June 2008

Bring Back the Draft

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The military draft should be reinstated immediately. Seriously.

I have said in many contexts that governments, businesses, in fact all human endeavors, only work correctly when authority and responsibility reside in the same person. Their division from each other is the most common malfunction in all forms of our activity, and typically inflict a mortal wound on it. People with responsibility and no authority toil like peons to put things right but are powerless to do so. People with authority but no responsibility are free to bully the peons and laud themselves, without ever being held accountable for the miserable failure of their ill-planned policies.

The Iraq war is a classic example of the authority/responsibility split in a number of ways. The people fighting it are a minority of Americans. They may have the franchise but the votes of soldiers and of their families are not yet sufficient to turn an American election. The bulk of the population sits at home complacent, free to support a war or vote for its progenitor, with the free and easy knowledge that it will be fought by other people.

Similarly, the people who conceived and ordered this war are either unelected and will be later rewarded for their failure with book contracts or jobs in entertainment (Condolleeza Rice, Karl Rove) or if elected, happily live and play in an environment of very attenuated accountability where spin is everything, the situation on the ground not knowable, and the electorate forgetful and forgiving (George Bush,and Dick Cheney). The slow onset of accountability has finally caught up with them at a moment when things have become so miserable that "mission accomplished" can't be spun any more. Still, the consequences in American democracy--low popularity polls, loss of Congressional control for one's party, bad grades assigned by future historians--are relatively attenuated compared to the consequences of failure historically in other forms of government (suicide, execution, military defeat, imprisonment, or the graphe paranomon, the Athenian solution of appraising grievous fines against politicians who sponsored bad legislation). George Bush has been the paradigm, until recently, of the president who is all authority, no responsibility. Dick Cheney, the puppetmaster, even more so.

In much smaller nations in much earlier times, the ruler personally led his forces into battle. Think Of Shakespeare's Henry 5th as the model, giving the classic St. Crispin's day speech to his men:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

His own risk, the literal possibility he might bleed alongside his men, powers the speech and make it an act of consummate courage. A similar speech given by a leader who will then climb into his helicopter and vanish into the recesses of an underground redoubt in an unknown place would be a tacky exercise. Winston Churchill did not lead his troops into battle, but he insisted on staying in London during the blitz. George Bush was incommunicado on September 11th while the Secret Service rushed him around from one secret place to another.

We will not see a US President putting on body armor and risking IED's any time soon. But what about the rest of us? We are in the same condition as the citizens of the late Roman empire, prior to its fall to the barbarians, of savoring bread and circuses while delegating our fighting to proxies. A nation that retains only its authority, while delegating all responsibility to others to suffer and sacrifice, will soon lose authority as well.

Our decision-making about war, as voters, is cheap, easy and disastrous if we will not bear the consequences of bad decisions on our own bodies. Universal military service is more conducive to rational decision-making about war. In Israel, not an ethical paradigm by any means, but a fascinating laboratory of ethical problems, universal service drives the increasing desire for political solutions. No Israeli conscriptee wanted to be the last one to die in Lebanon, and nobody wants to be the last one to die in Gaza.

Aside from the ethical considerations, there is also a real world component. We are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan on one model, and our enemies are fighting on another. We are waging war as if it were an irrelevant little geopolitical chess game with no real consequences, like Vietnam. We lost Vietnam, nothing happened, and that nation is our friend today. Al Qaeda knows it is fighting a world war, of one ideology against another, to the death. We should never have invaded Iraq, but the consequences of leaving it will be to create something that didn't exist there before, a launch-pad and safe harbor for international terrorism on the grand new scale. Sadam Hussein, odious as he was, was the corrupt, violent beat cop who kept the other violent criminals in line. In a land without strong government or an overpowering US presence, they will all continue to come out to play, unrestrained.

If I am correct that this is a world war, then to win it, we need to pour our own bodies into it on a scale unprecedented since World War II. Want to pacify Iraq entirely? Put in a half million or a million troops, something that can never be accomplished with a volunteer army. General Eric Shinseki lost his job some years ago for speculating three hundred thousand would be needed. Donald Rumsfeld, one of those people with authority and no responsibility who run government in modern times, thought we could win with a handful of troops and some really clever machines.

Therefore, we should immediately reinstate the draft as a way of making decisions about Iraq more honorably and practically. That incursion might end rapidly the moment each of us, the U.S. majority, knew that we would likely fight it ourselves, or send our children. If we did end it, it might be on the basis that we are fighting on the wrong front, and that we need to conserve our bodies and our strength to fight where it makes more sense. The decision to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, always reminded me of the decision of one of the wise men of Chelm to search for his keys, which he lost in the dim part of town, under the lamp in the marketplace, because the light is better there. Or we might simply make a decision that we don't want or need to win badly enough to risk our own lives and limbs. That will be a sad decision for our relatively liberal, pluralistic, diverse and creative society, in the face of an opposing scheme which glorifies murder, autocracy and the subjugation of women. But it is a decision democracies are entitled to make, if it is made openly and without self-deception. On the other hand, if we chose to stay and continue fighting in Iraq, we would do so bearing full personal responsibility for the consequences in the ultimate way responsibility is borne--by offering our own bodies and lives in earnest.