Stanley McChrystal Thinks The US Should Bring Back The Draft And It's A Terrible Idea

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General Stanley McChrystal (USA Ret) and Tom Ricks make unfortunate bedfellows.  On the issue of the draft they make a few good points, but even together they fail to come up with one compelling reason to reinstate conscription. This June at the Aspen Ideas Festival the retired general, safely ensconced in his new civilian life was quoted as saying: “I think we ought to have a draft.  I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn’t be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population…I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.” Tom Ricks picked up this refrain and took to the pages of the New York Times in an editorial that supported Gen McChrystal’s suggestion entitled “Let’s Draft Our Kids.”  

There is no doubt in my mind that Gen. McChrystal and Mr. Ricks are great Americans.  They are also both wrong on this issue of a draft.  

Mr. Ricks goes on to say that General McChrystal’s comments constitute “the first time in recent years that a high-profile officer has broken ranks to argue that the all-volunteer force is not necessarily good for the country or the military.”  No such thing happened.  Despite his storied history as an outspoken and effective leader while in uniform, General McChrystal is now effectively “Mr. McChrystal” and he broke ranks with no one.  Perhaps the following quote best demonstrates his new position as military pundit rather than his previous role as military senior leader.

“I’ve enjoyed the benefits of a professional service, but I think we’d be better if we actually went to a draft these days.  There would be some loss of professionalism, but for the nation it would be a better course.”

Gen. McChrystal is enjoying the fruits of civilian life, passing his days teaching a little at Yale and helping out on a few boards of directors but let’s recall for a moment that before his abrupt departure from active duty he commanded all International Forces in Afghanistan.  Do you think for one minute, Gen McChrystal—who spent a career as a special operations soldier—would have preferred to command a conscripted American component full of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan against their will and perhaps opposed to the war?  With all the blood already shed, do you really think that in the name of fairness we ought to field a less professional and therefore less capable force?  

If the general’s thesis is correct how do we explain Vietnam?  Between 1965 and 1973 the US drafted nearly 2 million men into service to fight a war in which some 50,000 Americans died.  US involvement in Vietnam ran the better part of 20 years.  Looking at the example of Vietnam, it is hard to argue that conscription shortens wars or even gives this country pause.  In fact, Vietnam ended conscription in America, but not before our society fractured along deep and ugly lines.  Conscription is not the solution to the military-society divide; it’s the seed that grew into this problem to start with.  Calling for a return to the draft without unanimous public support would only serve to reenact our Vietnam experience and I don’t think that’s what anyone in this country would like to see happen.

Mr. Ricks proposes a three tiered system for a return of the draft.  High school grads can either choose to serve in the military for 18 months, civilian service for 3 years or completely opt out and forego government programs like Medicare and subsidized college loans.  He focuses on having conscripts perform menial tasks for low pay such as painting barracks and doing paperwork.  Mr. Ricks’ argument is to conscript people to do tasks that aren’t dangerous while we deploy a professional and volunteer force to fight wars.  I fail to see this as a solution to closing the gap between American society and the military or as a viable mechanism to shorten wars.

Mr. Ricks suggests that although this program would “cost billions of dollars,” it would also save “billions if implemented broadly and imaginatively.”  In today’s fiscal climate—where we are downsizing nearly everything in the military—I don’t think anyone at the Pentagon is interested in taking on conscripts to perform tasks and I doubt that anyone in congress is going to line up to endorse a multi-billion dollar program drafting teenagers into military service.  If you read his article closely, Mr. Ricks doesn’t want to conscript American youth into the military; he wants them to perform service, public works, and menial labour.  He wants to bring back the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  This might be a fine idea, but we should also consider the public’s tepid response to recent efforts such as AmeriCorps, Teach for America and the push to regenerate the Peace Corps. 

So if General McChrystal’s comments are out of touch and Mr. Ricks’ pure fantasy what is the answer?  Leadership.  

Mr. Ricks and McCrystal are arguing in favour of a fantasy; the dream of an invested, mobilized youth who will advance the ball.  Youth inertia combined with the moral high ground and self-evident truths is believed to be the secret sauce of liberty and justice for all.  The problem is it doesn’t actually work.  It’s not sustainable and true motivation can’t be forced through conscription.  If you think a single-payer health care system is unpopular; just wait till the president rolls out Gen. McChrystal’s draft idea.

What I want is leadership.  Bold.  Decisive.  Inspiring.  Maybe this is a fantasy, just like the dreams of Mr. Ricks and Gen. McChyrstal but there is one difference here; my dream has come true before.  We’ve had real leaders who have mobilized this country at times when it faced an existential threat and demanded that it stand up and fight.  Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman; these men seized the moment and mobilized a nation.  Yes they all used conscription but there is a key difference here—the US was facing an existential threat, one that presented a very real possibility of destroying our nation.  No such threat exists today but that’s not to say you need an existential threat to mobilize this country.   

What would have happened if after 9/11 this country was asked to sacrifice instead of being told to go back to the mall and keep shopping?  Where was the call for every person to pitch in and do their part?  What would have happened if we had sold war bonds or enacted a dollar per gallon tax on gasoline to fund some of the war?  What if we had made recycling a national priority and told people to plant a victory garden?  How much impact could we have had if we had doubled the size of the Department of State with professionals who were willing, ready and able to kick dirt and do the hard work of stability and nation building while carrying a rifle if needed?  That’s how you get every town to have skin in this game; you give every person in this country a way to contribute and then demand that they do it, not just draft military aged males.

This country failed to mobilize for the war, it failed to sacrifice as a nation and our leaders at all levels failed to demand it do so.  As a result, the American military has become isolated and strained after a decade of constant conflict.  A disinterested American public is the symptom, not the cause of this problem.

We had the opportunity to be heroes in Afghanistan.  No nation of any consequence would have suggested for a moment that we not go to Afghanistan to pursue those who brought war to our country.  Many did so over Iraq and we as a nation failed to listen—and there’s the second take away for Gen McChrystal and Mr. Ricks.  When everybody else in the room is saying “that’s probably a bad idea” and you’re arguing against them you’re either the smartest guy in the room, or wrong.  We were wrong and a draft wouldn’t have changed that.

If Gen McChrystal wants shorter wars he ought to spend the rest of his civilian life demanding that congress do their job and fully oversee the conflicts this country engages in.  It’s also worth noting that the US didn’t actually declare war following the attacks of 9/11.  That privilege rests solely in the power of congress and they took no such action and haven’t since in 1942.  Congress also holds the power to end the war we’re in right now; if they wanted to they could simply shut the money off.

If Mr. Ricks wants everyone in this country to sacrifice when this nation goes to war and thinks scores of American youth swarming across the country doing public works projects is the way to do that, fine by me.  They could start by tearing every made in China, magnetic, support the troops, yellow ribbon off the backs of cars and demanding that American citizens stand behind their military and their nation in a way that matters.  Let’s not conflate serving your nation with serving in the armed forces; these are two wholly different things and neither should be compulsory.  

The American people are capable and willing to sacrifice on a level that can astound and it doesn’t require a draft to do it.  It doesn’t take more dead American servicemen to make people in small town America feel like they’re contributing to a worthy cause.  It takes leadership at every level—national, state and local.

Here’s hoping that our next defining 9/11 moment as a nation is far away.  Here’s also hoping that next time it happens—and it will—that this country looks back and vows not to make the mistakes it did before and sends its professional, all-volunteer military to war with the full backing, support and ready sacrifice of the American people behind it.

Editor’s note: Opinions expressed here are only those of Tyrell Mayfield.

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