Jeff McMahan argues that because the United States has an all-volunteer military it must allow for selective conscientious objections when the country uses force for purposes other than national defense. But McMahan weakens his argument in two ways. First, he makes a number of misleading statements about how the United States has recruited and retained military personnel. Second, in his analysis of just and unjust wars, McMahan fails to distinguish between wars of choice and wars of necessity.

Let’s begin with the historical issues, which are important to McMahan’s concerns about moral responsibility.

When President Nixon abolished the draft in 1973, he was not doing something extraordinary. For most of its history, the United States relied on volunteers. The country instituted conscription only during major hot wars, such as the Civil War and the World Wars. After World War II, the United States abolished conscription.

Conscription was brought back in 1948 because the Cold War started to heat up. The policy remained in effect until 1973. Even during this period, the force was not entirely conscripted but was, rather, composed of conscripts who served for two years and others who volunteered to serve longer. Conscientious objectors who were drafted could obtain a deferment for being opposed not to a particular war but to war in general.

Military leaders, particularly in the Army and the Marine Corps, opposed ending conscription throughout the 1970s and ’80s. They were more concerned with keeping the bond between the military and society than with having what McMahan calls “so many unwilling members,” most of whom fought well in Vietnam, even if they did not want to be there.

There is a difference between unjust wars and unnecessary ones. 

Finally, the creators of the all-volunteer force envisioned that it would have three pillars. The first was a comparatively small active-duty force, particularly the ground forces, which were the services that relied on the draft (for all practical purposes, only the Army relied on conscription between 1948 and 1973). The second pillar was a well-trained and equipped reserve that could be activated quickly to augment the active force—that is, a strategic reserve. Finally, there would be the Selective Service System: a pool of registrants who could be drafted if the country became involved in a protracted conflict.

Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration, concerned that Americans would ask more questions about the necessity of invading Iraq, refused to activate the Selective Service System during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, among other things, the administration relied on a backdoor draft by invoking the stop-loss program, which involuntarily extends a service member’s enlistment beyond the period for which he or she had volunteered. The military also lowered its recruiting and retention standards in order to attract volunteers. These steps, and insufficient time between deployments, caused lasting damage to the force.

The ethical dilemmas that McMahan discusses are not unique to the all-volunteer force. Even before 1973, there were millions of volunteers in the force, and had we erected the three pillars, we would have had thousands of conscripts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McMahan seems to be saying that in the post–World War II period, the major uses of military force by the United States that might be considered just were only the initial strike against al Qaeda (self-defense), the Korean War (collective defense), and Kosovo (humanitarian intervention). But his analysis fails to take into account the difference between unjust wars and dumb or unnecessary wars, or between wars of necessity and wars of choice.

While I agree that Vietnam was a dumb war, it was seen as a means of containing communism, and its supporters felt it was necessitated by the domino theory. Trying to nation-build in Afghanistan after expelling al Qaeda might have been a bridge too far, but it was not immoral. Even Iraq, which was the dumbest of wars, was undertaken because of faulty intelligence, which led the Bush Administration to push for action and an overwhelming number of senators and representatives to vote to authorize military force. The intelligence may have been wrong, but following bad intelligence is not inherently immoral, unless that intelligence is known to be deliberately distorted. And today there are those who use the humanitarian rationale expounded in Kosovo to argue for waging war in Syria, or the collective defense rationale for striking Iran.

McMahan raises an important question. Unfortunately, his faulty analysis of the all-volunteer force and the types of wars or military interventions undertaken by the United States undermines his case.