September 1, 2010  

Conscription: pro and con; McChrystal’s war

Former Undersecretary of the Army Nelson Ford asks for evidence regarding my claim that America’s elites are underrepresented in the all-volunteer force [Letters, June]. In “America’s ‘casualty gap’”(Los Angeles Times, May 28), Douglas L. Kriner and Francis X. Shen “demonstrate unambiguously that, beginning with the Korean War, disadvantaged communities have suffered a disproportionate share of the nation’s wartime casualties, while richer communities have been more insulated from the costs of war.” Kriner and Shen show that service members wounded and killed in Iraq on average come from neighborhoods whose income and educational levels are significantly below national averages. I also recommend “AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service — and How It Hurts Our Country” by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer.

Ford asks if I believe that we should track the degree to which the wealthiest 5 percent, or even the wealthiest 1 percent, of Americans serve in our armed forces. My answer is yes. This analysis would be easy to do and would tell us conclusively the degree to which the most privileged Americans serve in our military and fight our wars.

Ford asks why we should increase standards for service members fighting our wars, and how a draft would achieve this goal. We should increase standards because the demands of today’s battlefield — physically, psychologically and morally — are higher than ever before.

The all-volunteer force has proved unable to meet these demands; even as battlefield demands went up, enlistment standards went down. A draft could increase the standards for enlistment and provide sufficient forces to fight our wars without relying on repetitive combat deployments or stop-loss personnel policies to fill our ranks.

Like Curtis Gilroy [“Defending the all-volunteer force,” April], Ford claims that the all-volunteer force is cheaper than a conscripted force. This argument would be true if raising an army and committing it to war were merely exercises in labor economics, devoid of strategic and political consequences. In fact, the opposite is true: The manner in which our army is raised profoundly affects the care with which it is employed.

I’ll ask Ford the same question Gilroy has declined to answer: Does he believe that the United States would have gone to war in Iraq if doing so had imposed conscription and higher taxes on the public?

Ford claims that “the supply of new recruits has been strong throughout the current conflicts.” However, he does not mention that the number of high school graduates dropped from 90 percent to 79 percent between 2001 and 2007, and that despite these lowered standards, the Defense Department struggled to meet its recruiting goals after 2003 and failed altogether in 2005. These omissions are particularly puzzling given that Ford was an assistant secretary of the Army during this same period.

Ford argues that the lack of dwell time is due to combatant commanders underestimating troop requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan. This claim is partially true, accurately describing the period from 2001 until 2007. However, since 2007, Central Command’s projections have been far more realistic, and yet the services continue to lack sufficient ground forces to meet dwell-time requirements.

Ford concludes that “we shouldn’t confuse the strong analytic case for an all-volunteer force with the short-term struggle to supply sufficient forces to meet the demand of a particular policy.” Unfortunately, this “strong analytic case” makes no mention of the human cost of war. There is no consideration for the damage caused to soldiers and families from repetitive, yearlong combat tours, including soaring rates of suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. Nor is there any acknowledgment that these ills are made worse by policy choices that lay the heavy burdens of war on too few shoulders.

As this “short-term struggle” approaches its 10th year, such cheerful portrayals of the all-volunteer forcer are no longer plausible. It’s time for the U.S. to reconsider the wisdom of the all-volunteer force.

— Lt. Col. Paul L. Yingling, Army, George C. Marshall Center, Garmisch, Germany

I will grant Lt. Col. Paul Yingling a couple of points concerning his argument for a conscripted force [“The Founders’ wisdom,” February]. If the U.S. were required to engage in a large-scale global war akin to World War II, then it would be completely unfeasible to double or triple the size of the active-duty force through an all-volunteer system. In that case, Yingling is right that a draft system would be more efficient and less costly.

His critique about current manpower problems is well-taken. There are some very difficult, almost intractable, problems the services face. To add more powder to Yingling’s musket, he left out the huge gap in midlevel Army officers and the failure of monetary incentives to retain them. However, let me offer that none of us is claiming that an all-volunteer service is a panacea to our challenges, but that it is better than the alternative.

From the military officer and noncommissioned officer perspective, we are afraid that a draft will put us in charge of large numbers of unmotivated and low-skilled enlisted service members. Even if that adds a handful of rich well-educated kids to the ranks, our ability to do the mission will be diminished. We’ve become accustomed to leading very smart, athletic and motivated individuals. None of us wants to give that up. From an economic and human capital perspective, Curtis Gilroy laid out an almost impeccable defense of the all-volunteer force. We already have an incredibly impressive enlisted and officer force by any measure. Adding every Ivy League doctoral student to our mix might be a force multiplier, but we should stay grounded in reality. It seems very clear to me that once we go to war, the Army we want is the Army we have.

To be fair to Yingling, he is not contesting that point. Instead he claims that a less-effective conscripted force will be more efficient because it means that our national leaders, particularly Congress, will be more selective and scrutinizing about which wars we chose to engage. That is an honest question to pose. But I charge that he has not made an effective argument. Taking first the decision-making process that led to Iraq, it is not at all clear how a conscripted service and or a more engaged Congress would have changed the outcome. Our assumptions about Iraq in 2003 were almost totally false, but they were believed by almost everyone. To think that Congress would have known better when the United Nations, the U.S. intelligence community and 13 years of military engagement with Iraq pointed to weapons of mass destruction seems implausible, especially in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. To answer the question he posed to Gilroy, I do think that given the circumstances at the time we would still have gone to war in Iraq even if doing so had brought conscription and higher taxes. I completely share Yingling’s sentiments about Iraq and wish we had pursued what John Mearshimer of the University of Chicago called for at the time: containment.

Even if we disagree about Iraq and how it should be viewed in light of this theory, Yingling owes us a point-by-point analysis of all military engagements in U.S. history before we can conclude anything about his ideas. He has biased the analysis by selecting the two data points most favorable to his argument and disregarded the rest. Does his theory hold when we consider World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo and other military engagements? I suspect taking all the evidence into account, the argument for conscription will not seem nearly as potent.

— Maj. Tobias Switzer, Air Force, Santiago, Chile

Whilst it is career suicide, of course, to speak out against his political masters, and particularly against the president, I have a feeling many will sympathize with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s sentiments.

The issue is that fundamentally there must be a coordinated political and military campaign for any conflict which involves a nation and its national interest. In Iraq it was slightly easier as the political campaign had only to rebuild a nation that had been taken apart by another regime. Afghanistan is very different. The nation has to be built from nothing. It is not possible to do that by backing an Afghan government that is unpopular, of only one ruling tribe and totally engrained in corruption.

That has left the military fighting a war which is unwinnable, to sustain a government which is known to be ineffective and corrupt. Where is the political campaign?

Looking at this current year, it is well-known that the Taliban regroup during the winter and then press hard during the summer fighting season. McChrystal timed his surge of troops to counter this Taliban season of fighting. Unfortunately, the surge has not been significantly effective, the Taliban have gained in strength, now controlling more than 70 percent of the country, with Karzai’s government controlling only some 29 of the 121 key strategic districts. The Taliban have increased their attacks on NATO troops, with casualties increasing by the day. The U.S. has now lost more than 1,000 killed and the U.K. more than 300.

I come back to the statement that this war is unwinnable militarily. And that is the nub of the frustration undoubtedly felt by McChrystal. He realized that the only way to achieve some success in Afghanistan is with a coordinated political and military campaign, but at present the political side of that solution is missing. Indeed it will never be possible to persuade the Afghans to support a government led by Karzai. Without that Afghan national will, there can be no peace and no political success. Why don’t the politicians realize that? The history of Afghanistan is littered with political and military failures as successive foreign governments have tried to impose an unwanted political solution on this difficult country.

— Air Vice Marshal Tony Harrison (ret.), Royal Air Force, Devon, U.K.