The Return of the Military Draft

The Return of the Military Draft

After decades of becoming increasingly rare, the military draft is back in the debate.

Israel—which has long had mandatory conscription—is currently debating whether or not to lengthen its service for reservists as a result of its ongoing war against Hamas and Hezbollah, and it may soon expand the draft to the currently exempted ultra-Orthodox population following an Israeli Supreme Court ruling voiding the exemption last month. In May, Ukraine expanded its draft in order to replenish its forces as it continues to fight off the Russian invasion. Russia has similarly broadened its compulsory military service in response to mounting casualties in Ukraine. In the Baltic states, Latvia reintroduced the draft in 2023 following Russia’s attack on Ukraine; Lithuania reintroduced it in 2015 in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine; Estonia never abolished it. And halfway across the world, Taiwan recently lengthened its conscription period in response to increasingly menacing threats from China.

Even countries not directly on the front line are talking about reinstituting a draft or expanding an existing one. Back in January, British General Staff chief Patrick Saunders made political waves when he stated that the United Kingdom would need a “citizen army” should it find itself in a major war—a remark widely interpreted as calling for a reintroduction of the draft. In March, Denmark announced plans to expand its draft to include women and lengthen its time of service. And in May, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that he was “convinced that Germany needs some kind of military conscription.” The issue has even gotten some attention in the United States, as highlighted by recent congressional debates over whether young women should be required to register for selective service.

The draft’s resurgence into the national conversation in the United States and elsewhere marks a reversal of a decades-old trend. The U.S. military celebrated a half-century of its all-volunteer force last year. In Britain, the last conscripts were demobilized even longer ago—in 1963. Around the world, many countries had some form of conscription on the books but chose not to enforce it. In an era of limited, often expeditionary wars, the consensus in most Western democracies seemed to be that combat was best left to a handful of professionals.

A return of conscription stands in stark contrast to the dominant conception of the future of warfare, which has largely centered on the rise of machines. In this vision, with advances in artificial intelligence and the proliferation of unmanned systems—on land, at sea, and in the air—militaries could get by with fewer, albeit more technically savvy, service members. That forecast has become reality—but only as it applies to technology, not staffing needs. As the wars in Ukraine and Gaza prove, drones of all types are a staple of the modern battlefield, with even second-tier terrorist groups like the Houthis rolling out their own versions of these weapons. But while war may have shifted to more unmanned systems, this trend has not reduced the demand for soldiers.

There are at least two explanations for this seemingly paradoxical fact. First, despite all the technological changes, it turns out that modern warfare is still manpower-intensive. Rather than eliminating the need for soldiers, new technology has created new demands—for cyber, space, and other expertise—that previously did not exist. And as combat in Ukraine and Gaza has made abundantly clear, there is still plenty of need for more traditional military professions—like infantry or fighter pilots—even if they are now augmented by drones and autonomous systems. Finally, as the hundreds of thousands killed and wounded thus far in the Russia-Ukraine war demonstrate, wars have gotten no less bloody with time, creating a grim demand for fresh recruits to fill the ranks.

Mobilizing manpower at scale on a strictly voluntary basis is challenging. European militaries have struggled with recruiting shortages for many years as military service became an increasingly alien concept in post-Cold War European societies. The United States has historically been in better shape, but the Army, Air Force, and Navy still fell short by some 41,000 recruits in fiscal year 2023. While a mixture of new incentives and more modest goals will allow some service branches to meet their 2024 goals, the U.S. military has found it notoriously difficult to recruit and then retain professions with highly marketable skills—such as pilots and cyber operators. That’s all in the context of a period without a major war with significant casualties in the background. An ongoing conflict would likely further dampen the appeal of military service.

Of course, there are serious operational drawbacks to relying on conscripts. Because you are forcing people to serve, often against their will, morale can be a problem in draft militaries. That, in turn, can lead to discipline problems, even when lives are at stake. And even when it does not lead to these problems, relying on large numbers of citizen soldiers means that a draft army will fight differently than professional forces do. Depending on the length of conscription, draftees may be in uniform for shorter periods of time than their professional counterparts—and thus trained less or differently. Since draftee militaries are often larger than professional ones, they may not be able to invest the same amount of resources per soldier. That, in turn, impacts draft militaries’ ability to train, equip, and deploy their forces. And because the political costs of forcing swaths of society to fight against their will are higher, decisions on whether and where to use them may be taken differently, too.

Beyond pure operational needs, conscription is making a resurgence for another reason: It is a means to combat societal divisions, including growing political polarization around the globe. There are any number of reasons for this trend—from the rise of populist movements to the growth of social media to human nature itself. Whatever the cause, multiple experts have worried that extreme polarization, left unaddressed, might lead to societal rifts up to and including civil war.

For a small but increasing number of observers, national service—including conscription—seems to offer a route out. In their view, such service breaks down barriers, provides a common set of experiences, and ultimately builds a more coherent society. The specific benefits vary by country. Israel, for example, hopes that by drafting the ultra-Orthodox, it will help integrate this insular but growing segment of society into the broader public. By contrast, Denmark’s expansion of the draft to include women was framed by the country’s prime minister as a move toward “full equality between the sexes.” But at its core, the arguments are variations of the same theme: that military service levels the playing field and further integrates society.

It is an open question about whether or not this claim—that draft militaries foster cohesion—is actually true. In the United States, the draft during the Vietnam War fueled large-scale protests, and the uneven way conscription was implemented exacerbated—rather than mitigated—societal cleavages. Vietnam was not a one-off example in U.S. history. The 1863 New York draft riots during the Civil War remain some of the deadliest and most destructive in U.S. history. Nor is the trend of the draft stoking divisions limited to the United States. Long before Oct. 7, Israel was roiled by protests along political and religious divisions, despite its ostensibly integrative draft. Even Ukraine has significant reported incidents of draft dodging as the war has dragged on.

Regardless of whether or not the return of conscription is a positive development for society, the fact that the draft is making a comeback should teach us an important lesson about the way we think about the future of warfare. Far too often, those of us who study war focus on the technology of war, rather than the people who do the fighting; on what is new, rather than what is constant. And, indeed, there have been technologies—including the crossbow, musket, and drone—that have upended how wars are fought.

But some debates—like conscription—remain age-old. Armies have always vacillated between smaller professionalized forces and larger mass ones. And as much as we may be enamored with the idea of increasingly bloodless wars fought largely by machines, battlefield reality has proved the opposite. Perhaps the best way to view the recent upswing in conscription, after a period of professionalization, is that in war, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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