America’s Volunteer Army Isn’t Working, But What Will?

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sunday, October 1, 2006
America’s volunteer army isn’t working, but what will?

By PHILIP GOLD AND ERIN SOLARO
GUEST COLUMNISTS

There is a process in American political life by which the unthinkable becomes the inevitable. Ideas and proposals float around for decades, going nowhere. Then events demand, or seem to demand, quick action. We act. And then we wonder how it ever came to this.

Today, the issue of conscription is deader than last week’s roadkill. But it will not stay dead much longer. Iraq will continue to fester. Our armed forces are imploding when they should be expanding — the Army and the National Guard, especially. The world is not getting less dangerous. A year or two from now, a disaster or two from now, expect the issue to re-emerge.

Expect also to be told that America has only three options: continued reliance on an all-volunteer military; universal national service with “military and non-military options”; or reinstitution of some form of direct federal conscription.

All three are militarily unsuitable, politically and culturally unacceptable and morally wrong. Fortunately, there is a fourth option: to return to the Founding Fathers’ original intent for citizen military service, then adapt that intent to 21st-century perils.

Pure voluntarism works, at least when it comes to meeting quotas. All you have to do is to pump up the cash and lower the standards. But that’s no way to defend a democracy, especially since the quotas are pitifully inadequate to meet present and future needs.

Universal service constitutes little more than state-sanctioned involuntary servitude. It would create a massive teenager-herding bureaucracy and produce mostly resentment, although many liberal proponents admire the old West German system, with conscientious objectors doing the drudge work of their welfare state. As for instilling the “spirit of sacrifice” in our nation’s youth, perhaps all that debt we’re leaving them constitutes sacrifice enough.

The direct federal draft is arguably unconstitutional. Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the power to “raise Armies”– an 18th-century term for professional volunteer forces. The same article authorizes Congress to “provide for calling forth the Militia (of the states) to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” By original intent, the federal government may draw upon the people only under certain specified conditions. Overseas wars of choice are not on the list. Had the Founders desired a direct federal draft, they would have authorized one — a fact that, since the Civil War, the Supreme Court has shamefully chosen to explain away or ignore.

But what did the Founders intend? They certainly did not regard the Constitution as a suicide pact, or their list of perils as exhaustive. They also held a high regard for the citizenry in arms.

Specifically, they viewed participation in the common defense as an unalienable obligation and right of citizenship, an obligation and right extending over a lifetime but taking a variety of forms. The Universal Militia Act of 1792 decreed every adult (white male, back then) citizen a member of the “unorganized militia.” This law is still on the books as USC (United States Code) Title 10, Section 311. They did this because they conceived of the common defense as a continuum, extending from individual and local self-defense and law enforcement to emergencies such as riot and insurrection, with federal foreign war only at the far end. Most of the world still lives that way, with no clear boundaries between threats.

Today, once again, so do we. The global war against terrorism. The travails of the Middle East. Transnational organized crime with political dimensions. Homeland security. Border control. Disaster relief in an age of climate change. Soon enough, the American people will accept that the tidy old divisions of threat and labor no longer avail, and that we can no longer be passive consumers of national security.

We the People must provide for the common defense.

It is time to offer the American people a variety of ways to do so. A few examples:

Individuals could join the active forces as fully deployable volunteers, or as members available for overseas duty only upon declaration of war. There is precedent for this: The 1940 draft restricted draftees to the Western Hemisphere. The Pentagon won’t like it, but who’s working for whom?

Individuals could serve in the National Guard and service reserves on the same basis, or perhaps rotate between deployable and non-deployable units. Opportunities for individuals with critical skills to serve as specialists should also be enhanced.

Official state militias should be expanded. These organizations, authorized by USC Title 32, Section 309, were created mostly during the world wars, when state Guard forces went overseas. They cannot be federalized. Twenty-four states now maintain such forces. If the National Guard is to maintain its role as a de facto second standing army, the state militias must be enhanced.

Specialized volunteer units, legally chartered and properly trained and supervised, should be formed for everything from border control to disaster relief. These are not “vigilantes.” However, not creating such forces may well encourage vigilantism.

In short, when the service debate revives, the fundamental choice should not be federal coercion vs. voluntarism. The debate should include crafting a defense that meets real-world needs across the continuum by offering various forms of participation to every American man.

And woman.

This isn’t the place to recap the history of American feminism, or women’s military service. However, American feminism was not always either stridently anti-military or mindlessly anti-violence. Feminism and the women’s suffrage movement grew out of the Abolitionist movement. For these feminists, using enormous violence to preserve the Union and abolish slavery was not an issue, even if women’s service wasn’t on the agenda. Nor should it have been. Early feminists were preoccupied with obtaining property and voting rights for women, in an era when women died wholesale in childbirth, and of complications of pregnancy and childbirth. It would have been wrong to expect women to risk their lives for a state that considered them citizens only for purposes of taxation, and obscene to bear the twin risks of reproduction and combat.

This changed. New generations of feminists opened up education, credit, employment and jury duty, as well as military service, to women. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, feminism conflated itself with the anti-American international peace movement and the “Blame America First” crowd at home. The military seemed not a vital national institution but a bastion of malignant masculinity. Servicewomen were less citizens and patriots than victims and battering rams, useful for cracking (and humiliating) the services. It was a transparent attempt to have equality of rights without equality of responsibility, not least of all because it denied the very concept of citizen military responsibility. And since the Jessica Lynch and Abu Ghraib embarrassments, what’s left of organized feminism has all but ignored the nearly 150,000 servicewomen who have gone to war. For to honor them, they would have to look beyond the present mess and acknowledge that the strength and survival of the American Republic is of vital interest to American women and is in fact worth defending.

It’s time for real feminists — those of us who genuinely believe in women’s equal responsibility for the world — to recalibrate feminism’s relationship to violence and the military. It’s time now because, whatever your opinion of Iraq (which both of us opposed since 2002), it’s only one campaign in a much larger, longer war in which American women, and the women of the world, have an enormous stake.

Toward that end, the unorganized militia law should be amended to include women. All state militias and such specialized organizations as may be created must be fully open to women. It is time for the federal military to drop all remaining restrictions on women’s service, especially in ground combat. This is not about equality for the sake of equality or career opportunities. It is certainly not about quotas; there should be none. It’s about the military being honest with women that they will face combat in any future war — and about the fact that women are routinely in combat today. It’s also about the fact that the military is now irrevocably dependent on women, who now constitute 15 percent of the force. And it’s time to accept that any future draft must inevitably include women. In the past, both Congress and the Supreme Court have deferred to the military’s assessment that it didn’t need women. This assessment no longer accords with reality.

But will there be a draft? We fervently hope not. The federal government deserves no blank check on the lives of our young. But we also hold that the best way to avoid it, long term, is to resurrect the notion of citizen responsibility for the common defense, as a normal part of a citizen’s life. Forms of participation may vary greatly, but the principle is constant. And perhaps one of the greatest contributions that a new civic feminism could make would be to affirm that America has every right to expect her women to defend her.

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