly, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank believes the draft could be the solution to ending the deep political divisions that have paralyzed the government: "Because so few serving in politics have worn their country's uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest. They have forgotten a 'cause greater than self,' and they have lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country."

Allenby and Hagerott acknowledge these arguments but up the ante, saying that the modern military fosters even deeper divisions than those that already exist:

These technologies have…. empowered a progressively smaller numerical group, such as a team sitting in a control room in South Dakota directing an unmanned Predator, that is potentially increasingly alienated from humanity, both the enemy it fights overseas and its fellow citizens, who have fewer and fewer connections with these isolated technocratic warriors.

[Universal conscription] would also expose many more people to the possibility of being drafted, thus giving them and their families a direct interest in national decisions about when to go to war. A well-designed conscription program can, therefore, reduce incentives for the premature resort to violence to resolve geopolitical differences. Simply put, if technology is making war too easy, the draft is one of the few ways to keep it hard.

And, they reason, universal conscription is a twofer, since it not only reduces the democratic deficit, it also reduces the deficit in skills:

Relying on a small volunteer elite to manage major technological revolutions across virtually all security domains is unrealistic; a self-selected volunteer elite, no matter how competent, will not reflect the skills and, more importantly, the perspectives, cultural competencies, and implicit knowledge embodied across the society. Will enough geeks volunteer? Will enough experts in finance, who can help protect critical assets from unrestricted cyberwarfare, be available and aligned with more-traditional military defense institutions?

Speaking as a member of the geek community, it's nice to be wanted. But the people that Allenby and Hagerott want to enlist for national security are the same ones who are valued in civilian society as key drivers of economic growth. Scooping up these innovators in the net of universal conscription would make the hard-sell of reinstating the draft even harder.

In fact, there's a rather dismal economic theory that the draft could motivate governments to reduce spending on expensive technology, especially when faced with the pressure for deep budget cuts. In 1850, the German economist Johann Heinrich von Thünen wrote: "In time of war we have no hesitation in sacrificing one hundred men in the bloom of their years to save one cannon... the production of the cannon is the cause of an expenditure of the state treasury, while human beings are again available for nothing by means of a simple conscription order."