.

Off The Hook (Why the All-Volunteer Army is Wrong for America) Part II

In our democracy the current arrangement of an all-volunteer army is not an appropriate instrument for fighting wars of our collective choosing.

(continued from Part I)...The military establishment expresses almost universal support for the all-volunteer army. And this is understandable. Tasked with the job of recruiting, training and deploying soldiers, who would not prefer a force of motivated, relatively unconflicted volunteers? It makes their job easier, cheaper and arguably more inclined toward success. Their position is similar to that of teachers who face a mandate to educate, promote and successfully test out students - wouldn’t they also prefer and benefit from “recruiting” an all-volunteer class of motivated students? In both cases, however, there are larger principles at stake that outweigh narrow interests and institutional expediency. A teacher’s preference for screened students (and the implied success associated with such screening) does not conform with the educational and democratic mission of America’s public schools, which must educate all citizens no matter what their individual level of talent, intellect and motivation. These principles are a reflection of core, longstanding American values. The same holds true of the military. In a purely logical sense the military may see the practical advantages of an all-volunteer army (ease of recruitment, training, deployment) without ever plotting those advantages against the broader, more meaningful, philosophical framework of America. That framework includes notions of fairness and shared sacrifice. Simply put, Americans do not let others do their dirty work. They don’t espouse policies and points of view without demonstrating a concrete willingness to actively support those positions, which in this case means embracing rather than evading the primal duty of war - fighting.

There is, I fear, a cynical explanation for much of this. The military industrial complex described warningly by President Eisenhower in 1961 is too much served by war. And it isn’t clear to me, at least in my lifetime, that this complex of soldiers and industry are as dedicated to eliminating war as an acceptable means to national ends as they are to remaining the necessary cog in the wheel of war. War is their function and duty. This entrenched war-structure also knows something. It knows that modern, free, and educated societies like the one we have in America have grown increasingly averse to war.

Modern media, starting perhaps with Mathew Brady’s Civil War photography, has gradually torn down the curtain and mythology of glorious war, and replaced it instead with a hard, brutal, unrelenting truth. A truth that is hard to erase or refine. A truth that makes it increasingly difficult to engage and motivate citizen populations into accepting and participating in war especially war that might involve their sons and daughters. It’s ever so much easier to press the war policy button and “sell” a 1% subset of the population as opposed to the 99%, especially if elements of that 1% face uncertain educational and economic futures. It’s a side issue to what I am arguing here, but if anybody doubts the subtly exploitative nature of the all-volunteer military, just look at the Dream Act - in this case, the people of the United States, not wishing to actually fight themselves, have come up with an arrangement that offers citizenship to “unauthorized immigrants” (who tend to occupy the lowest economic quintiles) who volunteer to enlist in the military. In other words, you can become one of us, but only if you first take the up-front risk of possibly fighting and dying in our wars. Awfully big of us don’t you think?

There is also another truth that I see no sense in denying. For the vast majority of Americans war has become an abstraction. Unlike the populations of Europe who saw and felt the literal destruction of their communities, cities and homes, not once, but twice in the previous century, Americans have been virtually untouched by the actual, physically destructive nature of war. Sitting on one’s couch watching Wolff Blitzer describe the video-game-like destruction unfolding “over there” does not deliver the same, real dose of war as let’s say seeing your school bombed, your street set afire, your neighbors incinerated. Ours is an insulated relationship to war, and my concern is that the vast majority of Americans, with no skin in the game and no exposure to the real impact of war, increasingly accept the notion of war with a sense of ease incongruent with war’s true product and residue, which is mayhem and death. Combine that distance to war with an all-volunteer army, and what you create is an environment that further enables acceptance, and a turning away in the face of war. I only hope that acceptance does not turn into an actual liking, but who knows? People tend to like what they are good at, especially if there is no risk to them in the liking.

Which returns me to my fellow fathers. Knowing the goodness in their hearts, I cannot imagine any of them as bombastic supporters of war. But knowing the depth of their love for their sons, I cannot imagine any of them refuting the all-volunteer army, which gives them, and their sons, an out. And that is the problem. In the face of war, the all-volunteer army renders them and us passive observers. An all-volunteer army lets Americans off the hook. We know it, and unfortunately we like it that way.

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Robert Defulgentiis May 14, 2012 at 04:55 PM
Geoff...many of the fathers I referenced are conservative and likely Republicans who probably voted for GWB twice. W/O revisiting the whole issue of the war in Iraq, I have little doubt that the willingness of those fathers to support and accept the war policies of that administration was made easier by the fact that neither them no their sons would have to do any fighting. If, as a nation, we accept war as an appropriate means of settling disputes among nations, we better damn sure be willing to fight those wars....and that we has got to be more than a 1% warrior class. Pushing the war button becomes too easy when 99% of us can look the other way. We're kidding ourselves if we, as citizens, don't think we are abdicating our responsibility when it comes to engaging and fighting in wars and I’m writing this as somebody who, as I stated, believes that war is the greatest failure of mankind.
Geoff May 14, 2012 at 05:24 PM
Robert -- I understand what you are saying, but just can't agree with you. I remember very well the years of the Vietnam War. Many millions of people were strongly opposed to that war, and one of the reasons Nixon won the 1968 election was that he said he had a "secret plan" to end it! But it continued until April 30, 1975. In addition, based on what I heard in the press during the war, it seemed to me that many in the professional military regarded draftees as expendable. I don't believe that our present military leaders feel that way about their soldiers, and I think that the fact that many of them have committed themselves to a career in the military is an important reason for that difference. I believe that Gary Becker, Nobel Prize winning economist, has posted a paper on conscription on Hoover.com, and I would recommend it to you. Finally, I can't help falling back on the fact that so many other democracies have abolished conscription, some, like France and Germany, recently, and some, like Canada, whose soldiers served in Afghanistan, for many decades. Do you think their democracies are threatened by the military?
Robert Defulgentiis May 14, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Geoff - The likelihood of declaring war and fighting future wars is enhanced by the all-volunteer army for the simple reason that the citizenry has no skin in the game and can be easily "sold" (as they were in Iraq) and bypassed in the whole war-making process. Philiosophically - a quaint term in modern America - a nation's citizens cannot and should not support the concept of war w/o assertively participating in said wars. To do so is self-serving cowardice and high-level hypocrisy. The end of war will only come about when the pain of war is felt and distributed among the population at large. Shielding citizens from the consequences of the war policies they endorse - and they do so by electing chicken hawks like GWB - will only enable similar policies to endure.
Stan Kaady May 22, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Thank you for writing this article. Very well written.
Robert Defulgentiis May 22, 2012 at 04:49 PM
Thanks for reading Stan...........

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