Military Draft

The growing sense of isolation in the military

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In a recent interview, retired General Stanley McChrystal stated that he believes America should re-institute a military draft, ensuring that all citizens share the burden of war.

I agree with McChrystal and so did Thomas Jefferson: “Every citizen should be a soldier. This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state.”

In today’s America the idea of a draft is politically untenable.  Many citizens feel the system is supposed to give something to them, but they are not required to give anything to it.  People who think this way call it “freedom.”  One could riff off Tacitus and say, “They made a democracy and called it freedom.”

The sense of community in America is dying, and I can attest that the sense of belonging in the military is a troubling phenomena.  The military is very separated from everyday America, and this is not a good thing.  It is a difficult experience to explain to someone who has never served in the military, but many many people feel very cut off from regular American life.  I can testify to this feeling.  When I first came in the Army and moved to Germany, I cannot imagine a more alienating experience.

The primary difference between today’s wars and the major wars of the past is that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are fought by a much smaller percentage of Americans.  In fact, less than 1% of Americans serve in the military, whereas in WWII, 9% served. When you consider that women did not serve in WWII except as civilians, you can see that a very high number of men were in the military.

A difficult fact to ignore is that America has failed to defeat decisively any foe since the draft was abandoned in 1973.  Some can argue that Desert Storm was a decisive victory, but we had to go back and clean up the mess we left.  Americans no longer have a visceral feel for what it takes to win wars.  This fact drove me crazy in Afghanistan, where I saw a plethora of well-intentioned projects accomplish little.  As my friend, Dr. Scott Catino once said: “We’re throwing million of dollars at the insurgency and hoping it will go away.” Solar panels on the roofs of villagers which were stolen by insurgents and used to power bombs.  Million-dollar “justice complexes” abandoned. Yet the suspicious stares from the Pashtuns continues.  Does anyone believe a member of the military came up with the idea of solar panels as part of the war effort? I think not.  It was a Non-government agency (NGO) who thought that was a good idea, because their job is to come up with solutions that don’t involve killing people.

The increasing separation of people in the military is causing increasingly recurrent visits from what military people call “The Good Idea Fairy”.  The Good Idea Fairy is a font of well-intentioned ideas which are to be carried out by those of lesser rank.  These ideas usually involve taking a rather simple exercise of some sort and transforming it into a confusing, over complicated mess.

The Good Idea Fairy can flourish in places where the negative aspects of bad decisions are not visited upon the person who made the decision in the first place.  And since we have so few people who have served in the military and the number of elected officials who have served before beginning their political careers is growing smaller every election cycle, it seems trouble was inevitable

So now politicians can make decisions about a military in which they and perhaps their father never served.  Political and social ideologues push ideas and plans for the military having little real knowledge about how it will effect our ability to fight.  Women in the infantry is one idea that I’m sure The Good Idea Fairy would be proud of.  While there are women that serve honorably in the military, the Army and Marines prohibit women from serving in the infantry for what every military in the last 10,000 years has thought obvious reasons.  Not the least of which is a wanting physical prowess when it comes to fighting a war.  Watch the movie Restrepo and imagine a woman being in that environment for 15 months.

But winning wars isn’t what’s important to some about the military.  What’s important is the opportunity to push an agenda, to change society by infiltrating its most hallowed halls.  Thus, in 2013 we have women being admitted to the Army’s toughest school–Ranger School.   And every female failure at the school will need to be justified to high level rank.

This honest female Marine Corps Captain writes about her opinion concerning women in the infantry.  She says that even though she was an outstanding athlete in college, and is not in the infantry, her deployment to Afghanistan left her with permanent injuries.  She lost 17 pounds and her body stopped producing estrogen.  And she wasn’t doing half the physical work that a Marine infantryman does.

All of this leads to a growing sense within the military that the troops don’t matter.  Every decision is imposed without asking the people in the military what they think, or if they are asked, it doesn’t matter what they say.  This is what happened with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  Surveys were passed around but the SECDEF made it clear before a single chad was punched: This is getting repealed.

Suicide rates in the Army doubled after 2004.  At that point some Army units were doing back-to-back 15 month tours.  And this wasn’t in areas of the world as sophisticated as WWII Europe.  It was culture shock with IEDs.  With so few Americans serving during this operational tempo, you’d think the Army could have done without the multi-million dollar studies that tried to explain the reason for skyrocketing suicide numbers.  But no.  The studies were again ordered by people who have never been there and barely even care to read about it.

It used to be that the very best served.  In WWII men had no choice, they went.  The entire will of a nation was brought to bear against the country’s enemy’s.  Now, our uber-professional Army can’t decisively beat a herd of toothless goat herders who know more about using fertilizer to make a bomb than using it to grow crops.  America simply hasn’t enough troops to make it work.

The Military Draft: The good, the bad, the ugly

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 There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven— 
 A time to give birth and a time to die;  A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. 
 A time to kill and a time to heal;  A time to tear down and a time to build up. 
 A time to weep and a time to laugh;  A time to mourn and a time to dance. 
 A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;  A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing. 
 A time to search and a time to give up as lost;  A time to keep and a time to throw away. 
 A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;  A time to be silent and a time to speak. 
 A time to love and a time to hate;  A time for war and a time for peace. 

~Ecclesiastes 3:7~

Recently, a friend of mine, Royce, asked my opinion on the military draft. Royce wrote an article on his opinions and concerns about the military draft, and said he’d like to know what I thought.

Let me start by saying that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize  the same things that the author of Ecclesiastes realized: That everything is contextual. Most actions have benefits and hindrances. The wise person finds the action that best fits the circumstances. Ideology is the enemy of wisdom.

That being said, I believe that the military draft has some very real benefits under some very specific circumstances. The most obvious benefit is that a country can increase the size of its fighting force more easily than with an all volunteer force. Don’t be fooled; numbers matter. If we had more troops in Afghanistan and Iraq from the beginning, we likely would have cut the time we’ve spent in this war by half. Counterinsurgency works best with lots of soldiers. Not tanks, planes or satellites. Men with rifles at every street corner. Eyes looking in every direction. Our current force structure is severely strained in COIN operations, because we don’t have enough men. We must rely on extraordinary mobility. But even then, the enemy can fairly easily just decide to be where we are not. With more men, we would be almost everywhere, and the insurgency would fizzle before it ever got rolling.

Another benefit of the draft is that it can break down social walls. For instance, blacks and whites were both drafted in WWII, and this resulted in blacks gaining considerable respect amongst the white soldiers. The military knows that shared hardship brings men closer together and helps cohesion. This is why Basic Training is made so uncomfortable; to teach people how to rely on each other. I’ve often made the point while deployed to Afghanistan and working in military intelligence, that we must find mechanisms to break the tribal barriers in order to make Afghanistan a truly unified nation. Of course, many of my colleagues are afraid of breaking anything, so they say we must work within the tribal barriers. Tribalism is an anathema to a healthy democracy. We should instead inspire nationalism. Remember what I said about everything having a time and place. Yes, even nationalism.

When I travelled to refugee camps in Afghanistan, I saw thousands of people from various tribes who got a long just fine. Something that could not be said for the non-refugee tribes throughout the country. The southern tribes generally hate the northern tribes, and locally situated tribes constantly compete for resources. The Taliban uses tribal conflict as a  recruiting tool. But the people in the refugee camps we forced to work together. They moved to Pakistan when the Soviets invaded and experienced decades of hardship. The tribal lines are now essentially shattered. The societies within these camps function better than those outside the camps.

Myself and another analyst surmised that a good way to unify Afghanistan and to empower the critically weak central government would be to institute a draft. This would accomplish several things that may help the situation in Afghanistan:

  1. It would employ fighting aged men, those most likely to join the insurgency. It would also give these men a sense of nationalism, as being part of the system instead of seeing the system as the enemy.
  2. It would greatly increase the number of security forces to fight against the Taliban, which would in turn hasten the ability of the coalition forces to leave.
  3. It would have psychologically legitimize the government in the minds of the people. Two critical areas in the legitimacy of a government is its monopoly on violence and its ability to collect taxes. A draft may solidify a monopoly on violence.
  4. Lastly, people from all over Afghanistan would be forced to work together. And the hardship of warfare against the Taliban would bind them together. The Taliban may be forever alienated, as few men who’d fought a war against the Taliban would ever decide to join them, and they would probably teach their children to hate them, too.

I’m not saying that a draft is possible in Afghanistan, but I think the idea should be fully explored.

Historically speaking, there are many instances in which a draft produced a very effective army. America itself has used the draft as far back as the colonial, militia days. There was always some push-back, but generally the men served when asked to, and the world is a better place for it. And initially there were problems with minorities serving with whites, but eventually the US Army became the first organization to employ full integration under Truman. I’d dare say that today’s US Military has the least racial tension of any population block of similar size in America.

It’s difficult to imagine the United States fighting against an enemy such as Nazi Germany today without having to employ a draft. Approximately 18 million men fought at one time or another in the Wehrmacht (German Army in WWII) between the years of 1939 and 1945. Even given the immense proficiency and near miraculous technology available to today’s American war fighter, we have only approximately 3 million people serving across all branches, and that includes reservists. The German’s used a draft, and it was instrumental in building the virulent form of nationalistic pride we know as National Socialism. Never the less, it was that sense of nationalism that helped the German army to be the best man for man army of the war. Napoleon also employed a similar strategy with his Grand Armee’. Marching across Europe, he conscripted men from many European countries and proceeded to trounce just about everyone.

There are of course, several negative aspects of conscription. First, morale tends to be lower in conscripted armies than in volunteer armies. The word volunteer implies that people want to be there, whereas conscripted soldiers may severely damage the morale of those in their unit some of these men may not be the sort a commander would want in his charge. If we look at some of the instances of “fragging” in Vietnam, we can see the differences in that army compared to the one now. Such things are nearly unimaginable in the Army I serve in, yet in some cases in Vietnam, officers would not even venture into the barracks areas of enlisted men, for fear of being assaulted. Men who didn’t want to be in the army had little fear of being kicked out or put in jail, which they considered better than being in combat.

While the Germans did employ conscription in WWII, it must be noted that they had a very deeply ingrained military elite before the war. A German soldier was paid about six times as much as a French soldier and was drilled to utter perfection, a model of soldierly discipline. The army was very professional. Combining a professional backbone with nationalistic fervor had a synergistic effect that simply did not exist in America during the period of the Vietnam War. And it doesn’t exist now in America, either. The draft has become almost synonymous with Vietnam and fascism. In reality, it is merely a tool.

The draft can also introduce different types of people into the military. An all volunteer force may become too rigid in its thinking and may also become alienated from the civilian population. I do see some of this in America, but I don’t think it’s a huge problem; there’s always been a sense of alienation from the civilians, even in draft wars like Vietnam.

In a professional army, you get the best man for man army money can buy. But it takes a lot of money to buy it. The military is forced to become competitive with the civilian world in terms of pay and benefits.

Here in Germany, where I’m stationed, the German government makes people either serve two years in the military or do two years of service in another field, like helping disabled people. While I do see that this can help people in general, I don’t think it makes for a very good military. It leads to a “just passing through” mentality. I think that type of thinking could infect even those who want to make careers in the German Army. Some countries, such as Israel, do it  because they need every body they can get. Countries like Israel also have mandatory service, but there are rumors that even the Israeli army is going soft. I think bringing everyone into the army inevitably leads to a slide to softness.

The Romans had an interesting take, and became a much better army when they professionalized. Originally, the Roman army was comprised of citizens who laid down their farming tools  to pick up weapons when their country needed them. It did work well, because every Roman had a distinct sense of civic duty, soemthing lacking in most western nations, with the decline of state legitimacy almost universally seen through Europe and America. But eventually, the army became a proffession for Rome. There were massive reforms under Marius, which allowed people from the lower classes to enter the military, and the contract lasted something like 25 years. People served in the military at much older ages in Rome; some of the gereals were in their 70s and Julius was on campaign in his 50s, at a time that required much more physical hardiness in war than it does now. A little bit off the draft subject: I think we should up the age limit drastically in the military. Older people are the most knowledgable and mature people we have, and yet we cut out a huge swath of our best from eligibility. We’re hurting our military.

For now, I think no draft in America is the best thing. It does put a strain on the military to some extent, but the last thing the military needs is anymore softness, which is what bringing in every civilian at this point would do. In addition, people would just go nuts, throwing around terms like fascism and militarism and slavery and all that hyperbole that’s so popular (and damaging) on the internet. The zeitgeist is not right. For now, a warrior class is the best way. Most real warriors I know like it that way.