A persistent but futile political proposal in the United States calls for the return of conscription. There are always some politicians out there who believe reviving conscription would solve a lot of problems. These proposals never go anywhere because most other politicians can read the polls, and the past, and understand that conscription was never popular or fair. This is particularly true in peacetime, when the military needs relatively few troops and the fatal flaw with peacetime is selecting who would be conscripted. Most people do not want to be in the military but conscription does not pay any attention to that, otherwise it would not be conscription. Thus peacetime conscription tends to be more trouble than it’s worth and that is why it has been rapidly disappearing since the end of the Cold War.
Another problem for conscription fans is that wars have become less manpower intensive since the middle of the 20th century. World War II (1938-45) saw 16.1 million Americans, 11.6 percent of the population, serving. Six million of those troops were volunteers, the rest were drafted while another 6.4 million were drafted, but rejected, for physical, mental or other reasons. During the 1950-53 Korean War, 5.7 million served and only 27 percent were draftees. During the Vietnam War (1965-73), 8.7 million served and only 20 percent were draftees. You can see where this is going, because in a very popular move, peacetime conscription was dropped in the United States in the early 1970s.
With the relatively large number of Americans willing to volunteer for military service, and wars requiring fewer troops, there’s no need for draftees. But when there’s an emergency, and a call for reviving the draft, you still have a reserve system to fall back on. This has proved very effective for the United States, especially after September 11, 2001, The U.S. has organized reserves and the “less organized” IRR (Individual Ready Reserve). Most people in the IRR are there for four years, to finish out the eight year obligation incurred when they enlisted (usually for four years of active duty.) The IRR has existed since the 1960s and had never really been used until 2004. That situation was exactly what the IRR was designed for, and the U.S. Army used it heavily for about five years.
Back in 2004 it was noted that not all of the 50,000 or so troops discharged each year had skills the army needed for filling emergency needs. At its peak in 2008 the army mobilized about 3,000 members of the IRR, and most served for about a year. Along the way the army and marines have found that many of their IRR people were eager to serve. Even retired troops have been volunteering. But many veterans simply don’t know what their options are, and the army only needs a small number off IRR troops. The army also found that most of the IRR members are not really able to return to active duty. Some are pregnant or have young children. Others have health or employment situations that make active service impractical.
While most of the people in the IRR are those who are just finishing their eight years of mandatory service, there are thousands of National Guard and army reserve personnel there, mainly because there’s nowhere else to put them, or because no one can find these people in the first place. Reservists also incur the eight year obligation when they sign up. Most reservists sign on for six years of reserve service (attending monthly training sessions, and the two weeks of Summer exercises), followed by two years in the IRR.
But here’s the angle that commanders in reserve and National Guard units have learned to exploit. Since IRR members are not paid, and it’s common for members of reserve units to, well, just disappear, it’s a lot easier to simply transfer the missing trooper to the IRR, than to go through all the paperwork, hassle, and futility of going after them for abandoning their reserve obligation. At the same time, there are reservists who are legitimately transferred to the IRR. This commonly happens when a reserve unit is disbanded, and there are no nearby (within reasonable distance) reserve units to take all the now orphaned reservists. Some of the more dedicated reservists will up and move to a new town that has a reserve unit they can join, but most often, the orphaned reservists will transfer to the IRR.
Another (well known) problem with the IRR is that its members do not keep the army informed of their whereabouts. Legally, the IRR members are supposed to, but the army has rarely prosecuted anyone over this. So few IRR members bother to notify the army when there is an address change. As a result, a third, or more, of IRR members are not at the address the army has for them. Alas, the IRR members are not mobilized often enough to justify a reform of this system (and spending the time and money needed to keep track of everyone.) Thus the introduction of the annual muster which pays a small number (about ten percent) of randomly selected IRR members $190 plus travel expenses to show up for about two hours to get their current address and suitability for mobilization. The military has found that there are plenty of IRR members willing to be called, so there’s no need to compel anyone when you don’t have to. The IRR muster has verified that there are plenty of trained and experienced former military personnel already available, if you can only find them. The annual muster is headed for becoming another aspect of American military life.
All this shows that the voters have decided that they don’t want the return of conscription and that there are sufficient Americans willing to volunteer to take care of defense needs. But on a slow news days, some opportunistic politicians know they can grab a headline by calling for a return of the draft.