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Conscript army can’t end ‘forever wars’ & teach Americans to be better citizens. Dismantling all-volunteer military’s a bad idea

When it comes to closing the gap that exists in civil-military relations in the US that contribute to the militarization of its foreign policy, the onus falls on American citizens, and not the US military, to accomplish this task.

A pair of recent articles have raised the question as to whether America is well-served by the all-volunteer military that has existed since the end of the Vietnam War. Rajan Menon, a political scientist from the City College of New York, writes in Foreign Policy that the forever wars currently waged by the US continue because they place too little burden on the public and politicians. In the same vein, Dennis Laich, a retired US Army major general with more than 35 years of service, writes in The Military Times that “America has been involved in endless wars for 20 years. And today, 330 million Americans lay claim to rights, liberties, and security that not a single one of them is obligated to protect and defend. The all-volunteer force has granted all Americans an exemption from this obligation.

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While I understand the sentiment behind these words, I strongly disagree with the underlying assumption. The US military does not protect the rights and liberties of the average American citizen. These rights and liberties are fought for and defended within the context of the daily lives of Americans inside our borders. The military does not guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial, or any other of the myriad of rights and privileges that have come to define the United States as a collective. In fact, the military, with few exceptions, has no roll in the domestic affairs of the American people. The task of defending American rights and privileges is the exclusive purview of the American civilian, who must do so daily lest these rights diminish and fade away.

What the military does provide is a barrier of external security which safeguards America and American interests abroad from foreign enemies. It is an important job, but it does not equate to protecting and defending the rights, liberties, and security I demand as an American citizen. Indeed, while the military (like every other public servant) takes an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, it is that very document which bars military involvement in the civil affairs of the nation. Thankfully, it appears that the current US military leadership shares this point of view. Let the military fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; I’ll take care of defending my rights on the home front, thank you very much.

A bigger issue confronted by both Rajan Menon and Dennis Laich is what Laich calls the “civil-military gap” that contributes to the militarization of US foreign policy and the lack of public accountability on the part of US presidents and members of Congress who, because of the existence of an all-volunteer military, no longer have to worry, as Menon puts it, about “mass demonstrations or electoral backlashes” which result in their being given “greater freedom to continue war for years.

Rajan Menon and Dennis Laich both point out that what Menon calls “the uneven burden of protecting the United States” has created a military that is largely drawn from economically disenfranchised elements of American society and funded by borrowing trillions of dollars as opposed to directly passing the cost of the military and the wars it wages directly on to the American people. They both note that the combination of a ready pool of lower-class recruits and the debt-driven funding of the military places “virtually no demands on the public” and, as such, creates no impetus for the public therefore to hold their elected officials responsible for the endless wars America has been engaged in since the end of the Cold War.

Military’s job is to prevail on battlefield – not to pick the location of this battlefield

I would counter that the best solution to this problem is a better understanding of basic civics on the part of the American people, and not lowering the quality of the US military by diluting its professionalism with ill-trained conscripts. If you want to change foreign policy, that change is best accomplished on the front end, where the cost is measured in terms of air miles flown by diplomats engaged in the art of diplomacy, and not on the back end, where the price is measured in the lives of servicemembers sacrificed because of a lack of training. Teaching Americans to be better global citizens is a far more effective way to alter our foreign policy than making our military anything less than dominant in the field of battle.

The military’s job is to prevail on the battlefield. It does not get to pick the location of this battlefield, or the enemy that will be confronted there – that is the responsibility of the civilian leadership the American people elect to represent them in national office. These elected officials – not the military – make the policy that the military is called upon to implement. And since the military’s sole purpose is to win the battles it is tasked to fight, then I would argue that any measure undertaken to rectify the domestic political problem manifested in the so-called “civil-military gap” that dilutes the lethality and efficiency of the US military is a self-defeating proposition. This includes the kind of conscript military favored by both Laich and Menon.

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There is no doubt that short-term conscripts are more than capable of handling many of the individual tasks associated with military service, especially the more menial ones normally affiliated with front-line combat service. This, however, does not mean that they do these tasks well, or are capable of repeating successful outcomes over time. This comes with the kind of repetition that takes place over time – the kind of time a two- or three-year period of conscripted service does not provide when it comes to learning the profession of arms.

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the bestselling book, ‘Outliers’, has asserted that it takes about 10,000 hours of intense, prolonged, and concentrated practice before one can become exceptionally successful in a given field. Gladwell based his theory on the work of Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist perhaps best known for postulating that anyone could rise to the top of his or her chosen field through a combination of the proper training and will. Ericsson wasn’t sold on Gladwell’s 10,000 hour figure – he noted that in the field of classical music the best performers have put in some 25,000 hours of practice – deliberate, dedicated time spent solely on improving one’s skill.

 ‘I spent six years training how to defeat Russians’ 

One is the byproduct of his/her own experience, and as such their opinions are shaped by bias associated with these experiences. I enlisted in the US Army in 1979 as a volunteer. Five years later, having graduated from college and officer candidate school, I was commissioned in the US Marine Corps. I learned one of my first lessons in professionalism from a tactics instructor at the Basic School, a six-month finishing school for Marine lieutenants before they are shipped off to the real world of the Fleet Marine Force. We were driving on I-95, between Washington, DC and Quantico, through the kind of rolling, wooded hills that comprise the Northern Virginia landscape. The instructor, a captain, casually asked me what I saw when I looked at the scenery.

It’s nice,” I said.

You’re dead,” he replied. As went on to explain, I should never look at terrain from a civilian point of view. I should be examining fields of fire, routes of advance, defilade, enfilade, cover, concealment and the best places to plot pre-registered fires. If these weren’t the first things I thought of when I looked at the surrounding terrain, then I probably needed to choose a new line of work, because otherwise I’d be getting myself and the Marines I was privileged to lead killed. This way of thinking, the captain said, does not happen on its own, but rather is conditioned over hours of repetitive practice, until it becomes second nature to do these evaluations. Family vacations were never the same after that, but he was right – even today I look at terrain with a military eye as a matter of habit.

Terrain appreciation is but one of dozens of critical skills that a professional warrior must ingrain into his or her being as second nature. It requires a mindset totally dedicated to the military profession, something a conscript military, by definition, does not – and cannot – have.

I entered the military in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when the US military establishment was making the difficult yet necessary transition from the conscript force that was so scarred by the Vietnam experience, to a professional military capable of prevailing on the battlefields of Europe against the Soviet Army. 

I spent six years training how to defeat the Russians, including two-and-a-half years at 29 Palms, California, home of the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center. There, I spent countless hours perfecting the art of combined arms combat in a maneuver war environment. By the time I rotated out of 29 Palms, I had accumulated more than 10,000 hours of intense, highly focused training. I was an expert in my field (the provision of combat intelligence to a general support field artillery battalion). After three more years, accumulating thousands of more hours of training, I was given the opportunity to test my skills in an actual war – the 1991 Gulf War.

I was not alone. The 700,000-plus servicemembers who deployed to the Middle East in 1990-1991 to liberate Kuwait from Iraq were all “volunteers.” But they were also all professionals who, like me, had accumulated untold hours of focused training on doing their respective job. Very few of those deployed had been to war before – they, like me, were untested. 

The result speaks for itself – the US-led coalition handily defeated a larger force of combat-hardened Iraqi conscripts, largely on the capability and professionalism of the all-volunteer force that existed at that time. It was not even close. I emerged from that experience convinced that the military force the US had assembled in the deserts of the Middle East could defeat any other military force in the world – bar none. The main reason why I believed so was that we had become that which Gladwell and Ericsson theorized about – experts whose expertise was drawn from years of dedicated, focused training on the art of war.

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No conscript force would ever be able to match the professionalism of the US military circa 1990-91. And while I am no longer in the military, I would suspect that, if anything, the technological complexities of modern war have increased exponentially, making for even more intense training requirements so that this new technology could be seamlessly folded into existing doctrine, tactics, operations, and strategies. The bottom line is that the fundamentals of lethality, sustainability and survivability that govern if a military formation will survive on the battlefield are enhanced significantly with the kind of focused, long-term training a professional military can offer.

A conscript military will not, in and of itself, alter the current focus of US foreign policy objectives, which often lead to armed conflict. That will require a fundamental rethinking on the part of the American people about how we interact with the rest of the world. But it will increase the likelihood of defeat on the field of battle by the US military. If America were to revert to a conscript military, we would lose the edge that a professional military provides, with the difference quantifiable in terms of body bags coming home.

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