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Ending the draft will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now

Want to end America’s forever wars? Bring back conscription.

Part of Hindsight 2070: We asked 15 experts, “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?” Here’s what they told us.

Jennifer Mittelstadt is a history professor at Rutgers University. She is the author of The Rise of the Military Welfare State.

Forty-five years ago, the United States ended conscription and embarked on the experiment of the all-volunteer force, meaning that no military personnel would be forced to serve. The country had entered every major war, from the Civil War through Vietnam, with a draft. But since 1973, the US has deployed to countless global conflicts using only volunteers. While hailed now by most military and political leaders as an unqualified success, the all-volunteer force may well be considered a mistake in the future.

At its birth, the all-volunteer force won support across the political spectrum. Every candidate running for president in 1968 promised to abolish the unpopular draft. Anti-Vietnam liberals and leftists thought the end of conscription would hamstring the war in Southeast Asia and diminish the military’s influence over American life. Those on the right championed the all-volunteer force as a model for their free-market agenda.

Famed economist Milton Friedman wrote the plan for the all-volunteer force to demonstrate that even national defense could be handled by the private sector; the government could induce rational individuals to volunteer with purely monetary incentives. In the years since the consensus, the left’s reasoning has failed while the right’s has proved more durable.

To the dismay of anti-war liberals and leftists, the volunteer military has not reduced war but instead facilitated easier commitment of US troops to conflicts abroad. The end of the draft severed most Americans’ obligations to the military.

With little connection to the institution, and no threat of military service, Americans have reduced their attention to foreign affairs, helping to explain the persistence of the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan even as Americans don’t support them in popular polls. The all-volunteer force has reduced democratic interest in and control over the foreign policy agenda.

The volunteer military has also increased rather than decreased the influence of the military over American life. By severing military and civilian life, the all-volunteer force has fostered a hands-off culture of deference to and reverence for armed forces.

Fifty years ago, with a draft in place, critiques of the military were commonplace and uncontroversial. Today, few citizens, much less elected officials, dare critique the military. Civilians defer to the military because they have been taught that those distant troops “fight for us” and that those who haven’t “worn the uniform” have not earned the right to comment on the military.

The military’s influence has also manifested materially, as the military has increasingly occupied a distinct, protected enclave in American life. The all-volunteer force enveloped military personnel and their families in a range of economic and social benefit programs from housing to child care, developed by advocates to support and retain volunteer troops. And these programs have been vital to the heavily working-class volunteers of the all-volunteer force.

The question is not whether military personnel deserve these benefits, but what it means to divide Americans’ access to social welfare programs across a wide civilian-military chasm. This system magnifies distinctions between military and civilian life.

In the future, the most notable long-term consequence of the all-volunteer force likely will be its success as a free-market institution. The all-volunteer force ushered in the privatization of the armed service: Since the early 1990s, private firms have been performing services previously under the purview of military personnel, including food service, medicine, data analysis, and transport.

American private firms are now expanding into traditional military-only, “tip of the spear” functions — actual combat — in countries like the United Arab Emirates. Many military experts believe that continued privatization will fuel the emergence of fully private armies of corporate warriors around the world.

Fifty years from now, Americans will observe with shock the damage to both foreign policy and domestic institutions wrought by our acceptance of an increasingly privatized, socially isolated, and politically powerful US military.

But they may retain the all-volunteer force anyway. The dynamics that produced all-volunteer force — the power of free-market ideology, a dislike of forced military service — may only have strengthened by then. And it’s quite possible that Americans will have learned to accept the economic, humanitarian, and anti-democratic costs imposed by an all-volunteer military.

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