Andrew J. Bacevich has an intriguing op ed in today’s Boston Globe that presents another side to the question, “to draft, or not to draft.” His argument is that an all-volunteer army has created a U.S. Army that is completely estranged from U.S. society. I’m not necessarily endorsing a draft, but I am presenting Bacevich’s view for your consideration.
Historically, Americans had viewed a “standing army” with suspicion. After Vietnam they embraced the idea. By 1991 they were celebrating it. After Operation Desert Storm — with its illusion of a cheap, easy victory — soldiers like General Colin Powell persuaded themselves that “the people fell in love with us again.”
If love, it was a peculiar version, neither possessive nor signifying a desire to be one with the beloved. For the vast majority of Americans, Desert Storm affirmed the wisdom of contracting out national security. Cheering the troops on did not imply any interest in joining their ranks. Especially among the affluent and well-educated, the notion took hold that national defense was something “they” did, just as “they” bus ed tables, collected trash, and mowed lawns. The stalemated war in Iraq has revealed two problems with this arrangement.
The first is that “we” have forfeited any say in where “they” get sent to fight. When it came to invading Iraq, President Bush paid little attention to what voters of the First District of Massachusetts or the 50th District of California thought. The people had long since forfeited any ownership of the army. Even today, although a clear majority of Americans want the Iraq war shut down, their opposition counts for next to nothing: the will of the commander-in-chief prevails.
The second problem stems from the first. If “they” — the soldiers we contract to defend us — get in trouble, “we” feel little or no obligation to bail them out. All Americans support the troops, yet support does not imply sacrifice. Yellow-ribbon decals displayed on the back of gas-guzzlers will suffice, thank you.
Bacevich is a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran with 23 years of service in the U.S. Army. Today he is a professor of international relations at Boston University.
It so happens I have an advance review copy of Chalmers Johnson’s upcoming book, Nemesis. I’ve read enough of it to know that lots of you folks will probably want to read it. Anyway, Chalmers Johnson quotes Bacevich,
Americans in our own time have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history, Americans have come to define the nation’s strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals. [Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 2]
Now, lots of us have noticed that while righties romanticize the military, and they fancy themselves great supporters of the military, they aren’t real big on joining the military. This seems to me to support Bachevich’s thesis. To see an example of the weird way the Right objectifies the troops, see this recent post by Dean Barnett. Barnett has a snit because Pelosi referred to the late Marine Corporal Jason Dunham, who died in Iraq at the age of 22, as a “young man.” Barnett writes,
I know the Democrats have developed as one of their pet Lakoffian tics the habit of describing our warriors as defenseless children. Thus, when Pelosi refers to Dunham as a â€œyoung manâ€ and the men he saved as â€œother young people,â€ sheâ€™s merely falling into a bad habit.
But itâ€™s a real bad habit; a truly offensive one. This is a matter of more than just mere semantics. Jason Dunham was a Marine. So, too, were the men he saved. They see themselves as warriors, and thatâ€™s what they are. The term â€œyoung peopleâ€ is meant to demean them, and in Dunhamâ€™s case denies him the dignity that he has so completely earned.
A 22-year-old man is a young man. This is not demeaning. I don’t see anything demeaning about referring to people as, well, people, young or otherwise. And soldiers are people. But not to Barnett, it seems.
Additionally, the failure to use the word â€œsoldierâ€, “Marine” or any other term that acknowledges a connection between Dunham and the military is borderline grotesque. In Pelosiâ€™s formulation, it almost sounds as if some random â€œyoung peopleâ€ were frolicking in Iraq and stumbled upon a live grenade.
One other thing: If Dianne Sawyer really wants to see human beings that are like â€œgalvanized steel,â€ she might consider turning her journalistic gaze to Iraq and the Marines still there like Jason Dunham.
It is not an insult to Marines to acknowledge that they are human beings. But to Barnett, Marines are not people. They are not made of tender flesh and blood, but galvanized steel. They aren’t human, but objects.
Let’s go back to Bacevich’s Boston Globe column:
Stipulate for the sake of argument that President Bush is correct in saying that failure in Iraq is not an option. Then why limit the “surge” to a measly 21,500 additional troops? Why not 50,000? With the population of the United States having now surpassed 300 million, why not send 100,000 reinforcements to Iraq?
The question answers itself: There are not an additional 100,000 Americans willing to commit their lives to the cause. Even offering up 21,500 finds the Pentagon scraping the bottom of the barrel, extending the tours of soldiers already in the combat zone while accelerating the deployment of those heading back for a second or third tour of duty.
After the Cold War, Americans came to see war as something other than a human enterprise; the secret of military superiority ostensibly lay in the microchip. The truth is that the sinews of military power lie among the people, who legitimate war and sustain it.
For the United States to remain a great military power will require a genuine reconciliation of the military and American society. But this implies the people exercising a greater say in deciding when and where American soldiers fight. And it also implies reviving the tradition of the citizen-soldier so that all share in the burden of national defense.
Now, I’m sure it’s the case — it’s what everybody says, anyway — that from a purely military perspective a professional force is superior to an army of draftees. But what about what Bacevich writes, about the relationship between society and the military?
Add to this what I wrote in an earlier post, that America will have to choose between being an empire and being a republic; we cannot be both. I am more and more persuaded this is so, and that we have already reached the fork in the road (if not passed it).