January 21, 2007
The Failure Of An All-Volunteer Military
By Andrew J. Bacevich
"WAR IS the great auditor of institutions," the British historian Corelli Barnett has observed. In Iraq, the United States has undergone such an audit and been found wanting. The defects of basic US national security institutions stand exposed. Failure to correct those defects will only invite more Iraqs -- unnecessary wars that once begun prove unwinnable.
The essential guarantor of US national security is the all-volunteer force. In its hey day -- the 1990s -- the all-volunteer force underwrote America's claim to global preeminence. Its invincibility taken for granted, the volunteer force seemed a great bargain to boot. Maintaining the world's most powerful military establishment imposed a negligible burden on the average citizen. No wonder Americans viewed the volunteer military as the most successful federal reform program of the postwar era. What was there not to like?
In fact, questions of efficacy or economy did not figure significantly in the decision to create the all-volunteer force. Back in the early 1970s, the object of the exercise had been quite simple: to terminate an increasingly illegitimate reliance on conscription. During the Vietnam War, thanks in no small part to the draft, the armed services had become estranged from American society. The all-volunteer force creation severed relations altogether.
This divorce had large implications. After Vietnam, citizenship no longer included an obligation to contribute to the nation's defense. Military service became a matter of personal preference, devoid of political or moral significance. Although providing for the common defense remained a primary function of government, federal officials no longer possessed the authority to command citizens to bear arms. Henceforth, they could only encourage young Americans to enlist, offering inducements to sweeten the invitation.
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 nation al 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.
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.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University
RESTORE THE REPUBLIC!
R.W. "D1ck" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952- (Plt #437PISC)-'72
Sites & Forums For... The Thinking Marine!
GyG's Globe and Anchor! --Sites & Forums
GyG's Old Salt Marines Tavern ~Interactive~
GyG's Globe and Anchor Weblog
GyG's History/Traditions, etc.
The GyG Archive/Bookmarks @FURL
RSS Feed-GyG's FURL Archive
Want On GyG's E-Mail List?
ADD In Subject Line....