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Military Draft, Inequality, and War Support

Military Draft, Inequality, and War Support

Photo credit: Library of Congress

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Kriner, D. L., & Shen, F. X. (2016). Conscription, inequality, and partisan support for war. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 60(8), 1419-1445.

Talking Points

  • Instituting a draft would decrease support for war, as it would leave fewer people insulated from the costs of war.
  • Democrats are more sensitive than Republicans to a change to the draft, as well as to information about whether the draft (and/or the AVF) makes military sacrifice more or less equal.
  • Partisan lenses matter to the public’s interpretation of questions of war and peace, specifically whether they will support a war in light of the institution (or non-institution) of the draft and concerns about inequality.


With the United States military’s all-volunteer force (AVF) more than forty years old, large segments of the U.S. public have, arguably, become insulated from the wars the country is fighting. The authors wish to investigate how returning to the draft might influence Americans’ support for war. In addition, they are curious about:

  1. whether conscription’s effects on inequality in military sacrifice further influence public support for war
  2. whether political party affiliation influences one’s sensitivity to conscription or its effects on inequality in military sacrifice.

Prior research suggests that reinstating the draft would lower public support for war, as individuals previously insulated from war might feel that they would have to bear the costs of war directly. If people are told, however, that the draft would distribute the costs of war more equally across U.S. society, that lower support for war might partially bounce back, due to alleviated concerns about fairness. If, however, they are told that the draft would not distribute these costs more equally—leaving intact the socioeconomic inequality in military sacrifice currently seen with the AVF— then support for war could be expected to remain low or go even lower. In addition, the authors think political partisanship must be considered, as research shows that there are real partisan divides in levels of support for war, with Republicans generally more hawkish than Democrats. The Democratic Party has also historically been more concerned with addressing socioeconomic equality. Therefore, people likely employ partisan lenses to interpret information about the presence or absence of a draft, as well as the impact it may or may not have on inequality in military sacrifice, leading to the following hypotheses:

  1. “Democrats will be more sensitive to the presence or absence of conscription than Republicans” when assessing their support for war.
  2. “Democrats will also be more responsive than Republicans to information about the inequality ramifications” of either conscription or the AVF.

To test these hypotheses, the authors conducted two experimental surveys. The first, in February 2011, presented individuals with a hypothetical scenario involving North Korea’s threatened invasion of South Korea and the call to send a sizeable number of U.S. troops to defend South Korea. In a follow-up survey in July 2014, respondents were presented with a different hypothetical scenario involving a terrorist attack on a U.S. military installation abroad that killed dozens of service members and a call for military action to overthrow the regime believed to have sponsored the attack. In both surveys, respondents were told different things about whether or not the military mission would require reinstatement of the draft and what effects, if any, this draft (or the continuation of the AVF) would have on inequality in military sacrifice. Respondents were then asked to indicate their level of support for the military action proposed. For both surveys, the authors then assessed the differences in support for military action depending on what respondents were told about the draft and its implications for inequality.

In the first survey, the authors found support for war to vary in the expected directions: knowledge of a required draft brought down support for war from the baseline condition of no draft needed; from there, mention of the equalizing effects of the draft brought support back up somewhat, whereas acknowledgement that it would not have those equalizing effects left war support just below where it was. Finally, knowledge that no draft was needed but that the AVF perpetuated unequal military sacrifice left war support just below where it was in the baseline condition. When the responses were separated by political party affiliation, the differences became significant and more pronounced among Democrats but not among Republicans, supporting the hypotheses that Democrats are more sensitive than Republicans to the presence of the draft and to the effects of the draft (or the AVF) on inequality in military sacrifice when considering their support for war.

In the second survey, the partisan divide was less apparent in differences in war support between the AVF and the draft, but emerged in differences in war support once inequality effects were introduced. While the presence of the draft brought down war support significantly among both parties, the mention that the draft would equalize military sacrifice brought Democrats’ war support back up, but did not significantly influence Republican war support.

In short, this study finds that public support for war generally decreases when the draft is instituted but that this effect is moderated in important ways by political party affiliation and by the effects the draft (or the AVF) is known to have on equality/inequality of military sacrifice.

Contemporary Relevance

With the advent of the U.S.-led ‘Global War on Terror’ in 2001, and the age of seemingly unending military engagements it brought with it, fought by members of an all-volunteer military, there is concern that much of the U.S. public has the luxury of insulating itself from the warfare it is supporting (or at least enabling) abroad. This study investigates the important question of whether decisions to go to war would change if those called on to fight came more equitably from families across the socioeconomic and geographic spectrum.

Practical Implications

The practical implications of this research for war prevention are ambiguous and potentially troubling: 1) According to this research, the policy that would most diminish public support for war—and therefore potentially make war less likely—would be bringing back the draft and making it unequal in its requirements for military sacrifice across socioeconomic classes, which is not a policy many people would want to entertain. 2) Instead, however, activists can engage in public education efforts to highlight current inequalities in military sacrifice under the AVF, as this might decrease public support for war, even in the absence of the draft. 3) More broadly, this research brings to light the central fact that in order for war to be fought, there must be soldiers to fight it. Countries have certain “manpower” requirements to carry out their military actions, therefore those troops actually wield an enormous—if under-recognized and under-utilized— amount of power to resist war-making. As the old saying from the 1960s goes, “suppose they gave a war and no one came?”

Keywords: AVF, conscription, draft, inequality, political partisanship, U.S. military, war support

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 1, of the Peace Science Digest.


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