Today is Memorial Day in this U.S., which leads to all kinds of silly debates about whether this holiday celebrates just the dead killed in America’s wars or the Veterans as well since there is Veteran’s Day in November (which is Armistice Day everywhere else).

The other silly debate that seems to occur around this time is about the draft.  Karl Eikenberry (former US general and then Ambassador to Afghanistan) and David Kennedy (retired history prof) wrote a NYT op-ed about the state of US civ-mil and what to do about it, including … bring back the draft.  Oy.

First, to be clear, there are, always have been and always will be civil-military tensions, and these tensions can be productive but sometimes destructive.  The civilians and military have always distinct beliefs about the other, leading to misperceptions, complaints, and such.  It is natural although I wonder if it is not that different from how ordinary police or FBI folks view their civilian masters.

Anyhow, the piece talks about the widening gap between the civilian and military worlds, starting with the end of the draft.  Of course, this raises a question–was there a gap or were there tensions before 1973 when the draft ended?  Given how Jack Kennedy felt after the Bay of Pigs and how LBJ felt as the Vietnam war progressed, um, yes.  Of course, the really interesting Cold War moment of civ-mil tensions is when Eisenhower spoke out against the military-industrial complex, but what kind of military experience did Ike have?  If that is not sufficient to remind folks of the enduring gap-ness (draft or no draft), read Amy Zegart’s book on the politics surrounding the creation of American national security institutions in the aftermath of WWII.  It is chock full of very conflictual dynamics between the civilians (many of whom fought in WWII) and the branches of the military as they fought among, between and within over the institutions that would make national security policy.

The point is this: the end of the draft may matter significantly, but let us not over-rate it.  A couple of other draft-related points:

  • to get enough Americans through the military to raise the rate of participation of the society, one would either need to expand the military significantly or have a large hunk of the armed forces open up spots for draftees, meaning less professionals at work.  The problem with this is that in the increasingly high tech military the US has got, expertise kind of matters.  Sure, draftees are good for infantry (although that is more high tech now and expertise is still valued), but for many of the other occupations?  For a one to three year term?  Hmmm.
  • it would save money (which might be a hidden agenda) if the US did not have to spend so much money recruiting and retaining people.
  • it ain’t gonna happen.  Good luck getting enough Congress-people to vote for a draft.  Unless there is a real danger, like Mexico or Canada becomes an enemy of the US, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the American people will let their kids be subject to the draft again.  Ignoring the politics of the draft is pretty much required by anyone who advocates it.  But ignorance is not bliss.
  • the military as a means to get out of poverty is seen as a bad thing here.  Um, why?  The reality has been that the infantry is not where the poor folks tend to go–this article relies on outdated beliefs from Vietnam.

The op-ed then goes on to argue that technology has insulated the public from the military.  A smaller military plus drones means indifference, apparently.  But, spare me.  Technology goes in both directions.  Twitter, tumblr, blogs, email, facebook, and all the rest means that the soldiers in the field are constantly engaged with the public back home, and any one back home who is interested can get far more information about the wars than in days of yore.  It does not mean that people have clarity.  No, they are stuck in the fog of war, just like anyone else, especially in these counter-insurgencies which have far less clarity than a conventional battlefield.*

* I am reading the third book in Rick Atkinson’s trilogy about the US in the European theater of WWII, and fog of war is a pretty accurate term, given the confusion of much stuff by all side, even in this most conventional of wars.

I am confused about the part about the military doing too much beyond the battlefield.  The COIN/development stuff means that the military is working more and more with the civilians (whole of government and all that).  Does that not lead to a smaller gap?

The only good part in this piece is the idea of forcing the government to pay for wars as they have them–raise taxes to send troops abroad into combat and you might just find less troops being sent into harm’s way. This gets to one of the basic ideas of the democratic peace stuff–if the population pays for war, less war. But again, hard to get this kind of thing to be enacted without providing escape clauses.

This is a good day to ruminate about how to improve the US military and its relationship with the American people and with the government.  Unfortunately, this op-ed does not really enhance the conversation.

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