Sunday, August 15, 2010

Andrew Bacevich on perpetual war

I hope to transcribe my notes today, but I found these while doing a search for a video of his talk.

Andrew Bacevich, The Lessons of Endless War

Is a Draft the Answer?

There is also a third perspective, which blames the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan on a problematic relationship between soldiers and society. According to this view, the All-Volunteer Force itself is the problem. As the military historian Adrian Lewis observed, "The most significant transformation in the American conduct of war since World War II and the invention of the atomic bomb was not technological, but cultural, social, and political -- the removal of the American people from the conduct of war." Only after 9/11, with the Bush administration waging war on multiple fronts, have the implications of this transformation become fully evident.

A reliance on volunteer-professionals places a de facto cap on the army's overall size. The pool of willing recruits is necessarily limited. Given a choice, most young Americans will opt for opportunities other than military service, with protracted war diminishing rather than enhancing any collective propensity to volunteer. It is virtually inconceivable that any presidential call to the colors, however impassioned, any PR campaign, however cleverly designed, or any package of pay and bonuses, however generous, could reverse this disinclination.

Furthermore, to the extent that an army composed of regulars is no longer a people's army, the people have little say in its use. In effect, the professional military has become an extension of the imperial presidency. The troops fight when and where the commander in chief determines.

Finally, a reliance on professional soldiers eviscerates the concept of civic duty, relieving citizens at large of any obligation to contribute to the nation's defense. Ending the draft during the waning days of the Vietnam War did nothing to heal the divisions created by that conflict; instead, it ratified the separation of army from society. Like mowing lawns and bussing tables, fighting and perhaps dying to sustain the American way of life became something that Americans pay others to do.

So the third lesson of the Iraq War focuses on the need to repair the relationship between army and society. One way to do this is to junk the All-Volunteer Force altogether. Rather than rely on professionals, perhaps it makes sense to revive the tradition of the citizen-soldier.

Proposals to restore this hallowed tradition invariably conjure up images of reinstituting some form of conscription. In place of a system based on the principle of individual choice, those unhappy with the AVF advocate a system based on the principle of state compulsion.

The advantages offered by such a system are hardly trivial. To the extent that Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the operational, political, and moral problems produced by relying on a small professional force, a draft seems to offer one obvious way to alleviate those problems.

For those who worry that the existing army is overextended, conscription provides a mechanism for expansion. Triple the size of the army -- in essence restoring the structure that existed during much of the Cold War -- and the personnel shortages that constrain the prosecution of ground campaigns will disappear. Sustaining the military commitment to Iraq for ten or twenty years, or even a century as Senator John McCain and many neoconservatives are willing to contemplate, then becomes a viable proposition.

War planners will no longer find themselves obliged to give short shrift to Contingency A (Afghanistan) in order to support Contingency B (Iraq). The concept of "surge" will take on a whole new meaning with the Pentagon able to dispatch not a measly 30,000 reinforcements to Iraq or another few thousand to Afghanistan, but 100,000 or more additional troops wherever they might be needed. Was the problem with Operation Iraqi Freedom too few "boots on the ground" for occupation and reconstruction? Reconstitute the draft, and that problem goes away.

Creating a mass army might even permit the United States to resuscitate the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine with its emphasis on "overwhelming force."

For those distressed by the absence of a politically meaningful antiwar movement despite the Iraq War's manifest unpopularity, the appeal of conscription differs somewhat. Some political activists look to an Iraq-era draft to do what the Vietnam-era draft did: animate large-scale protest, alter the political dynamic, and eventually shut down any conflict that lacks widespread popular support. The prospect of involuntary service will pry the kids out of the shopping malls and send them into the streets. It will prod the parents of draft-eligible offspring to see politics as something other than a mechanism for doling out entitlements. As a consequence, members of Congress keen to retain their seats will define their wartime responsibilities as something more than simply rubber-stamping spending bills proposed by the White House. In this way, a draft could reinvigorate American democracy, restore the governmental system of checks and balances, and constrain the warmongers inhabiting the executive branch.

For those moved by moral considerations, a draft promises to ensure a more equitable distribution of sacrifice in war time. No longer will rural Americans, people of color, recent immigrants, and members of the working class fill the ranks of the armed forces in disproportionate numbers. With conscription, the children of the political elite and of the well-to-do will once again bear their fair share of the load. Those reaping the benefits of the American way of life will contribute to its defense, helping to garrison the more distant precincts of empire. Perhaps even the editorial staffs of the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the New Republic might have the opportunity to serve, a salutary prospect given the propensity of those magazines to argue on behalf of military intervention.

Reconfigure the armed services to fight "small wars"; empower the generals; reconnect soldiering to citizenship -- on the surface each of these has a certain appeal. But upon closer examination, each also has large defects. They are the wrong lessons to take from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Andrew Bacevich And The Perpetual War Machine
Antiwar: Scott Horton Interviews Andrew Bacevich (mp3)

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