The XX Committee

On Conscription and Military Effectiveness

Every so often a Washington, D.C., pundit decides to preach to the public about the wonderfulness of conscription. Almost inevitably, the pundit who tells us how great it is to have citizen-soldiers serving on our behalf, against their will, has never served a day in uniform himself. Since the end of conscription in the United States in 1973, a couple generations have passed where nobody has served in the military except voluntarily. In America, this means that very few of our elites have donned any uniform, and among the D.C. commentariat the percentage of never-served approaches 100%.

I’ve enjoyed being an anomaly when I’ve traveled in D.C. circles, as someone who actually has served in uniform, but I realize what an outlier I am. My family has a tradition of military service stretching back more generations than we remember, and my own service was expected in an unspoken way: I suppose I’m passing the same onto my sons. But in 21st century America, at least in the places where PhDs like me circulate, that marks you as an anomaly, if not a weirdo, when you admit that, actually, you were in the military. It’s a great conversation starter and/or stopper, if you travel in the “right” circles in our country, where you’re more likely to find people who’ve been to rehab or done time (a tennis prison, mind you), than who’ve served Uncle Sam in uniform.

Which makes the elite’s intermittent fetish for conscription all the stranger and, to me, distasteful. Most recently, The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank has exhorted us to “restore the draft.” Here our pundit drags out the usual tropes – it’s bad for both democracy and the military that so few members of Congress are veterans, the people are disconnected from the forces, and by the way maybe our policymakers would engage in fewer stupid wars of choice if kids from elite families were getting blown apart by IEDs – and, let me say, I find myself in agreement with much of that (very familiar) line of argument.

That said, I’d find Milbank more persuasive if he’d decided to join the military, even for a little while, rather than go to Yale, as he did (where he was Skull & Bones, in case you wondered). Additionally he cites Switzerland as an example of a successful citizen army. Now, I’ve repeatedly praised Switzerland for its cost-effective and highly sensible defense policies, and I’ve lauded Austria too for keeping conscription even when almost everyone else is ditching it. But what relevance this has to present-day America, a global power with far-reaching defense responsibilities, I cannot fathom. A Swiss-style mass reserve force would make a great deal of sense if the United States worried about actual invasion from Canada or Mexico, something which even Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn’t think is a realistic threat. Otherwise, not so much

Moreover, what would the U.S. military do with all those people? Since, unless you want to replicate the worst features of the pre-1973 draft, when flimsy exemptions abounded that privileged the privileged, the Selective Service system would have to direct millions of young men (and women too? how, in gender-equal 21st century America, could they be excluded?) into the forces. Even allowing that a high percentage of young people would be kept out on grounds of rising obesity and general idiocy that are spreading in wildfire fashion among American youths – many place that number at seventy-five percent unfit for military service these days – the Pentagon would need to find lots of make-work work for many big battalions of teenagers.

I don’t hear anyone suggesting a draft period of two years, as it was before 1973, so we’d be talking about a one year – twelve months – service period at most (Austria is down to six months coerced service, as a reference point, which has limited functional utility for the active forces.). Which would mean the U.S. military would have to invest in a vast training system resulting in lots of units filled with half-trained troops plus many others counting the days until they get out. It’s not difficult to see why you hardly ever meet career military types, of any rank, with any enthusiasm for restoring peacetime conscription.

That perspective was captured nicely by retired Major General Robert Scales, U.S. Army, who penned a pointed riposte to Dana Milbank. Entitled “Drafted armies are self-killing machines,” the article is as subtle as its author, and it delivers the shellacking to not-even-a-REMF D.C. pundits that they deserve. I have decidedly mixed views on MG Scales, whose take on Professional Military Education I find questionable, but he’s a bona fide Vietnam war hero and a scholar who deserves to be taken seriously even when – perhaps especially when – he pontificates in this fashion.

In his article, Scales trots out all the myriad reasons why restoring a draft in present-day America is a non-starter, including mentioning just how unfair that draft was, as he witnessed in Vietnam, when the better educated and better-off could avoid service in the Poor Bloody Infantry that incurs over seventy percent of our casualties in war. Those frequently unwilling foot soldiers, usually poorly trained and less than motivated, were killed off in high numbers, without adding much to military effectiveness or battlefield success. He concludes with a statement that I find depressing in its accuracy:

National service sounds like a utopian concept for social leveling, and it might be if it were applied fairly. It might be applied fairly during peacetime. But this is America. When the bullets start to fly Mom and Dad from the middle and upper classes will find a nice internship for their child in a soup kitchen or a Congressman’s office. But the less well connected will, as always, go to war poorly prepared, untrained and resentful.

Sadly, MG Scales is correct here, and all honest Americans know it. Not content to take a flamethrower to the present day and our recent past, he piles on about World War II, his father’s war, saying some unsayable things about the alleged Greatest Generation:

Yet in my father’s war, thanks to a corrupt draft, infantry came from the lowest mental categories and were universally smaller and weaker than soldiers drafted for non-combat specialties. Thus it should surprise no one that better trained and acculturated German soldiers had a field day killing Americans with great skill in the hedgerows of Normandy. 

This is one of those dirty little historical secrets that’s hidden in plain sight for seven decades. Ask any aged German veteran, he’ll be happy to tell you just how weak American infantry, drawn from the unwilling and the weak, actually was. Historians have known this for a long time, it’s just not something very politic to harp on, as it doesn’t jibe with Greatest Generation myth-making. There’s a reason our movies tend to focus on elites like the 101st Airborne Division, comprised of highly motivated and superbly trained volunteers, since the average U.S. Army division was routinely chewed up by the tired Wehrmacht.

One of the shocking things to military historians is how shattered German units, after being wrecked on the Eastern Front and filled up with middle-aged dads and granddads plus green teenagers, managed to defeat U.S. units whenever it was a fair fight. If you want to see the U.S. Army as it actually was, focus less on Hollywood-friendly moments and more on hard slogs like the Battle for the Hürtgen Forest, the longest lasting battle ever fought by the U.S. Army yet one hardly any Americans have heard of. Happily, American artillery and airpower, which were superb, managed to compensate for the weakness of our infantry on the road to victory. Our best generals knew this. Patton, surely an expert witness, observed at the end of the mighty struggle, “I do not have to tell you who won the war. You know. The artillery did,” adding acidly, “The poorer the infantry, the more artillery it needs; the American infantry needs all it can get.”

MG Scales is making his point perhaps a bit too strongly for this military historian. There were benefits to the draft, not least that during the Cold War it pushed quite a few young men, usually the more intelligent ones, to volunteer for three years in the military doing a job of their choosing, often in the Navy or Air Force, rather than face two years with the infantry or an equally unrewarding “gut” job (my father was one of those guys).

But Bob Scales is more right than wrong. Talk of restoring the draft in 2013 America, as the military contracts after a dozen years of war in the Middle East, is sheer fantasy unconnected to geopolitical or budgetary reality. Moreover, unless we’re willing to institute a draft more equitably than we’ve done in recent memory, conscription can be immoral too, no matter what D.C. pundits who’ve never served a day in uniform tell you.

Sadly, a draft may be necessary again one day. When that day comes, let’s conscript young people fairly and equitably to share the sacrifice and ensure the development of the excellent military machine we’ll need to win that war. The standard we set in World War II may not be good enough. Until then, let those who wish to serve do so, voluntarily, with the thanks of the rest of us.

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