Since April is a time for Spring cleaning, the Washington Post asked a handful of writers what “unnecessary traditions, ideas and institutions” we should toss out with other clutter in our lives. Thomas E. Ricks, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, thinks we should discard the all-volunteer military.
This is precisely the reason it is time to get rid of the all-volunteer force. It has been too successful. 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.
[. . .]
Resuming conscription is the best way to reconnect the people with the armed services. Yes, reestablishing a draft, with all its Vietnam-era connotations, would cause problems for the military, but those could never be as painful and expensive as fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq for almost nine years. A draft would be good for our nation and ultimately for our military.
Ricks is a smart guy—certainly smart enough to know his argument is hopelessly flawed. As a student of military history, he is surely aware that there is scant evidence that conscription makes it harder to go to war. In fact, it doesn’t even appear that the draft makes going to war an unpopular choice.
Consider, for instance, the Vietnam War. A Gallup poll taken a year after the ground war began found that 59% believed that sending troops to Vietnam was not a mistake. Among the age group of 21–29, 71% believed it was not a mistake compared to 48% of those over 50. From August 1965 to July 1967 the percentage of Americans who agreed with the war ranged from 48% to 59%. In comparison, polls taken a year after the ground war in Iraq found that only 56% believed the war was worthwhile.
Ricks also seems to forget that the organization of our all-volunteer forces is already arranged to “reconnect the people with the armed services.” In an interview when he was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Collin Powell said,
One of the things that was done back in the mid-seventies, after Vietnam, was that the structure of the armed forces was changed and back then they may have had more than the military motivation but a political motivation. General Abrams and some of those key commanders and leaders back then, made sure that the reserves were an essential element of the armed forces structure so that the whole nation would get involved.
At the time of the interivew Powell was explaining why the reserves were called up for the Persian Gulf War. Since then we’ve had two additional wars that have required an extensive mobilization of reserve forces. If Ricks argument was sound, this should have been enough to prevent us from going to war in Iraq. But it didn’t. The reality is that throughout the history of the U.S. there has always been a connection between the people and the armed services—and it has never hindered our willingness to go to war.
Even worse than the weakness of the argument is Ricks’ moral cynicism and disregard for American lives. Ricks elides over the concerns about the draft by admitting that it “would cause problems for the military.” The main “problem” he is referring to is the fact that American men and women would be killed in greater numbers.
Because they serve for less than two years, draftees are less well trained than their peers who volunteer for a four to six year commitment. They are also likely to be less motivated, which hinders unit cohesion. The result is that draftees reduce the effectiveness of the military and increase the number of unnecessary casualties.
Shockingly, this is what Ricks is calling for. Strip away the cheap contrarianism and we find that is argument is that it is necessary for American servicemembers to be killed in greater numbers in order to teach our nation a lesson about getting involved in “unnecessary” wars.
While Ricks motivation is disturbing, it is unfortunately not uncommon. From the “Buffet Rule” to military conscription, the political left has become increasingly vocal in arguing that the government should forcibly take from its citizens what they are unwilling to give voluntarily. The “spread the pain” mentality is revealing. Those on the left don’t seem to care as much about liberty—or even equality—as they do in seeing other people share in the suffering they themselves choose to avoid.