Tom Ricks On Bringing Back The Draft: Wrong Solution For The Wrong Problem

Tom Ricks’ short post argues we should bring back the draft. He’s wrong. Ricks’ major premise? Shy Meyer’s AVF failed as political trip-wire. The minor premise? Hence Iraq. Ergo, professional militaries make war more likely. So bring back the draft.

Draft, All Volunteer Force, Vietnam, Iraq

First, Ricks misinterprets the AVF’s structural function. The AVF actually worked as designed. Second, claiming a draft would’ve prevented Iraq is historically untrue. Drafts don’t necessarily increase political caution for war. Even in democracies. Compulsory national conscription – from the later stage French levee en masse on down allowed nations to jettison limited wars for mass conflict.

Some type of national service might be desirable. But for other reasons. Such as improving civil-military relationships and national cohesion. We’ve noted that for years here. Just not a draft.

You Asked For It, You Got It

Iraq happened because the American people wanted it. Full stop.

True, Cheney and company lied. (A future draft wouldn’t stop political mendacity). Remember Freedom Fries? Surrender monkeys? The Bloom Mobile? Firing Phil Donohue from MSNBC? The pornographic generals’ parade across cable? Those psychoses arose from fear – manipulated or not. Mass conscription can fan such contagions as much as contain them. It’s wrong to superimpose today’s mindset retroactively.

Take events in sequence. The 2001 Afghan campaign appeared painless. Special Forces on horseback calling in JDAMs. Plug ‘n play war. How many journalists like Ricks wrote about that, then?

Shinseki’s office and others offered quiet resistance beyond his famous testimony. But overall, the conventional military wanted in on GWOT. The Navy even fretted that the Army and Air Force would get all the glory (and funding). Flag rank officers complained to us at the time, seeking a piece of the ‘Away Game’ pie.

Rangel called for a draft during the run-up. Even then it was a cop out. Process alone wont compensate for lack of political will. It was unpopular to speak out against the war. A draft would’ve saved us from ourselves (and Cheney et al.) 2002-2003? Really?

Iraq’s real lesson is ‘win’ a war in 3-4 years. Marshall in 1945 doubted American willingness to field a *winning* conscript military beyond 5 years. Drafts serve to curtail a war’s duration, not its inception.

A Draft Enabled The Vietnam Quagmire –
And Wouldn’t Necessarily Stop A Repeat

Fresh off the Korean war America sent a conscript Army into Vietnam. Chosin Resevoir could’ve been a clarion call to stop Johnson in 1965 or the 1966 mid-terms. It wasn’t.

Opposition to Vietnam coalesced 3-4 years *afterwards*. After Tet. After student deferments tightened. Kent State happened in 1970.

Did the Vietnam era draft fail to stop war because it was too inequitable, riddled before 1965 with both explicit and unwritten Selective Service policies? Would a modern, more equitable post-Iraq conscription succeed?

Unlikely. Evading the draft was the by-product of war, not the preceding symptom. The draft didn’t stop escalation. Only a truly martial, mobilized and egalitarian society could avoid eventual systemic manipulation during wartime, let alone peacetime’s dull year after year.

We say America 2012 is moving the other way. ‘Job creators’ evoke Randian fawning. Who thinks America today has the interest or discipline to implement and maintain an equitable draft? People call for blood testing public assistance recipients. A new draft would be likely more unequal. The worst of all outcomes.

Shy Meyers’ AVF Didn’t Fail In Any Event, America Failed It

Did a professional military cause Iraq? No. Think about how Army Chief of Staff Shy Meyers, father of the post-Vietnam AVF, conceived its purpose.

During and after Vietnam, anti-war proponents claimed a standing, large conscript military encouraged wars of aggression. Imperial presidents, it was said, are tempted to abuse a standing conscript army. Meyers sought to curtail imperial war by shifting some core functionality to the Reserves. The Reserves would be affected by war immediately. To force the national debate Johnson escaped in 1965-66.

Meyers’ AVF worked in 1991 and even 2002. Reserves were called up although Rummy/OSD tried to soften their trigger by rolling activation. Soccer Dads and Moms went into uniform full time. Meyers’ social dislocation happened but was lionized, not dreaded. A majority of Americans wanted war and voted for more in 2004.

AVF stop loss, multiple rotations, etc. all manifested post invasion. Inadequate deployed force all but ensured stabilization would fail spectacularly. Rummy/OSD’s transformation ideology, not AVF limitations, guaranteed that initial insufficient force in country.

PMCs and other contractors later helped gloss over the war’s ongoing human costs. And here, finally, Ricks has a point. Politicians exploited a socially marginalized professional military to obscure that later toll. But this underscores like 1968-1970 a draft’s benefits in limiting conflict duration, not inception. A fatigue tax on unsuccessful ventures.

Americans also agreed to fudge the war’s overall costs. Johnson kept Vietnam on the books while seeking guns and butter. Multi-year continental wars off budget? Financed by foreign capital? MACV could’t fathom it. SOG, even Nixon’s bombing Cambodia, seem quaint by comparison. Outsourcing wars is a larger political failure and corruption. A conscript military won’t cure that.

Process alone is necessary but insufficient. Just as hoping Graham-Rudman would impose budget discipline in the absence of political will. Congress chose to do nothing re Libya. It chose to abdicate its constitutional rights. Averting ill-conceived wars requires hard work. Sustained, active cultural memory married to political action. Otherwise, it’s Korea and 1965-66 all over again. Professional or conscript military alike. Societies with conscript militaries do stupid things, too.

Push The Button

A general draft is also the wrong choice militarily. Mass, multi-echeloned maneuver/combat armies are antiquated. More mass, more targets. Combat power derives from specialization which requires multi-year career commitment. Solutions such as a mixed force (i.e., militias supporting standing forces, etc.) are militarily more hindrance than help – and in the end likely would resemble the current Reserve structure anyway, but less capable. Imposing a draft now only penalizes the military. To everyone’s detriment.

We have real, troubling problems with civil-military relations. They existed before Iraq/Afghanistan but are worse now. Increasing cultural understanding between the civilian and military worlds is vital. ‘How’ is the hard part.

Alternative forms of national service can obtain some of a draft’s positive social engineering. Increased contact among differing regional, social, economic and ideological strata for a common goal is an example. The old analog monoculture’s collapse magnifies a draft’s absence in this aspect. That’s just process, too, and by itself not outcome determinative. But it’s a start.

Perhaps Ricks will blog about it.


  1. says

    Thanks, purely accidental. We had those proverbial thousands of monkeys and typewriters working overtime. Along the way, they cranked out a lot of Tom Friedman columns.

    Here’s some great dialogue from today’s WaPo that we wished we had written ourselves:

    The American battalion commander at Combat Outpost Sayad Abad asked his Afghan counterpart why he was short of soldiers for an upcoming operation. Khan, his interpreter, relayed the question to the Afghan officer in Dari.

    The Afghan commander, who took a bullet through the chest when he fought on the side of the Soviets in the 1980s, spoke for about two minutes. By the end of his little speech he had worked himself into a minor fury, jabbing his finger in the air to make his point.

    Khan, who is in his late 20s and learned much of his English from hanging around with soldiers, translated: “Sir, he’s very upset. He says his soldiers went home for their leave but they don’t come back. They are sitting at home, drinking their chai, not following orders, —-ing around when they are supposed to be at work. Sir, he says they are chillin’ like willens.”

    “He said they are chillin’ like what?” asked Lt. Col. Robert Horney , a 41-year-old career Army officer from Lebanon, Pa.

    “You know, sir. They are chillin’ like willens,” said Khan, struggling to get his lips around the unfamiliar “v” sound.

    “Villains?” said Horney. “He really said that they were chillin’ villains? Those were the exact words he used?”

    “No, sir,” Khan replied. “Not exact words. But I don’t just translate. I like to put it into words that you understand.”

    “Okay,” Horney said. “Thank you, Khan. That helps.”

  2. says

    Captain: WHAT happened on patrol, Sarge??!

    Sarge: El Tee, El Tee . . . they fragged him, sir. They . . . and he was gone.

    Captain: You’re saying Matthews was wasted by his own patrol ???

    Sarge: Sir, yes sir!

    Captain: . . . . well . . . finally. What took ’em so long?

  3. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Have tinkered with this item for concision. Pardon the minor edits. Substance unchanged.

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