Robert Redford’s latest movie, “The Company You Keep,” didn’t make me stand up and cheer, but it did make me think. The movie tells the tale of a group of former anti-Vietnam-War protesters, still on the run from the law more than 30 years later. One of the goals of the radical protesters of the 1960s and 1970s that the movie alludes to was to end the military draft. It was unfair—offering too many “easy outs” to privileged people like Dick Cheney [he had “other priorities” at the time], George W. Bush [he got a cushy assignment—which he may or may not have completed—in the reserves], and even Bill Clinton [who wangled his way out, too.] It was the mechanism that sucked an endless stream of 18- to 21-year-olds into the meat grinder of a futile war.
Eventually, we got our wish. In 1973, at the end of combat operations in Vietnam, America ended conscription and established a large, professional, all-volunteer military force.
But that fulfilled wish has had unintended consequences. The military now operates and lives in a world mostly isolated from civilian life, and war has become a spectator sport for most Americans. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t spark the same intensity of protest that we saw in the Viet Nam years.
Why? In an op-ed published in the New York Times [May 22, 2013], entitled “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” a former Army commander in Afghanistan and an emeritus history professor spell out some of the reasons, and offer arguments for reinstituting a modified military draft—and other ways to re-integrate civilian and military life.
What’s wrong with the all-volunteer model?
The all-volunteer military is failing America in several ways, say the authors—Karl W. Eikenberry and David M. Kennedy. In the absence of a military draft, Americans have become disengaged from the economics and the experience of war. Civilians are insulated from the military: Fewer serve, and a vastly reduced portion of Americans have contact with, help produce, or profit from the sale of war materials. We’re simply not as connected to the military as we once were, and our awareness of the issues involved in military service—and, of course—war itself—is dramatically diminished. It’s somebody else’s job, somebody else’s risk, somebody else’s war.
Eikenberry and Kennedy note that:
The modern force presents presidents with a moral hazard, making it easier for them to resort to arms with little concern for the economic consequences or political accountability. Meanwhile, Americans are happy to thank the volunteer soldiers who make it possible for them not to serve, and deem it somehow unpatriotic to call their armed forces to task when things go awry.
In other words, in the days of the compulsory military draft, more of us had skin in the game. Most civilians knew someone who was serving in the military. We could see the costs—economic, physical and emotional. We protested the Viet Nam war because we and our friends were at risk, as well as because the war itself was unwinnable—and therefore immoral—and ill-advised.
Moving toward a better system
Eikenberry and Kennedy offer several suggestions, such as:
-Institute a lottery draft:
[Such a s system would]…reintroduce the notion of service as civic obligation. The lottery could be activated when volunteer recruitments fell short, and weighted to select the best-educated and most highly skilled Americans, providing an incentive for the most privileged among us to pay greater heed to military matters.
-Re-establish the Total Force Doctrine
This philosophy…shaped the early years of the all-volunteer force, but was later dismantled. It called for large-scale call up of the reserves and National Guard at the start of any large, long deployment. Because these standby forces tend to contain older men and women, rooted in their communities, their mobilization would serve as a brake on going to war because it would disrupt their communities.
-Give Congress a larger role in war-making
Congress hasn’t formally declared war since World War II. Eikenberry and Kennedy say:
It’s high time to revisit the recommendation, made in 2008 by the bipartisan National War Powers Commission, to replace the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires notification of Congress after the president orders military action, with a mandate that the president consult with Congress before resorting to force.
-Pay for wars in real time
This is a lesson we are learning the hard way, in the wake of the economically disastrous, unpaid-for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eikenberry and Kennedy say:
Levying special taxes, rather than borrowing, to finance “special appropriations” would compel the body politic to bear the fiscal burden—and encourage citizens to consider war-making a political choice they were involved in, not a fait accompli they must accept.
The authors also suggest ways to break down the wall between civilian and military life, such as:
-Decrease reliance on contractors for non-combat tasks, so that the true size of the force would be more transparent
-Integrate veteran and civilian hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, which would let civilians see war’s wounded firsthand.
-Shrink self-contained residential neighborhoods on domestic military bases, so that more service members could pray, play and educate their children alongside their fellow Americans. We need to break down the civilian-military barrier and reinforce a sense of duty that that is critical to the health of our democratic republic, where the most important office is that of the citizen.
Of course, the best solution would be no wars–or at least no dumb wars and no trumped-up wars– and no need for a military or any kind of a draft. But that’s a utopian dream. If we must live with the reality of a military, we should at least try to do it better.