The draft was legally halted in 1973, toward the close of the Vietnam War. The effect was to relieve citizens of having to fight their country’s battles. A reinstated draft, or compulsory military service, would redistribute the burden of the responsibility for fighting wars, and engage the nation in military conflicts in a more immediate and democratic way.
The first effect of restoring the draft would be to make the American electorate generally more thoughtful about foreign policy. It’s well and good to call for boots on the ground, but all of us might make a mental adjustment if some of those boots were to be filled by our own youthful children and grandchildren. A truly American military, inclusive of all social classes, might cause politicians and voters to be more selective in choosing which battles are worth fighting and at what expense. It would also have the significant effect of getting the majority of the country behind those wars in which we do engage.
The last war fought by America that had the durable support of the nation was World War II. This was so in part because of the evil nature of the enemy. But the war was also vigorously supported because the troops who fought in it, owing to the draft, came from all social and economic classes. Everyone had a husband or brother or son or uncle or cousin in the war; everyone felt a stake in victory. People old enough to remember World War II remember the small flags with blue stars in the windows of people who had relatives fighting, and gold stars for families who had lost close relatives in the war.
The draft was still in effect for the Korean War, but public support was less, chiefly because the objective was far from clear and not very many troops were needed. During the early years of the Vietnam War, when the draft was still intact, a great many middle-class Americans avoided serving by going to graduate and professional schools and obtaining deferments. Vietnam was the first of our wars to be fought almost exclusively by an American underclass and, in part because of this, at no time did it have anything like the full support of the American people.
The great example of a successful conscription army is in Israel, where nearly all eligible young men and women serve. Israel exists, of course, in a state of perpetual peril; as has often been said, it cannot afford to lose even one war. But the glory of the Israeli army, and its support by all but the most pacifist Israelis, surely owes to the fact that everyone serves, or has served, in it.
Under the draft, the American social fabric would change—and, judging from my experience, for the better. I write as a former draftee who served in the Army from 1958 to 1960. I was, in other words, a Cold War soldier, and never for a moment in danger. Much of my time in the military—I worked on the post newspaper at Fort Hood, in Texas, and later as a clerk, typing up physicals, in a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas—was excruciatingly boring.