Opinion: Military draft no longer necessary

Joe Carter

Last week a Federal judge ruled that since women can serve in combat it is unconstitutional to require men but not women to register for the military draft. While the legal reasoning is likely correct, our moral reasoning should lead us to conclude that rather than broadening the draft to include women we should instead abolish military conscription altogether.

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky. Congress is on the verge of ordering young women to register for a military draft for the first time in history, touching off outrage among social conservatives who fear the move is another step toward blurring gender lines.

The debate about the draft can be summed up in an exchange that occurred during the Vietnam War era between U.S. commander Gen. William Westmoreland and the free market economist Milton Friedman. Westmoreland, testifying in opposition to ending the military draft, said he did not want to command “an army of mercenaries.” In reply, Friedman asked, “General, would you rather command an army of slaves?”

Friedman’s argument was rooted in the need for freedom in human flourishing. Even those who agree with Friedman, though, because they believe lower economic groups shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of military service. The upper classes must therefore be coerced into sharing the burden.

A primary flaw in this “burden model” is that it’s not true. Most members of the military come from middle-class neighborhoods. But even if it were true the unequal representation of the socio-economic classes would not be inherently immoral. I myself was on the borderline between poor and lower middle class when I joined the Marines in 1988. But economic advancement was not the reason I joined, or why I stayed in for 15 years. Nor was it the reason most people I knew joined the military.

The burden model also implies that since military service is a hardship, moral considerations require the load be shared as equally as possible. The flaw in this reasoning is that it puts the focus on the ethical choice rather the ethical chooser.

The burden of military service is akin to the burden of adopting a child. While choosing to become a mother or father has obvious economic consequences, few people see that as the sole reason for adopting an unwanted or abandoned child. Before they are adopted, orphans are cared for by the state and are thus the collective responsibility of all citizens. But when people step forward and agree to take the child into their home, the burden of responsibility shifts mainly onto the new parents.

We do not consider the system to be immoral because the state does not force or coerce people into taking in orphans. Instead, we allow people with the requisite virtues — love, compassion, self-sacrifice — to freely and willingly choose to take this burden upon themselves. The same holds true for those who protect our country.

Currently, our nation does not force the obligation of national defense on those who do not willingly choose to take it upon themselves. Instead, we allow those who possess certain moral virtues—such as courage, honor, commitment — to heed the call of duty.

Not all who serve, of course, do so for the purest of motives. But the core of our military is comprised of men and women who truly love their country. They love the people and the ideals for which our nation stands so much they are willing to sacrifice and bear any burden to ensure its survival.

All men are created equal and should be afforded the same human rights, but not all men are equally virtuous. The cost of liberty is therefore not paid by everyone equally—it is a debt assumed by a select few.

The draft is neither moral nor desirable. Conscription may be necessary to force the wealthy and privileged to share the burden of duty. But conscription has never been needed to attract the virtuous.

If the U.S. ever reaches the point where conscription is required, if we get to a stage when we no longer produce enough men and women to heed the call to defend our country, then we will no longer have a country worth defending.

Joe Carter is senior editor at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids.