Tom Ricks is a keen observer of the military, but his op-ed proposing to scrap the all-volunteer military, no matter how clever his reasoning, is dead wrong.
“Our relatively small and highly adept military has made it all too easy for our nation to go to war — and to ignore the consequences,” Ricks argues.
If we had a draft, Ricks says, public opinion might have prevented us from going to war in Iraq, and if we returned to conscription, “the people” would again be reconnected with the armed services.
Captive inside the Beltway and surrounded by military friends and colleagues and national security wonks, I can imagine that the world looks this way to my old friend Ricks; but he is wrong about the military, wrong about Iraq, wrong about the people, and wrong about the solution.
The military – our military – doesn’t need a draft, and the notion that hundreds of thousands of young men and women being drafted would help or that they would be drafted so that we can create a coherent national security policy, repair our broken political systems and end a new class structure in our society, is ludicrous.
First, technology has forever changed the face of war. Boots, and boots on the ground, might be a central component for demonstrating some kind of tangible political commitment behind all of our impetuous military interventions, but increasing the quantity of people available in uniform has little to do with the central military task: Which is defending the United States and vanquishing our enemies. Quantity isn’t needed to fight terrorism, and quantity wouldn’t even be needed to ‘defeat’ a China, at least not vast quantities of infantrymen. (And if it ever came to the point where a Nazi Germany or peer competitor military power arose to threaten us, mobilizing the nation to support the fight would be a piece of cake).
No, the truth of the matter is that warfare is indeed easier to wage today because of the shift from the industrial to the information age, and even in wars like Afghanistan and Iraq where we make fruitless and desperate attempts to create heroism and a sense of chivalry through manpower-intensive force deployments, most of that manpower is superfluous to the actual fighting, and the number who are truly at risk in combat, even within military ranks, is incredibly small.
After a decade of constant war, our military still hasn’t adjusted to the new realities, though pockets of elite organizations – special operations and tactical ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] have. Even in the case of ground forces, brigade-sized combat organizations (augmented by airpower) are so more lethal, flexible, and powerful than divisions of old. We just don’t need as many people to generate combat power.
Need of course has to be defined by our national security policies and purpose, and here is where we have the greatest crisis. A national security class – mostly civilian and corporate, mostly in and around Washington – has taken over American foreign policy making and they decide national interest on the basis of self-interest and global experimentation and damaged political psyches. It is romantic to imagine that a flood of “people” into this closed world could reform the system, but that’s all it is. Certainly the draft-dodging Dick Cheney’s and Bill Clinton’s will continue to rise to the top, so the burden will fall to the people while the power will remain as is.
Even in the case of the 2003 Iraq war, I’m unconvinced that the absence of an all-volunteer force would have changed things. The intelligence community failed, the presidency stumbled, Congress abstained; the news media, the international community, Baghdad, the U.N., all played a tired and predictable role, but the “people” could have and would probably have been just as easily manipulated with images of mushroom clouds had there been a draft.
Fighting seemingly cost-free wars began with Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990’s, even with the first Gulf War. Iraq in 2003 wasn’t that much of an anomaly, no matter how costly it ended up for those in uniform. They should be the ones who are angriest, the ones fighting the most for political change, not for a draft. Again, I think in order to create heroism in our society, in order to honor military service, there is a tendency to objectify a lazy and indifferent civilian class – those who went shopping, in Ricks’ characterization – but this is the equivalent of blaming all of the failed mortgage holders and investors rather than the bankers and money-elite for the 2008 financial meltdown. Frankly, our society needs more “soft” and less “hard” when it comes to national security.
The solution to our perpetual war-making and our foolish military-first foreign policy and our muscle-bound-tone-deaf war against terrorism isn’t conscription. Citizen participation is needed, that’s for sure, but avenues for citizen participation in veteran care, homeland security, cyber defense, first response, and emergency management have been hijacked and militarized since 9/11 in such a way that more involvement just means more national security making, which ultimately leads us down the same dead end.