Breach of Logic

November 1, 2013 Topics: Security Regions: United States

Breach of Logic

Mini Teaser: An unpersuasive argument that America's civilian-military gap is widening—and sucking us into war.

by Author(s): James Joyner

As a consequence of the Great Decoupling, Bacevich charges, “Washington’s penchant for war has appreciably increased.” This is nonsense. As Geoffrey Perret lays out, in a book Bacevich cites elsewhere, we are A Country Made By War. The book’s subtitle: From the Revolution to Vietnam—The Story of America’s Rise to Power. Consult a timeline of U.S. military operations and one finds a steady stream of them throughout every time period, seemingly irrespective of whether there’s a draft on. Similarly, Bacevich repeatedly refers to George C. Marshall’s declaration that “a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War,” noting that we did just that in Iraq, with an all-volunteer force, but somehow overlooking the fact that we also did it in Vietnam with a conscript force—odd, considering he served there himself as a young army officer. Indeed, the war had passed the seven-year threshold by the time he left.

Nor is this the only place that Bacevich goes badly astray. He notes that Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on ending the draft on the grounds that it was incompatible with freedom. Bacevich attributes this to “Nixonesque opportunism” aimed at undermining the antiwar protests and laments that “although Nixon had run for the presidency vowing to end the Vietnam War, eliminating the draft permitted him instead to prolong it.” This is wrong. Nixon empaneled the Gates Commission, which recommended a move to an all-volunteer force in its February 1970 report. But the existing draft was scheduled to expire at the end of June 1971, and Nixon asked for and received a two-year extension. The draft did not end until June 1973—five months after the Paris peace accords ended U.S. combat operations in Vietnam and three months after the last American troops left South Vietnam.

At times, Bacevich seems to be arguing against himself. He cites Lyndon Johnson’s White House aide Joseph Califano’s suggestion that “by removing the middle class from even the threat of conscription, we remove perhaps the greatest inhibition on a President’s decision to wage war.” Bacevich smacks him down: “Yet conscription hadn’t dissuaded Harry Truman from intervening in Korea in 1950 or stopped Johnson from plunging into Vietnam in 1965, facts that sapped Califano’s argument of its persuasive power.” Indeed. And Bacevich’s.

BACEVICH ALSO provides a muddled account of social change in the military. He recounts the substantial improvements in the lot of the enlisted soldier that were necessary to “induce sufficient numbers of smart, able-bodied young Americans to volunteer for military service.” He notes, “In peacetime, the army had treated the draftee as an unskilled day laborer, available to perform whatever tasks might need doing. In the volunteer army, a soldier’s time acquired value. An increasingly costly commodity, it was not to be wasted on nonessentials.”

While seemingly cause for celebration, Bacevich detects in these changes the roots of the institution’s own destruction. For one thing, routine drudge work—“scrubbing pots and pans, grooming the parade ground, and even guarding the front gate”—was farmed out to civilian contractors. It’s true that pretty much every large company and organization in the country has done the same thing and, indeed, wouldn’t even consider making its own employees perform these tasks. But, for Bacevich, “Here was another insurgency of sorts, for-profit enterprises taking over turf the army had previously claimed as its own. In pursuit of economy, the army forfeited self-sufficiency.”

Even worse, while draftees tended to be single and get out as soon as they were legally able, volunteers tended to get married, start families and reenlist. This is a good thing, no? Apparently not, in that it obligated the army to become “family friendly” and build child-care centers. Also, the wives were “no longer content to accept the designation of ‘dependent’ while offering their services as volunteers, that is, unpaid auxiliaries.”

This is truly a bizarre formulation. For one thing, it was not the wives of draftees who served as “unpaid auxiliaries.” As Bacevich himself notes, the draftees were mostly young and single. It was the wives of the senior noncommissioned officers and officers who “volunteered” to run the social support network and keep the fires burning on the home front. Moreover, none of this was a function of ending conscription and going with an all-volunteer force; rather, it was a function of changes in society as a whole. The women’s movement was under way at the same time as we were moving to an all-volunteer force and would almost surely have come to fruition even if we had not. Indeed, some of the same cultural changes that challenged conscript soldiering made treating its women as second-class citizens unacceptable. And that’s to say nothing of the notion that we ought to augment a system where men are forced to serve in the military with one that likewise obligates their wives. Freedom isn’t free, I guess.

Similarly, Bacevich seems to lament the fact that “life for military families residing off-base became all but indistinguishable from the life of nonmilitary families living next door” and that “both on duty and off, the army became a place that Beetle Bailey would have scarcely recognized and into which he would not have been allowed entry.” Offhand, these strike me as unalloyed goods.

Quoting a young female recruit’s 1975 prediction that “if there’s another war, we’ll be there because with this voluntary system the men who don’t want to be here aren’t here,” Bacevich writes, “Male and female alike, Americans had abandoned collective obligation in favor of personal choice. Thanks to Richard Nixon, this applied to soldiering no less than to other pursuits.” Why this is anything but cause for celebration, Bacevich does not disclose. Indeed, he concedes that, while there have been some unfortunate incidents along the way, overall women “performed admirably” in the war in Iraq. Beyond this, while active recruiting of women into positions formerly reserved for males was doubtless initially a necessary compromise to increase the pool of potential volunteers, the aforementioned changes in the society writ large would have forced it to happen with or without a draft.

AFTER THE fall of the Soviet Union, Bacevich tells us, “For the Pentagon, peace posed a concrete and imminent threat. Generals who had slept undisturbed back when Warsaw Pact commanders had ostensibly been planning to launch World War III now fretted nervously over the prospect of their budget taking a hit.” In response, Bacevich charges, army leaders “conjure[d] up new dangers” to which only the “army could offer the necessary response.” And, he tells us, Saddam Hussein proved “a made-to-order helpmate.”

The problem with this is that when Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the U.S. Army was still very much on a Cold War footing. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall months earlier, few were expecting the imminent collapse of the USSR. And the army brass, including Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were far from eager for war in Iraq against Saddam’s mighty, battle-tested army. It was not until well after Desert Storm that the end of the Cold War suddenly became obvious to all. Browse through the archives of this journal, for example, and one will find talk of “The Coming Resurgence of Russia” and musings such as “If the Cold War is over, why do we still feel a chill wind?” in the spring of 1991.

No doubt Bacevich nicely documents the exuberance with which the army embraced its post–Cold War transition into a lighter, smaller, more versatile force (if downplaying the extent to which it remained essentially a scale model of its predecessor). He suggests that Army Chief of Staff Gordon R. Sullivan and others in the brass were obsessed with demonstrating “continued relevance” and were “keen to put soldiers to work, taking on new assignments in unfamiliar places.” The evidence here is slight. Indeed, Bacevich notes that “within two years of the Soviet Union’s demise, Sullivan had discerned that the world was ‘growing more dangerous.’” Sullivan identified

a litany of problems: “ethnic and religious hostility, weapons proliferation, power struggles created by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, elimination of the fear of regional conflicts escalating to superpower confrontation, radicalisms of a number of varieties, rising expectations of democracy and free markets coupled with the inability of governments to meet those expectations.”

As it turns out, Sullivan was remarkably prescient. Furthermore, civilian international-relations scholars were writing the exact same thing at the time. It was hardly as if the army was alone in trying to divine the shape of the “post–Cold War” future; it was a full-blown industry.

Oddly, Bacevich seems here to be arguing for a larger force—or, at least, the ability to rapidly create one via conscription should the nation so desire. Bacevich correctly notes that, for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the force was “much too small for the tasks at hand. The quality differential—highly trained, extravagantly equipped troops—did not fully compensate for the shortage of numbers.” Additionally, he points out that, with an all-volunteer force, “there existed no easy way to convert a too-small force into a sufficiently large one.” As a result of this shortfall, a very high operations tempo became “the new normal” for active-duty soldiers. Yet, in contrast to the conscript force in Vietnam, “the army as a whole did not disintegrate, nor did troops in the ranks protest or revolt. They kept going back again and again to wars they could not win.”

Pullquote: There's simply no evidence that the fact that "somebody else" is doing the fighting and dying has made us less sensitive to the loss of American sons and daughters.Image: Essay Types: Book Review