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Restore the draft to provide a real referendum on wars

COMMENTARY | December 06, 2010

The all-volunteer military has developed into an American version of the French Foreign Legion, writes George Wilson. A national draft, with a cross-section of all Americans serving, would force leaders to think harder about fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere.

By George C. Wilson

Outgoing House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skel­tonchose his farewell speech to the Congress he has served in for 34 years to warn about the unfairness of letting an out-of-sight, out-of-mind band of volunteers do the dying in our nation’s wars for the rest of us comfortable Americans.

The ever polite Missouri Democrat did not put it that bluntly to his House colleagues, of course, but that was the import of what he said. These were the words Skelton used in his farewell to the House last week:
“My greatest concern is that a chasm will develop between those who protect our freedoms and those who are being protect­ed. I have often talked about what I perceive to be a civil-military gap, a lack of under­standing between civilians and the military that has grown in the era of an all-volunteer force. For those not in uniform or connect­ed to the military in some way, it is easy not to relate to our service members’ difficul­ties as they deal with the trials of war and combat, multiple deployments, family sepa­rations, missed birthdays, and other sacri­fices too numerous to mention.

“As a nation, we must strive to narrow that gap and bring our citizens together,” Skelton continued. “United we stand, divided we fall. The men and women in uniform who form the backbone of our secu­rity cannot devote their all to protect us if we fail to provide what they need to perform their missions, stay safe in the field, and take good care of themselves and their families at home. Keeping America safe demands a national commitment to maintain military readiness.”

As a national military correspondent who for almost a half-cen­tury has had a front-row seat to study the military-industrial-politi­cal-intelligence complex, first with Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and then for more than 20 years with the Washington Post, I agree with Skelton that the all-volunteer force has developed into what I would call the American version of the old French Foreign Legion. Without the draft that could pluck the sons and daughters of the estab­lishment out of their comfortable lives along with the struggling have-nots, America has lost its national referendum on whether it should go to war in distant places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen. This loss is especially grievous, when you consider that Congress has not used its constitutional power to declare war since 1941. Presidents have usurped that life-or-death power.
History has documented that presidents, defense secretaries, generals, admirals, sena­tors, representatives, and journalists can all be wrong about when going to war is justified. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNama­ra, at first an enthusiastic hawk about fighting North Vietnam, belatedly admitted—after 58,000 Americans in uniform and up to 3 mil­lion Vietnamese, mostly civilians, had been killed—that “we were wrong, terribly wrong” to have waged the Vietnam War. Some kind of national referendum is sorely needed to deter hawkish presidents from sending our present day, all-volunteer legion to war.
In this, my last Forward Observer col­umn, I will set down the Wilson proposal for resuscitating the national referendum that should precede sending young men and women to die in questionable wars: Freeze the recruiting budgets of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps at some reason­able level. Have federal manpower experts figure out how many of the 4 million Americans who turn 18 every year have to be drafted to find enough who are fit to serve in the armed forces. Everyone would be drafted by lottery, like pulling names out of a hat. Those drafted who could not qualify physically to serve in the military for 18 months would serve an equal amount of time in some other type of national service. Sons and daughters of the establishment would be among those drafted, restoring the now missing national referen­dum on going to war.
Through his years on the Armed Services Committee, Skelton has championed the money requests from the Pentagon at a time when the country is drowning in red ink. It can be demonstrated from their votes that Skelton and his colleagues have seldom met a weapon, military salary increase, health benefit, or pension ben­efit that they did not like. Yet the Government Accountability Office has documented that the Pentagon cannot tell its own government where all its money is going and that it has run up staggering cost overruns on weapons.
Counting homeland defense spending and the cost of building nu­clear weapons along with the regular Pentagon budget, Congress, in providing for “the common defense,” as the Constitution puts it, is ap­propriating more than $1 trillion a year. Congress is thus at the wheel of a Cadillac driving us to the poorhouse. 
This column first appeared in National Journal's CongressDaily.

Posted by E Broadwell
12/07/2010, 10:15 AM

If Barbara and Jenna had been draftable in 2001 or 2003, I doubt we would have been thrown into two senseless wars. Not only should the draft be reinstated, it should be required of women as well as men and there should be no exception because of who someone's mother or father is. If someone wants to Conscientiously Object or if someone is not physically fit, national service for a length of time similar to a turn in the military should be required.

The declaration of war should be put back into the hands of the legislature (since they can't get anything done, maybe there would be fewer wars!)

Posted by Michael Valentine
12/07/2010, 01:27 PM

Without any blood in the game of war Americans seem pretty content to just look on.

The draft protest stopped the Viet Nam war and the MIC was paying attention. That's why the mercenaries are paid four times what the troops are and the pathetic Pentagon is willing to pay.

Those who protect our freedoms?
Posted by planck
12/07/2010, 11:29 PM

Or those who protect the shareholders' overseas property holdings?

I don't expect a career military man to use irony or even any cynicism at all in his speeches about what he just spent 34 years doing.

Thank god there are people like me who are not beholden to collect a pension from those much abused people!

The Top 1% own 50% of the stock on the stock market. And earn the dividends as "unearned income". And the capital gains on those stock price moves at 15% income tax. People say it is even 3/10 of 1% who really own everything. And these are the "freedoms" of which this Skeltonchose speaks using words like "freedom"?

more of the same BS
Posted by LCpl Grumpy
12/08/2010, 10:22 AM

Why is it that whenever this subject is brought up the same tired bull**** line that “only the poor fight in wars” gets trotted out. This nation’s military is more educated and more middle class in its origin than its civilian counterpart.

The all volunteer military is a more effective fighting force than its draftee counterpart and its effectiveness should be THE ONLY CONSIDERATION on policy, not some touchy feely PC left wing exercise in social engineering.

Posted by Michael Valentine
12/09/2010, 03:32 PM

Grumpy how many troops and their families are on food stamps?

Posted by LCpl Grumpy
12/10/2010, 11:47 AM

I dont know ... a couple thousand or a fraction of a percent of the active duty population. Why do you ask?

An Enduring Topic
Posted by Don Capps
12/20/2010, 10:33 AM

The discussion regarding the US military and its "divorce" from American society has been an ongoing one since the end of the draft in 1973. In the first years following the termination of conscription much was made of both the "Hollow Army" and the growing disconnect of the military from civilian society at large. Mr. Wilson was among those participating in this discussion.

As someone who was drafted in 1968 and then served in Viet-Nam as well as going on to serve a total of 33 years in the Army, I have very mixed thoughts about restoring the draft. Not mixed feelings, but mixed thoughts.

I have often thought that the draft has been somewhat romanticized, especially in light of the notion that the draft of the 50s was quite different than that of the era that I was drafted in, the late-60s.

There has not been much thought given conscription in the US military in recent years for the simple reason that US military, for the most part, works. Those in the enlisted and NCO ranks today tend to be several notches above that of the draftee cohorts of the post-WW2 era. Soldiering is never an easy occupation, but the volunteer military has performed very well since its implementation. As Mr. Wilson points out, that is also a problem.

The US military, especially the Army, has experienced personnel problems in the past several years, among both the enlisted and officer ranks. The relentless churning of units to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan definitely strained the manpower pool. The military has become very selective in its enlistees, requiring physical and educational standards that weed many who apply for enlistment. A draft would remind us just how few would be eligible for service.

This simply scratches the surface of this discussion, but the issue is perhaps less about the draft than the idea of military service and the role of the military in our nation's foreign policy. There are separate and yet connected items for discussion.

On a personal level, I doubt that the restoration of the draft is the panacea that many think it would be. I cannot envision those if privilege not finding a way to beat the draft, even a lottery system. Despite all the talk, the probability of the draft making a return is remote at best, at least in my view. While I hear the talk and can give a slight nod in agreement to most of the rhetoric, the problem goes much deeper than dusting off the draft for another generation.

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