Back to the Draft?

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, is always worth reading. His new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, makes a number of important points, none in my opinion more compelling than his belief that “citizenship” entails “responsibilities” and one of them ought to be service in a “citizen army drawn from all segments of society.” In other words, he favors reconstituting the draft.

The current system, the all-volunteer force, which he angrily defines as “a civil-military relationship founded on the principle that a few fight while the rest watch,” has, in his judgment, failed to help the country during this period of extreme uncertainty at home and abroad. In fact, he writes, in language blunt and unsparing, it has led to “needless wars and shadow conflicts…costly and ill-managed”; and worse, it has helped produce a “militarized and irresponsible political elite,…an intellectually sclerotic and unimaginative senior officer corps,” all prancing about in patriotic songs and slogans in seventh inning salutes to the troops. Bacevich sees all this as a form of popular hypocrisy. “While the state heedlessly and callously exploits these same troops,” he says, “the people avert their gaze.”

To be clear, Bacevich is not angry at the troops, whom he respects, but rather at the politicians, who established the all-volunteer system of military service in January, 1973. It was their way of expressing their frustration with the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird believed that ending the draft might bank the flames of anti-war and anti-government sentiment. They literally feared streets filled with unruly demonstrators. Nixon desperately wanted to salvage his policy of withdrawing from Vietnam in order somehow to rescue political honor from an impending military defeat.

In recent years, especially during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the question of the continued validity and value of the all-volunteer force has been raised—but, up until this time, not satisfactorily or even adequately discussed. The issue is not the all-volunteer force, which has done its job well, often with admirable efficiency; the issue is broader in scope, national in dimension and profoundly committed to solving the many tasks currently facing this country. I know, at a time when government is shut down and partisan politics paralyzes our intellectual horizons, it is almost impossible to imagine political leaders with the wisdom and courage to tackle the underlying problems—the “nation-building,” to use President Obama’s frequently used term—that now bedevil America. The issue is not military service, as such—it is national service, which could include military service but must also include teaching, nursing, engineering (bridges must be rebuilt, and roads repaved), a new way of addressing the chronic needs of a great country with responsibilities that are still global in nature. Many young Americans, bewildered by the multiplicity of problems and crises they face on an almost daily basis, can be excused if they wonder about such old-fashioned concepts as patriotism, loyalty and service. Two years of national service, before or after college, might help them reacquire an emotional connection to their country, a feeling they have something to contribute and much to learn.

It may be that Bacevich is right in pointing to the all-volunteer force as the source of so many of our national security problems, but my experience says that the problem lies elsewhere: in the uncomfortable recognition that the United States of America, which has been engaged in so many wars in recent decades, still does not have an agreed-upon, broadly accepted guideline for going to war. Does the Congress “declare war,” as the Constitution stipulates, or does the president’s power as commander-in-chief now bestow upon him the unique role of determining, on his own, when and where and why the country fights, with or without congressional approval? Can both branches of government, the executive and the legislative, find a way to work together in the national interest?

It is a profound question deserving a serious discussion by an engaged citizenry. Then we can debate the value of the all-volunteer force in a more sensible, realistic context.