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Deadly Draft

The fascination with conscription continues. See, for example, the lead story in the Week in Review section of today’s New York Times. One remarkable feature of this essay is that it says so little. There’s nothing new or interesting in it – which raises the interesting question: why does such a piece receive such prominent billing in the NYT?

Another feature of this essay – one it shares with almost all commentary on the draft – is that it overlooks the importance of substituting capital for labor. Even though military planners, unlike private business people, spend only taxpayers’ money when making military decisions, these planners are likely still, at the margin, to use less manpower the higher are the wages the military must pay. Because capital – such as more powerful and durable tanks, faster and more accurate bombers, and more high-tech weapons-control software – can substitute for labor to attain a given level of military effectiveness, the all-volunteer force encourages the use of more capital and less labor (compared to a military with the power to conscript).

One result is fewer military casualties.

Casual empirical evidence for this effect can be seen in the trend of average annual battle deaths of American troops. In the last three wars the U.S. military fought with conscripts – World War II, the Korean war, and the Vietnam war – average annual battle-deaths were 73,032 (WWII), 11,217 (Korea), and 5,572 (Vietnam). In the first Gulf war, I estimate this rate to have been about 590 – nearly ten times lower than in Vietnam. (I calculated these figures with data from The World Almanac.) So far in the current Iraq war, this rate is about 670.

I realize that average annual battle-deaths is not a perfect measure of how safe the military is for its soldiers. The nature of the conflict and many other factors are in play. Still, the fact that average annual battle-death rates are so much lower in Gulf Wars I and (so far) II than in previous, conscript-using wars is suggestive, at least, of the effectiveness of the all-volunteer force at reducing the danger to U.S. troops.