How the Army Says, Hell No, We Won’t Go

The SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER, Sunday, January 23, 2005

P-I Focus: The road to a draft goes through an unwilling Army


If you’re the U.S. Army, how do you say, “Hell No, We Won’t Go?”

By proclaiming, loud, clear and often, your opposition to the draft.

Put bluntly: The U.S. Army has no desire to be large enough to implement the Bush/neocon agenda of “cauldronizing the Middle East” or anywhere else, and it will oppose by every means at its disposal, any attempt to so enlarge it.

And it is right to do so — militarily, politically and morally.

According to an oft-documented Vietnam legend, an anonymous Army general vowed: “I’ll be damned if I permit the United States Army, its institutions, its doctrine, and its traditions, to be destroyed just to win this lousy war.” In Iraq, the destruction is already well under way. But if the Army is not prepared to lose in Iraq to save itself, it is ready to remain a force that cannot prevail there, let alone invade anywhere else.

Ever since the Iraq venture demonstrated, once again, that people don’t always love us the way some ideologues think they should, the issue of conscription will not go away. No one wants it, aside from a few advocates of establishing a massive federal teenager-herding bureaucracy (“national service”) and vaporous pundits fretting over inequality of sacrifice (while rarely addressing why anybody should be sacrificing anything, much less volunteering their own children as sacrifices).

Throughout the 2004 election, candidates of all persuasions vehemently proclaimed their opposition. The House of Representatives ostentatiously called a dead national service bill (with military and non-military “options”) out of committee expressly to vote it down. Meanwhile, the Selective Service System has simply gone about the business of staffing up thousands of local boards and appeals panels, against the day it penetrates the national skull that Iraq has wrecked the U.S. Army.

Today, nine of 10 regular Army divisions are either in Iraq and Afghanistan or back and preparing for the next deployment. During fiscal year 2004, 19,301 regular soldiers were kept on active duty involuntarily, some up to 18 months past their contractual obligations through “stop-loss” orders. As of Dec. 15, 185,732 Reservists and National Guardsmen from all services are currently mobilized. They are the tip of the iceberg: As of Sept. 30, 247,181 reservists and guardsmen have been deployed in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom; 90,041 of those troops more than once. These figures do not include temporary duty, which can last for up to three months, overseas.

This misuse and overuse, which in truth began under President Clinton, has produced a situation in which mass exodus is at the very least conceivable within a year. And so the Army’s latest recruiting slogan, “An Army of One,” has been morphed by the troops into: “Soon as I get out, I’ll Be An Army of One.”

But if the Army is approaching implosion, and knows it, then why the opposition to conscription? There are a half-dozen reasons. Two are idiotic. Two make sense. And two are profoundly, profoundly moral.

The first non-reason is that unwilling conscripts can’t be trusted in combat. But as an adage accurately puts it, “The Army never forces anyone to fight. They just put you down in the middle of a war and let you make up your own mind.”

The second non-reason holds that war and occupation duty have gotten so complex that conscripts can’t master the necessary skills in the time available. Conscripts can be as well or as poorly trained as volunteers, and a year of serious training produces a soldier capable of effective deployment. The real skill shortages develop at midlevel, among the true professionals, while entry level is entry level, no matter how you got there.

Beyond this, the Army rightly fears the effect of unpopular conscription on its “civil-military relations” and the military’s place in society. It also doesn’t care to get dragged into endless litigation. Were conscription reinstituted tomorrow, it would be years of misery before the service derived any benefit.

Yet another valid objection is money. People cost. So does everything else. You can’t stop paying your soldiers or funding your wars. But you can stop or slow everything else. The Clinton administration reprogrammed tens of billions to pay for Balkan operations. It’s happening again in Iraq. Further, in 2001 the administration eschewed a Reagan-style bow wave of Army spending in favor of studying transformation before committing to specific programs. The fiscal year 2005 defense budget, including supplementals, will surpass $500 billion while the administration is cutting furiously. The bow wave never happened. The transformation window has closed. And the Army sees its future slipping away.

The intensifying personnel crunch, plus the unique requirements of occupation duty, has forced the Army into something it swore it would never do: send women into combat as combatants. The “ground combat exclusion rule” has eroded to the point where the Army is considering de facto abolition. As for the gay ban, half of junior enlisted service members think openly gay people should be allowed to serve, yet 787 troops were discharged for homosexual conduct in fiscal year 2003. Between 1998 and 2003, hundreds of combat soldiers, nearly 200 MPs and more than a dozen linguists have been discharged. Younger officers and troops, accustomed from birth to tolerance and equality, find both policies bizarre as well as cruel. Thoughtful senior officers appear content to let the results of women’s service and “don’t ask, don’t tell” speak for themselves.

The final reason the Army does not want a draft is a profound lesson it learned in Vietnam. You cannot use draftees to fight long, cold-blooded policy wars. Quick, permanently decisive, wars may be dangerous illusion, but short or long, if you use draftees and part-time soldiers to fight wars, they had better be hot-blooded wars in which the nation’s passions are decisively engaged.

The Army knows that the war in Iraq is a war of choice fought to enforce a policy of democratizing the Middle East. It also knows utterly inadequate strategy when it sees it.

Pacifying Iraq requires securing its borders and controlling cash and information flow into and out of the country. It requires co-opting local elites and enlisting their cooperation against a common enemy in order to create reasonably loyal auxiliary troops. It also requires making examples, if not of those who refuse to cooperate, then of those who actively resist the occupation. All of this requires a lot of troops.

In February 2003, the former chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to occupy Iraq. Shinseki wasn’t wrong: 300,000 U.S. soldiers, twice the current deployment, is a barely adequate minimum. But the Army’s end strength for fiscal year 2005 is 482,400 soldiers, with only another 20,000 authorized. Rather, Shinseki had publicly made clear that only a draft will generate enough soldiers to effectively occupy Iraq.

Indeed, a draft could generate so many soldiers that the Bush administration and its neocon ideologues might feel able to invade, conquer and occupy Iran and Syria, presumably to turn them, too, into democratic countries. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has so staunchly opposed a draft that neocon field marshal Bill Kristol has called, once again, for his resignation in the Weekly Standard.

Islamic fundamentalism certainly poses a significant and growing threat to the United States but it is a very diffuse threat. The Army still wants, desperately, to transform into a force that combines expeditionary mobility, enormous firepower, and aggressive spirit: capable of stopping even nuclear powers such as North Korea or Pakistan fast and very hard. The Army is unwilling to permit itself to be restructured as a large draftee force suited for conquest, occupation and forcing people to be free. To preserve a structure capable of dealing with the diffuse threats that actually face this nation, the Army finds itself bleeding in a thousand engagements in Iraq. It wins each engagement individually but collectively those victories mean nothing because they cannot be translated into permanent political success.

As in Vietnam, you control the ground you stand on but only so long as you stand there.

The Army does not seek defeat in Iraq: Defeat is abhorrent and no one wants to be maimed or killed for nothing. By all accounts, the performance of the troops has been superb but discipline and courage are not, and cannot replace, good strategy.

The Army knows victory in Iraq will leave America bankrupted and defenseless, and it dreads for the nation to pay such a price. Or as the Greek king Pyrrhus said, contemplating the losses his people had suffered to defeat the Roman Army a second time, “One more such victory, and we are undone.”

This is the essence of tragedy.


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