Universal Conscription as Technology Policy

In a world where battles are increasingly fought by robotic vehicles and computer malware, national security may not be well-served by a small, culturally homogeneous military. Is it time to bring back the draft?

When the broad citizenry delegate the defense of their country to others, whether a small elite or a mercenary force, the nation often suffers. Rome fell in part because the Roman citizen no longer saw it as his duty to fight for his country, and after increasing internal instability and weakness, the external “barbarians” conquered. Machiavelli attributed part of the decline of 15thcentury Italian city-states to the rise of mercenary armies: City residents were willing to pay others to fight for them but not to assume the responsibility of becoming citizen soldiers. In the early 19th century, small professional armies, isolated from their citizenry, fell on the battlefield before the citizen armies of the new French Republic.

This historical trend today intersects with even more significant challenges. The industrialized nations are witnessing a military technological revolution of profound importance, one that increasingly shifts power from the human to the machine. At the same time, there is no shortage of high-profile strategic challenges: What is the appropriate strategy to stabilize the Middle East? Will the rise of China and concomitant shift in U.S. geopolitical status be peaceful or violent? How will the global shifts in supply and demand for strategic natural resources influence geopolitics and future conflict? For those concerned about the national security of the United States, these are important questions, but we believe that the attention they receive crowds out even more fundamental ones. How can the nation provide ethical and effective military, defense, and security capabilities in a period of unpredictable and foundational technological and social change? How can we train the technical work force necessary to perform these functions and develop the institutional capabilities to shape and manage the weapons of a technological revolution that will rival the nuclear age in the depth and breadth of consequences?

The nation must address the problem of the rapid evolution of emerging military and security technologies, such as cyber- and robotic systems. This trend, when placed in the context of its reliance on a professional military made up of a relatively small number of specialists and experts to deploy and operate these powerful systems, combined with a growing cultural gap between civilian society and the professionalized military. This trend matters because the growing complexity of the resulting military and security techno-human systems makes them less and less transparent to a democratic society and its institutions, that at least in principle have the ethical and rational responsibility for the management and deployment of the tools of warfare.

In particular, we believe that the interplay between technological evolution and the shift to a professional military creates a deeply troubling dynamic. Most people already know they will not be exposed to the risks of conflict, given the professionalization of the armed forces. Now combine the absence of conscription with technological evolution that increasingly replaces humans on the battlefield with increasingly autonomous warfighting machines, and a fundamental social calculus—when to shift from diplomacy to war— may be altered in unprecedented ways. War should always be a last resort: Lowering the political and cultural barriers to initiating conflict is a dangerous development, all the more so if it emerges not from explicit and thought-out policy choice, but social and technological changes that no one is monitoring.

To be sure, hand-wringing about the trajectory of the military profession has occupied the energies of many a sociologist and historian, from Samuel Huntington to Morris Janowitz; indeed, the relationship between civilian and military leadership is a theme dating back to Sun Tzu. Theorists such as these have long pointed to the risks of a military growing more technocratic and distant from “the people.” But with the acceleration of technological advance and the dramatic increase in the complexity of modern conflict and the geopolitical context in which it occurs, a profound change is afoot, a change in both the nature of warfare and the relationship between U.S. citizens and the nation’s warfighting activities.

War made too easy

Our thesis is simple: We believe it is neither socially nor technically advisable to rely on a progressively smaller group of specialists, increasingly separate from the rest of society, to provide the collective defense, nor does having such a small elite control the tools of modern, automated, and computerized war comply with democratic principles. Conversely, in a world where cyber infrastructure, financial networks, and other technological systems with which traditional military elites are less than expert are likely targets for conflict, reliance on a voluntary force is unlikely to provide the expertise and skills necessary for comprehensive security. To provide for a more robust, sustainable, and democratic defense, therefore, we propose the return of universal conscription, not to man the ramparts against a looming enemy wielding a numerically large field army, but to enfranchise the nation as a whole in the protection of its military capabilities, national security, and democracy, and to ensure appropriate and democratic responses to the challenges of increasing technological and geopolitical complexity.

We make two interrelated arguments. First, we claim that we need a broader cross-section of society in the military if we are to make better decisions about when, how, and at what scale to initiate conflict. In particular, much of the thrust of modern military technology has the effect of reducing warfighter casualties. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator, for example, separate the airman physically from the battlefield, thus placing him or her at far less risk. Protecting military personnel from harm is necessary and desirable, but it may also lower the social, political, and psychological barriers to moving from negotiation and policy to military engagement. We believe that broader social participation in the military could ensure an appropriate balance in democratic decisionmaking about when to make the momentous transition to military action.

Second, it is clear that technological competence is necessary, if not sufficient, for global power status, yet it is also clear that understanding and rationally managing the complexity of accelerating technological change across virtually the entire technological frontier is challenging the ability of the United States, its citizenry, and its institutions. Military service, with its exposure to advanced technologies in relatively quotidian circumstances, can help create a more technologically sophisticated society with a greater ability to understand what even the most advanced technology can and cannot do, encouraging more realistic public expectations regarding technology generally. At the same time, the accelerating evolution of technology across its entire frontier, driven by advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communications technology (ICT), robotics, and applied cognitive science, is challenging the adaptive capabilities of modern militaries. If the military is to be able to remain competitive globally in such a difficult and complex environment, conscription will be required to bring into the military a broader array of necessary skills. For example, cyberconflict poses not just a technological and geopolitical challenge, but also a challenge to internal military culture: The geeks that, feasting on Coke and Skittles, are fearsome in ICT capability are not the kinds of personalities that will be easily attracted to a traditional, strongly hierarchical, heavily bureaucratic, military organization. Nor do we expect that the institutional leaders, entrepreneurs, and change-makers who work with the geeks, and who understand the political sensitivities and social concerns about privacy, data management, open source, and the like, will be volunteering for military service. Not just cyberskills, but appropriate management skills, will be critical competencies for tomorrow’s military. In discussing these issues, we will focus on the U.S. context, both for the sake of simplicity and because we are more familiar with U.S. military and cultural issues, but we believe that these concerns will apply to many affluent nations fielding increasingly high-technology militaries today.

Universal conscription—the compulsory enlistment of individuals, usually young men, in national service, especially in national militaries and police organizations—is not new. The Chinese Qin Empire, 221 to 206 B.C.E., used it; more recently, it was characteristic of post-Napoleonic European imperialism. In the early United States, militia service was frequently required, but conscription was generally not imposed (Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution separates the power to support the Militia, administered at the state level, from the power to raise and support the national Army and Navy through, for example, conscription). Where it was, as in the Civil War, it tended to be poorly administered and riddled with loopholes. With the advent of World War I, however, conscription was modernized by the Selective Service Act of 1917, and it was implemented again in World War II. Unlike the Civil War era, conscription for these wars was not politically contentious. This changed with the Vietnam war; indeed, one of the most significant contributions to a reduction of domestic social tension in the United States as the Vietnam conflict wore down was the ending of the draft in 1973 (the Selective Service system, which is the administrative backbone of the draft, remains active). Although some countries, such as Israel, Iran, Switzerland, Turkey, and South Korea, still rely on universal conscription, the U.S. shift to a so-called “all-volunteer army,” with its explicit rejection of conscription, is the dominant trend, especially in Europe. France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, for example, have all recently suspended or eliminated conscription in favor of volunteer militaries.

And indeed there is an obvious political benefit in eliminating conscription in favor of volunteer forces, where those who serve, and often their families as well, have knowingly accepted the risk of going to war. In contrast, universal conscription means that everyone of a certain age could potentially serve in the military, so that warfighters are drawn from a broad cross-section of society, widely spreading the risks associated with military activity and thus making decisions about the deployment of forces much more contentious. Moreover, it is far easier to manage an all-volunteer force: Draftees in a country such as the United States are opinionated, stubborn, cantankerous, questioning, and difficult to lead [as one of us (Allenby) learned first hand as an Army officer during the Vietnam War period]. As Robert Goldich, a noted expert on conscription has observed, “. . . draftees did not internalize the norms and psychology of the career force; but rather accepted them, externally and reluctantly, and adapted as best they could. Today, broadly uniform attitudes permeate the entire force, from private to full general.” Is this monolithic culture, unchallenged by the draftee, a good thing in the long run? Others argue that class and regional differences in a melting-pot culture such as that of the United States become far deeper and more difficult to manage when universal service, one of the few arenas in which citizens are mixed without regard to their differences, is eliminated. Moreover, civilian leaders who have not served are necessarily not as intimately familiar with the culture, operations, strengths, and weaknesses of military institutions. And the separateness is there: As journalist Dana Milibank noted in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, only 86 members of the House, and 17 senators, served in the military, a rate of only 19%, the lowest since World War II (the high, in contrast, was 77% in 1977–1978).

Are they thus more likely to make significant mistakes in the deployment of U.S. forces? (The Iraq War is often used as an example of such a mistake.) More broadly, and without anyone intending it, the elimination of universal service deepens the gap between military and civilian culture, a gap that some believe has grown to a chasm and was even the subject of an October 2011 speech by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at West Point. This gap concerned the former secretary, as he observed that “there is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the majority of the people they have sworn to defend.” Indeed, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs, which are a major source of military officers, are disproportionately concentrated in the South or Rocky Mountain states, whereas the populous East and West coasts are underrepresented. As Gates noted, “Alabama, with a population of less than 5 million, has 10 Army ROTC host programs. The Los Angeles metro area, population over 12 million, has four.” (The National Service academies at Annapolis, West Point, and Colorado Springs are an exception in this regard, drawing by law from every congressional district precisely with the intent of providing representation aimed at a politically plural officer corps.) Gates further observed that “it is off-putting to hear, albeit anecdotally, comments that suggest that the military is to some degree separate and even superior from the society, the country, it is sworn to protect.”

At the same time that mass societal participation in the military has abated with the end of conscription, the laborsaving nature of military technologies has given the technologies themselves more ability to reach out, to discriminate, and thus to observe, coerce, and in some cases kill, a human target. These technologies have thereby empowered a progressively smaller numerical group, such as a team sitting in a control room in South Dakota directing an unmanned Predator, that is potentially increasingly alienated from humanity, both the enemy it fights overseas and its fellow citizens, who have fewer and fewer connections with these isolated technocratic warriors. Thus we see the isolation of the warfighter driven from two directions. The first involves, as then-Secretary Gates explained, “a series of demographic, cultural, and institutional shifts that have made the military less representative of the American population as a whole, mostly as a consequence of ending the draft.” The second direction arises from the momentum of technological change, perhaps trending toward a future, described in Antoine Bousquet’s The Scientific Way of Warfare (required reading at the Army Command and Staff College), in which “. . . swarms composed of millions of sensors, emitters, microbots, and micro-missiles and deployed via pre-positioning, burial, air drops, artillery rounds, or missiles, saturate the terrain of conflict.”

The new ways of war

If the political forces that led to ending conscription are fairly clear, what about the forces of sociotechnical change leading the military toward the development and adoption of new military and security technologies, from drones to cyberweapons to increasingly autonomous vehicles and robots that put military personnel increasingly far from the action? The trend—and its consequences—are clear just from reading the headlines about current conflicts: The U.S. military is increasingly expected by the public and civilian leaders to project American power around the globe, but with minimum casualties. This is a radically new perspective on military operations, given that throughout history, and reaching a peak in the World Wars of the 20th century, such operations often killed tens of thousands in a single battle. But what allowed this new perspective to become plausible? First, of course, technological advance, which in turn now creates the political expectation that wars can be fought with few or even no casualties. But there is another reason: Budgetary pressures, changing demographics (an aging population), and changing social norms mean that the military must plan to be smaller, meetings its needs with fewer young recruits, and that competition with private firms for those individuals will become much more intense and difficult. These stresses demand increased labor efficiency: more mission accomplishment per unit of warrior. Substituting robots for warriors doesn’t just save lives; it also substitutes capital for labor and enables performance even if labor pools shrink.

Taken together, these conditions strongly suggest that the challenges posed by accelerating technological evolution to military and security institutions specifically, and to society generally, only continue to increase. Although some may say that such a pattern of innovation has existed for thousands of years (say, back to the Trojan Horse), they err in assuming that nothing fundamental is different this time. The continuing evolution of computational capabilities, the creation of increasingly intelligent and mobile machines and networks, and now initiatives to radically redesign the warfighter himself or herself, are each individually significant, but when taken together create a discontinuous complexity. The huge flows of combat-critical data, the increasing technological autonomy of modern weapon platforms, the changing relationship of the soldier to the battlefield as U.S.-based warriors direct drones around the world—all of these come together and are rapidly coevolving, in ways that raise challenges that are new and not yet well managed. Accordingly, the need for both military and civil society institutions to emphasize technological knowledge and sophistication will also need to accelerate greatly if they are to remain viable and competitive. But such fundamental pressures also suggest that the gap between military and civilian understanding of, and comfort with, technology is liable to grow, as will the more fundamental cultural and communication gap between those sectors.

Why is this gap problematic, and how might we manage it and even reduce it? Technologies such as UAVs being flown over Afghanistan today by pilots stationed outside Las Vegas certainly reduce U.S. casualties. Replacing special operations warriors with robots, as opposed to augmenting their capabilities in the field, is a long way off, but it is not difficult to see that reducing the potential for U.S. casualties makes military action less politically risky and thus lowers the high barrier against going to war. Going to war should always be a last resort for a civilized society, and never undertaken lightly. Iraq is a cautionary tale, but it pales next to the reduced disincentives for conflict that foreseeable technological evolution, especially in the continued absence of conscription, may soon create.

A self-selected volunteer elite, no matter how competent, will not reflect the skills and, more importantly, the perspectives, cultural competencies, and implicit knowledge embodied across the society.

If there is a high probability that foreseeable technological evolution will make war more socially acceptable, we obviously need other ways of making war less desirable. Because technological evolution is responding to basic national security and military environments, as well as to the competitive global economic environment, and because the United States relies on advanced technology to help it remain secure militarily and economically, neither the speed nor direction of technological change is likely to raise new political barriers to warfare. Thus, one must look for mechanisms for managing and maintaining appropriately strong barriers to conflict in other domains, such as public policy. Our argument is that universal conscription—a properly designed draft that exposes all individuals of a certain age, and thus their families as well, to the potential of becoming involved in the military during a conflict—can have the effect of building back into society an appropriate conservatism about engaging in warfare that technological change has in part undermined. This effect operates even when technologies may be removing many soldiers from direct conflict, because the weakening of the geographic focus for combat that arises from the global nature of terrorist networks and the extension of weapon systems and warfighter participation across regional and global scales means that violence might well follow the soldier to wherever she or he is stationed. There is evidence as well that UAV pilots, despite being physically removed from combat, still can suffer from post-traumatic stress disease. But a draft would not only spread the risk of combat injury or death across a broader, more diverse population. It would also expose many more people to the possibility of being drafted, thus giving them and their families a direct interest in national decisions about when to go to war. A well-designed conscription program can, therefore, reduce incentives for the premature resort to violence to resolve geopolitical differences. Simply put, if technology is making war too easy, the draft is one of the few ways to keep it hard.

A few good nerds

If the most immediate and direct benefit of a draft is to counterbalance the possibility that technological change makes military action too politically easy to pursue, then a secondary benefit is to enhance the capacity of the military, and even U.S. society more broadly, to understand and manage rapidly evolving technology systems. The unpredictability and complexity of technological change at this point in history provide a significant challenge to military organizations in several important ways. One is the challenge of attracting and keeping necessary technological talent. This can be done piecemeal. For example, Admiral Rickover, the father of the commercial nuclear reactor and the nuclear navy, when he faced the accelerating technological challenges in the early nuclear age, lamented the shortage of technically qualified sailors and officers entering the service. To tap the talent in civil society, he went to extraordinary lengths to create innovative programs that permitted qualified civilians to enter directly into his organization, thus attracting recruits who would have normally shunned military service. Today, however, the challenges arise not just in a specific area that one strong-willed individual can address, but across the technological frontier, so that a policy of relying on ad hoc and idiosyncratic fixes, although it may be necessary in the short run, is doomed to inadequacy. The necessary systemic policy fix could be universal conscription.

A related challenge is simply keeping track of emerging technologies and understanding their potential implications for military operations and national security. The military is well aware of this challenge. At the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, for example, every midshipman, regardless of academic major, is required to take core courses in cyberstudies and enough electrical and computer engineering that he or she can understand the emergence of these complex systems. Such experiences demystify technology and enable students, and those they lead, to be more realistic, and more grounded, in an environment of ever more rapid and more unpredictable technological evolution. But from the perspective of society as a whole, Annapolis is unique, and the numbers of students are not only modest, but increasingly they hail from a smaller, pro-military, conservative, self-selected population base, which is not fully representative of U.S. society. Relying on a small volunteer elite to manage major technological revolutions across virtually all security domains is unrealistic; a self-selected volunteer elite, no matter how competent, will not reflect the skills and, more importantly, the perspectives, cultural competencies, and implicit knowledge embodied across the society. Will enough geeks volunteer? Will enough experts in finance, who can help protect critical assets from unrestricted cyberwarfare, be available and aligned with more-traditional military defense institutions? National security by definition reflects the values and interests of society as a whole, but just as the competence, complexity, and capability of military and security technology accelerates, and difficult policy debates about UAVs, surveillance, and global wars on terrorism flare up, military and security competencies are devolving to a relatively small and increasingly less representative volunteer elite. This is not only likely to leave the military technically deficient, as inadequate numbers of those who may have important skills (hacking competencies, for example) fail to volunteer, but it is also creates a challenge to democracy. Conscript armies are populated by a cultural, socioeconomic, and geographic cross-section of society. After a year or two, conscript soldiers or sailors go home, bringing with them experience with the complex and evolving roles of technology in the nation’s security enterprise. They raise families in the communities from which they came, communities from across the society that are now enfranchised in decisions about the military, because it is their children and friends that are involved.

Faced with the tsunami of innovation across numerous fields unleashed at the beginning of the 21st century, technologies are shaping our military enterprise in ways that may radically challenge our social capacity to govern it in a manner that is technically competent and democratically responsive. We have argued that universal conscription offers a policy approach that can address both elements of this challenge: expanding the realms of technical proficiency necessary for tomorrow’s national security, and enfranchising a more diverse and inclusive cross-section of society in the process of providing for, and deciding how to provide for, national security. No doubt piecemeal approaches may be offered to address the radical influences of new technology in the military and security spheres, but the important point is that the current comfortable status quo of a volunteer military increasingly fails to provide our military apparatus, and our democracy, the capabilities needed to successfully navigate the world we are busy creating. History teaches us that we should not insulate our military from the citizenry; we should not let the marvels of technology blind us to this important lesson.

Recommended Reading

  • Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare (2009).
  • Dana Milbank, “Save America: Restore the Draft,” The Washington Post (2013).
  • Francis Duncan, Rickover and the Nuclear Navy: The Discipline of Technology (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990).
  • Robert L. Goldich, “American Military Culture from Colony to Empire,” Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Summer 2011).
  • Samuel Huntington, The Soldier and the State (New York: Vintage Press, 1957).
  • Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier (New York: Free Press, 1971).
  • J. Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Vintage Press, 1993).
  • G. Parker, The Cambridge History of Warfare (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  • National Research Council, Avoiding Surprise in an Era of Global Technology Advances (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2005).
  • National Research Council, Persistent Forecasting of Disruptive Technologies (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2010).
  • Q. Liang and W. Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare (Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999; translated by FBIS/CIA).

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Cite this Article

Allenby, Brad, and Mark Hagerott. “Universal Conscription as Technology Policy.” Issues in Science and Technology 30, no. 2 (Winter 2014).

Vol. XXX, No. 2, Winter 2014