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It’s Time to Reinstate the Draft

The “All-Volunteer Force” has been Disastrous

The Vietnam War used to be the longest war in American history. Despite its longevity, many Americans walked away from the debacle with a clear insight: the war — certainly after 1968—was pointless. In many ways, it was this insight that helped bring the war to its end. Even Richard Nixon campaigned on the anti-war sentiment. In a ’68 campaign ad, he said, “I pledge to you that we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”

Notice he didn’t say ‘we will win,’ nor did he say anything about ‘honorable victory.’ The foreshadowing was clear. Even more clear was the growing hostility to the war. (Of course, Nixon was being duplicitous, but he was smart enough to use the public appeal for what it was.) But common public sentiment doesn’t always result in long-standing policy (even in a “democracy”).

Unfortunately for future generations, a powerful minority group in our nation held an entirely different opinion about the war. They believed (and many of their successors still believe) that the war could have been won — and they blame an unsupportive public and weak-kneed politicians for the loss.

Thomas Ricks, a Foreign Policy journalist and heavyweight national security author, addresses this group’s “we-won” mythology directly in “Setting the record straight on the end of the Vietnam War.” The mythology is a simple one: the military never received a tactical loss throughout the war, and therefore, the United States didn’t technically lose — instead, the military was forced to leave early. Ricks argues that

“…a fictitious, feel-good history has taken such hold in America’s memories of Vietnam. Putting all the blame on Congress, war protesters and left-wingers for the defeat exonerates those who were actually responsible for U.S. policy and those who conducted the war; not surprisingly, that makes it a popular argument among former U.S. policymakers and military commanders.

This same mentality is incredibly important for understanding today’s failed war policy in America. Most of us are at least partially familiar with the war in Vietnam. Few are familiar with how the United States restructured the military in the years that followed; the same “we-won” policymakers and military commanders created an institution — partially in good faith — but also with the intention to limit public disapproval from affecting future conflicts. Today, that institution, the all-volunteer force, has laid the groundwork for an era of perennial war.


The Creation of the All-Volunteer Force

Since 1973 until today, the United States military has been an “All-Volunteer Force” (hereafter, shortened to AVF). In the late 1960s, the government began to realize that a draft was not necessary in order to fight the Cold War; more importantly, in the wake of the Vietnam War, they realized a draft could be detrimental in their continued prosecution of the Cold War. It was the latter point that hastened the decision to end the draft.

Today, we are no longer fighting the Cold War. But the mentality remains in effect. Currently, you may be required by law to register for the Selective Service, but nobody is going to be drafted to fight in Afghanistan anytime soon — there’s no support for it. Instead, the modern military relies on volunteers to achieve limited political objectives, as well as to fight “minor” campaigns… even if the limited objectives come at the expense of long-term stability (e.g., the removal of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq) or are significantly less “limited” than first claimed.

Although most Americans today believe the Vietnam War wasn’t worth fighting, the draft — in the long-run — was not an evil. If it hadn’t been for the political unrest that was caused by conscription for an unjust war, it may have continued unabated well into the 1970s. By contrast, today’s wars, despite being massively unpopular, had no organized anti-war movement at any point.

The new political strategy is to deny the need for conscription in every case: to use limited military power to achieve limited objectives at the cost of stability; to pass the political football forward to the next generation or politician; and to maintain public support at all costs, or to merely create enough apathy to prevent collective action — even if maintaining that public support chokes the war of the resources it needs to win.

It should be noted that many aspects of the all-volunteer force are beneficial. Citizens are allowed to choose if service is right for them. But the benefits belie great social cost. The AVF’s sensibility is precisely why it is an insidious institution. Political actors have the ability to shrug off popular disapproval because the war is rarely a priority among voters.

This has been — more or less — understood since the beginning. In 1968, then-Former VP Nixon became interested in ending the wartime draft for similar reasons. He felt that abolition would undermine the anti-war movement because well-off youths would no longer be threatened by involuntary conscription. They would have no drive to continue the anti-war movement. He was right, but he missed his target window by approximately forty years.

The validity of his insight wouldn’t become clear until now. The United States has been involved in an imbroglio in Afghanistan for seventeen years. In Iraq, the anti-war movement was nowhere to be seen. Our collective inattention to that war left potentially fifty (50) million casualties in its wake. But in addition to political apathy, the AVF also encourages politicians to deny troop increases that might actually bring wars to a rapid conclusion.

The Gates Commission provided the rationale for the all-volunteer force. They thought the AVF would increase democratic participation — they were wrong.

The All-Volunteer Force Damages National Security and Enables Long-Term Adventurism

Beyond the apathy, the AVF does nothing to make Americans safer than they were before. Instead, it fuels the military-industrial complex by making wars open-ended endeavors. Outside of limited operations, wars require national diligence, costly expenditures, and as many dedicated troops as needed — if they’re to be fought at all. The United States has only intended to pay the monetary costs, and usually to military corporations financed through debt.

The War in Iraq is a prime example of this. We can easily juxtapose it against the first Gulf War — itself a limited and contained military operation with clear goals; it was well-suited for volunteer force. In the early 1990s, defeating the much weaker Iraqi Army in pitched battle was a simple task for a coalition force with superior tactics, morale, and equipment. (This would be the case even if US forces were outnumbered, compare the paltry 242 coalition deaths to anywhere from twenty to fifty thousand Iraqis KIA.) The Gulf War not require a draft, nor a massive influx of conscripts to win or secure anything in its aftermath.

The very same could be said for the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. The initial invasion was quite successful as a tactical maneuver. But the failure was in the resulting quagmire; complete anarchy settled over the entire country, in large part because the United States lacked the forces to secure the country post-invasion. If the United States had had more soldiers on the ground, there would have been more security, which would have allowed for a smooth transition of governmental services and a clean build-up in the wake of the “liberation.”

Of course, a massive factor in the failure of the Iraq War was a complete lack of adequate planning. But if American leadership had planned just one thing differently — to bring more ground troops — they would have easily prevented the complete breakdown of Iraqi society in the wake of governmental collapse. Perhaps this would have done nothing to alter the course of the war, but it certainly would have been a step in the right direction.

The military attempted to correct this very mistake approximately four years later in 2007. During “the Surge,” the U.S. military increased troop levels and operational activity in the region. It was intended to finally establish the (missing) security necessary to allow the build-up of Iraqi institutions, civil society, and most importantly — Iraqi security forces to maintain those new political institutions. It’s no secret that more soldiers give commanders more options.

And there are dozens of examples of this beyond Iraq. It has been nothing if not a common theme over the last twenty years. In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal argued for an increase because

Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible…

They needed:

…additional troops beyond the 68,000 American forces already approved, from 10,000 to as many as 45,000.

The trend is still alive today: they always need more “boots on the ground.” In May of 2017, Op-Ed columnists were calling for a surge in Afghanistan even beyond the increase imposed by President Trump. There is a growing professional opinion in the military community that the answer to insurgency and weak governance is increased military presence in the short- to medium-term war effort.

None of this is an argument for the draft on its own. But most politicians consistently reject these requests for fear of exacerbating disapproval into a more general unrest. The American people have every right to disagree with the argument that more troops will end the war sooner. It is certainly a contentious viewpoint. Although if it’s the case that the generals are wrong, in all of their years of experience, then the people need to whether the military has any viable solution at all. If it can’t be handled militarily: the only answer is drawing down and ending the conflict.

Because there is no pressure to do such a thing, politicians save face by playing a safe, middle-of-the-road position.

On the one hand, they don’t want to turn apathy into unrest by raising the number of troops as high as the generals ask; and on the other, they can’t merely ignore the operational needs of war — lest it create an equally embarrassing debacle. They send enough to continue the war, but never enough to win the war. The AVF encourages politicians to remain risk-averse about troop levels instead of focusing on the operational requirements to secure victory.

This creates continued instability in occupied countries; this instability justifies continued occupation. The nation is forced to continue sending troops over time because the occupied country remains fractured, but it will never be enough to actually right the failed regime. And so the occupation continues unabated.

We have a word for forcible military occupations that endure for their own sake: ‘colony.’ Colonies don’t require drafts; they require public complacency and an enduring justification. But unlike colonial adventures of the past, modern colonization exists to inflate political prospects for risk-averse elites (and their corporate benefactors).

To be fair to Thomas Gates and his co-authors, they did hit the nail on the head regarding the need for a draft during a “major conflict.” They just didn’t realize that politicians would later ignore their recommendation to milk political apathy for their own benefit.

A Moral Argument for the Draft: Responsibility and Consequence

The all-volunteer force enables public complacency directly. Meanwhile, indirectly, it establishes enduring justification for war by making it difficult to ever attain the number of soldiers that (might) push occupation into victory. These are pragmatic reasons — based on how the government and society can best function — but there are even stronger moral reasons for dismissing the AVF.

It is a common perception to view the U.S. military as a monolithic organization that exists to serve in place of those who don’t wish to serve, whether merely by choice or by disagreement. But it is no monolith. And it does not only serve in the place of the average citizen — it serves for the average citizen. There is a serious distinction between ‘in place of’ and ‘for.’ Serving ‘in place of’ is no different than a stand-in — a job for which almost anyone is qualified and the results are unimportant; serving ‘for’ is an official proxy — someone who represents us in an official capacity, and that we are ultimately responsible for.

By extension, all Americans are all responsible for the United States military whether they belong to it, have very little knowledge about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or vehemently opposed the wars for the last twenty years. But the way Americans act, in light of our continued military adventurism, seems to imply that Americans do not believe they are responsible for their military.

This could not be further from the truth. Others may serve in your place, but no one within the community can be absolved of the moral and practical consequences that are entailed by that service. This is no misrepresentation of responsibility. If the word is to have any meaning at all, then we must recognize it as such: when great moral wrong is occurring, whether to your own community or to others, you are obligated (to attempt) to correct it if it is within your means to do so.

It is certainly within the means of the American citizen to lobby to end the “Global War on Terror” — or to turn it around into something that is just (if that is even possible). It is only because of political apathy that this has not occurred at any point in the last twenty years.

This lack of motivation is nowhere more apparent than when examining the incredibly unpopularity of the wars. Even in 2013, CNN reported that the war in Afghanistan dipped below 20% approval, which probably makes it the most unpopular war in U.S. History. Where is the anti-war movement? It is dead — our own apathy killed it.

Any world where apathy becomes an excuse for unmet responsibilities is a world where responsibility exists only as a byword. But the sad part of all of this is that no one disagrees with this argument: we recognize that apathy is no excuse. Human beings (in general) lack the ability to turn recognition of abstract obligations into concrete action… unless those obligations entail serious personal consequences. We have a hard time taking responsibility when it doesn’t affect us personally — or as Thucydides once argued

When will there be justice in Athens? There will be justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as outraged as those who are.

Most Americans have been more than happy to allow others to bear the injuries of perpetual war as long as those injuries are far from their concerns: less than 0.5% of the American population have fought in the Global War on Terrorism, and practically none of them outside of that 0.5% will have to come face-to-face with the destruction visited upon the communities in Iraq and Afghanistan. But whether Americans want to admit it or not: they bear a large portion of the responsibility for what happened in these countries.

Any institution, which allows people to forget that war is the most serious human endeavor ever, should be scraped. The United States needs obligatory wartime service for any engagement over a certain extended period of time — to do any less is to allow corporate interests and bloviating politicians to run our country without consequence. As sad as it is, many people in this country need to be reminded of the costs of war if they’re ever going to resist it effectively.


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