One rather popular theory among foreign relations pundits about American attitudes towards war is that we’re ready and willing to fight because more than 99% of us don’t have any skin in the game. Since the draft ended and the military became an all volunteer force, they continue, the burdens of conducting warfare switched to a small group of people who are increasingly growing detached from the rest of the country and are being used by chicken hawks as a threat to other nations. What’s the solution to the problem? To abandon the AVF and to reinstate the draft so more Americans share the burdens of war and have a real appreciation for what the military goes through every time their leaders vote in favor of combat. Surely, if millions of Americans went to fight in Iraq and went through the extremes of deployment and the angst of having a family member risking his or her life in a war zone, they would take a lot more time to think about military interventions and focus a lot more on the problems at home than on being the world’s policeman. Hey, all those draftees could go to work as well, updating infrastructure, doing research and participating in various swords to ploughshares projects, constantly reinvesting billions into the economic fabric of the U.S. But will anyone really want to try this idea?
First off, it’s important to point out that no one is saying that the AVF is doing a bad job because despite all the flaws you can find in any large bureaucracy, it proved itself to be highly resilient and extremely potent. The kind of long, drawn out, low intensity, precision, high-stakes wars with shadowy components it fights could only be fought by a small handful of other militaries though probably not as effectively. When political expediency said it should take a back seat in Libya, it couldn’t because it was the only military capable of supporting bombers, drones, and precision weapons needed for the mission. Decades of investment went into creating it and the long years of the Cold War enabled it to defend a long stretch of Europe and Asia, which is part of the reason why the U.S. spends more than all the countries in Europe and Southeast Asia combined. But all that buildup with few enemies to fight has turned it into a bludgeon to be used by lawmakers and activists with a very itchy trigger finger who know that the public at large won’t mind a war in which the only necessary support is vocal, usually made in the form of a magnet on the back of their car. Sure, the public wasn’t happy with the Iraq War, and it has deeply soured on Afghanistan because both became tedious and expensive quagmires. But, says a chorus of pundits, the war in Afghanistan could have ended much, much sooner, and the Iraq War may have never started if millions of Americans had some skin in the game and would have to go and fight.
While I can see their point, this seems like a case of Monday morning quarterbacking. We know today that the vague allusions to WMDs made by Saddam Hussein were a bluff, and while we knew fairly well that evidence for their existence was extremely shaky and came from questionable sources, the fury over the events of 9/11 was still very much in the air. Thousands were signing up for the AVF to fight as a result, and it’s likely that the people who would’ve supposedly stopped the war from starting would’ve reported to the local MEPS ready for basic training or officer school. A more pervasive argument might have been that much more attention would have been paid to the war effort and mismanagement would be met with far louder and swifter howls from all the families whose sons and daughters were drafted, a climate which would’ve pressured the administration to actually listen to sound advice and discredited Dick Cheney’s seething because so many would be quick to point out his deferments and his eagerness to advocate sending drafted soldiers into battle after dodging his call to do his duty. So perhaps the war wouldn’t have been stopped but it would’ve been ran better, with quick changes in strategy and heeding expert advice. Would the draft have been extremely unpopular? Yes. But this is the point. Wars aren’t supposed to be like a game you’d watch on TV. They’re serious business and they’re to be treated as such, and it’s unfair when those who refuse to fight wars, promote them.
So would reinstating the draft stop wars? Very unlikely. Will it be tough to institute? Absolutely. But at the same time, the diagnosis that the military is drifting away from the civilians and the AVF has been shouldering much of the burden for wars of whim and unfairly so, seems to make a lot of sense and has been echoed by Robert Gates when he was the Secretary of Defense during his speeches urging college students and graduates to consider military service. It’s understood that those who volunteer to do so make a choice and can endure the stress placed on them. But at the same time, it’s one thing to volunteer to defend one’s country and protect its allies and interests abroad, and end up fighting for a decade because the government feels free to send you to war and the public more or less tunes out the fact that you and your fellow soldiers are fighting wars started because they could be, with vague plans that don’t define when your mission is over, and largely ignored by a disturbing majority of the public you volunteered to protect. And maybe that public should contribute their time and effort to the defense of its own nation, seeing firsthand what war is, and thinking very carefully about what will happen when another one is declared and whether it’s really a good idea to fight that particular war…