Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Having a Volunteer Military

I'll give Bob Herbert his due, as he was drafted into military service and served in Korea. But when he speaks of the modern, volunteer military, I disagree with some of his contentions. He's completely right, in my opinion, that many members of the public don't appreciate what's involved in military service (and arguably you can't fully appreciate what's involved unless you've served in combat), but that's in no small part a matter of design - a political convenience advanced by the Bush Administration and continued under Obama.

As long as media coverage of casualties remains low, there's little pressure to change present policies. No doubt, the book Herbert mentions contains chilling pictures of the casualties of war, but if you're shocked by them it's because the mainstream media has decided it's distasteful, exploitive, or [insert excuse of the day] to run them.
America’s young fighting men and women have to make these multiple tours because the overwhelming majority of the American people want no part of the nation’s wars. They don’t want to serve, they don’t want to make any sacrifices here on the home front — they don’t even want to pay the taxes that would be needed to raise the money to pay for the wars. We just add the trillions to deficits that stretch as far as the eye can see.
It's hard to argue with that. Again, that's the fruit of deliberate political policy. The Bush Administration's response when asked about sacrifice on the home front? It boiled down to "Ignore the war and keep on spending." If you took the Republican Members of Congress who were the strongest advocates of the Iraq War they would still howl like banshees at the notion of raising taxes to pay for the war, even as they use the cost of the war as an excuse for opposing healthcare reform, stimulus bills, or similar initiatives.

But Herbert continues,
A clear idea of the pathetic unwillingness of the American people to share in the sacrifices of these wars can be gleaned from a comment that President Obama made in his address last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We are a country of more than 300 million Americans,” he said. “Less than 1 percent wears the uniform.”

The president was not chiding those who are not serving, he was only intending to praise those who are. But the idea that so few are willing to serve at a time when the nation is fighting two long wars is a profound indictment on the society.
Well, yes and no. It's an indictment of our present political culture that praises ever soldier as a hero while burying the most painful illustrations of sacrifice. For individual members of society, I think it's a fair indictment of the "fighting typists" - the faction of the Republican Party that expressed unbridled support for the war in word but not in deed. The Rush Limbaughs and Dick Cheneys of this world always have "other priorities".

Does it indict those who argued that the Iraq war was a war of choice, would put an undue burden on the military and jeopardize the mission in Afghanistan? Not so much. Had Bush not launched the war in Iraq, we wouldn't even be having this discussion. If Obama succeeds in significantly reducing troop levels in Iraq, we wouldn't need this discussion.

But even taken at face value, the argument has its limits. Yes, if we had more volunteers we would have a reduced need for "stop loss" and might even be able to eliminate it. But how many more volunteers do we actually need? If you raised the number of volunteers from "less than 1 percent" to 1%, you would likely exceed capacity. If you believe the need is to put 650,000 combat troops into Afghanistan and Iraq, you must have the capacity to train, support and supply those troops - you're talking about adding millions of people to the military. And in fairness to the American public, after 9/11 there was great interest in joining the military.
Five years after military recruiting hit the ceiling after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, recruiting remains solid, with every service meeting its active-duty recruiting goal for the 15th consecutive month.
To the extent that interest in joining the military has declined, it's less an indictment of society than it is of the Iraq war and the Bush Administration.

Herbert continues,
If we had a draft — or merely the threat of a draft — we would not be in Iraq or Afghanistan. But we don’t have a draft so it’s safe for most of the nation to be mindless about waging war. Other people’s children are going to the slaughter.
I disagree with this, as well. I recognize the talking point that, with a draft, people will oppose entering wars of choice. but... let's take another look at Herbert's résumé:
He was drafted during the buildup to the Vietnam War, but was ultimately sent to Korea.
Which of those two wars was prevented by the fact that there was a draft? For that matter, what war in any country has ever been prevented by virtue of conscription? To put it another way, with conscription in place, was the country not largely supportive of the Vietnam War at its inception, as it was with Iraq?

If you want to learn about the sacrifice of soldiers, you have to work at it. It's not in the mainstream media. Beyond platitudinous expressions like "support our troops" it's not in the right-wing media. It may well be that our political leaders and media conglomerates are right - we don't want to hear about it - and if true that is an indictment of our society. But it's more of an indictment of our media and political system.

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