Kevin Baker’s “In the News: The Case for the Draft” (June/July 2003) makes a good argument that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was wrong in asserting that draftees “added no advantage” to our forces in Vietnam. However, Baker does not make the case for reinstituting the draft today. Specifically, he does not take into account the fact that the Vietnam War happened 30 or more years ago. The technology of warfare has changed radically since then, leading to some very strong reasons the draft should not be reinstituted.
Most people think that armies composed of huge numbers of men, called up by their governments, are the norm in warfare. Actually, this is a historical aberration peculiar to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Before then, armies consisted of small groups of well-trained professionals. Among the other “reforms” of the French Revolution, a decree voted in on August 23, 1793, declared that all able-bodied men owed military service to their country. This was called the levée en masse , and Napoleon used it to form armies larger than any Europe had ever before seen. The other European powers had to resort to the draft to compete with Napoleon’s forces.
In Napoleon’s day, the low rate of fire of relatively inaccurate infantry weapons could be overcome in’ only one way, by having huge numbers of men fire huge numbers of guns. The draft was a way to obtain these numbers; moreover, it provided usable soldiers at a time when six weeks of basic training was sufficient to teach a draftee to operate the low-tech weapons then in use.
Increasingly, twenty-first-century warfare will be fought with extremely hightech weapons, requiring training measured in years rather than in weeks. We no longer need 100,000 men firing single-shot muskets to check an enemy force; 100 men equipped with high-tech weapons have the same or even greater rate of deadly firepower.
The draft, which was essential as recently as World War II and arguably still made a valuable contribution in the Vietnam War, is as obsolete today as are many other decisive weapons used in the past.