30 November 2013

In Defense of the AVF: Giving Dana Milbank Some Flak

Reliably, every year or so some smarter-than-the-rest-of-us journalist brings up the idea of a conscripted Army. This time, it is WaPo's Dana Milbank, and he is as wrong as every other person who suggests that a volunteer force robs the nation of some much needed perspective. Amazingly, he correlates Congress's low approval rating with the fact that so few in the legislature have served in the armed forces. Before I dismantle his argument, let me present it as fairly as I possibly can. (I encourage you to read his piece and judge for yourself, though).

Mandatory service would reduce social inequality, and develop leaders for our leader-starved governing class, which "has forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest."

Sounds logical. But it falls apart quickly upon the thinnest scrutiny. I have dealt with this topic several times before, so I won't rehash all of the points or go through the history of the All-Volunteer Force. Instead, I'll deal with Milbank head on.

The United States has built the finest fighting force ever known to man precisely because it abandoned the draft just over 40 years ago. Sure, we would still have top-notch weaponry in a conscripted force, but would we have the professional manpower to use it? Would we have the judicious leaders who know when and how much force to use in a variety of contexts? Would we be able to even approach a strategy of counterinsurgency with a drafted military?

Of course not. But an effective military doesn't seem to be a priority for those like Milbank who are interested in mandatory service. (Curiously, he includes retired General Stanley McChrystal as a philosophical comrade on the subject; Jazz Shaw at HotAir deals with McChrystal's "calls" for a draft renewal). Instead, Milbank wants to use a successful military as an instrument of social policy.

Milbank's model country is Switzerland. It is a wonderful place, but so different from the United States in so many ways. He conveniently left out the most important component of their requirement for service. Every fighting age male in that country is required to own and maintain a firearm at home as part of his militia service. I doubt Mr. Milbank thinks gun ownership is as important to the cohesiveness of a citizenry as the Swiss do.

Supporters of the AVF understand that the social benefits of institutions like the military are incidental, because they are the effect of virtue, not the cause. For example, gun rights advocates generally want to see more legal gun ownership, as Milbank points out, not because it would result in an enlightened and responsible citizenry, but because it would be an indicator of one.

He bashes the easily-bashed "chickenhawks" in Congress who are inclined to send young men and women into battle without good reason. Or at least, reasons that Washington Post columnists think are good.

And Milbank and his ilk would surely regret more military vets in Congress if it didn't result in their legislative preferences. If Congress was composed of mostly former military leaders, "Don't ask, don't tell" would probably still be in force, and women would surely not be allowed in combat roles.

If vets in Congress voted to send troops to a place that the Post's editorial board considered ill-advised, Milbank would be the first to cast them as cowboys too willing to use military force.

Then there is the problem of what to consider "service" in lieu of fighting. Police work and firefighting, presumably. Incredibly, Milbank mentions teaching, and "providing day care" as viable substitutes, no kidding.

Look, child care is immensely important, but it is qualitatively different from fighting our nation's enemies. The framers of the Constitution didn't grant Congress power to raise an army in order to "bind us together" or to allow kids from the South Bronx to get to know kids from suburban Kansas City, but to repel invasions and put down insurrections. (My critics might point out that our government long ago drifted away from an original intent vis-à-vis the military, with which I'd agree. But to those critics who lean left, I'd say that the government is further afield from the original meaning of the Constitution on a host of other matters that they would not be willing to reconsider. The constitutional arguments are for another day, though).

Milbank refers to the cohesivesness that imbues vets with a sense of shared purpose. The reason military vets are so closely bonded is because they fought alongside one another. They saw their buddies give all they had, get wounded, and sometimes die for them.

How would day care-- or any other service in lieu of-- result in the national unity that Milbank yearns for? We all do something to contribute. In fact, that was one of the main arguments considered by the Gates Commission, the group that formally recommended abolishing the draft to President Nixon. The best way for any individual to serve the country, the commission concluded, is the way that he or she deems fits and to which he or she devotes his or her total energies and passions. In time of war, we need grocery store clerks and taxi cab drivers, not just combat medics and day care providers.

Young people should serve. The fact that they don't isn't proof that they ought to be forced to, but rather that they haven't been taught the ethos of service. And that's the puzzling, but revealing, thing about McChrystal, who comes from a family with a heritage of military service. He obviously wanted to serve, and laments the fact that so many people do not share his desire. Compelling them to serve by force of the state's police powers would not instill that ethos any more than garnishing the wages of dead-beat dads makes them father of the year candidates.

And if Milbank is so gung-ho about the benefits of military service, I'd like to see his DD-214.

1 comment:

  1. We have a history with the draft, most recently with the Vietnam war. I think anyone with a historical insight can tell you that mandatory service did not raise the "espirit-de-corps" or the level of patriotism in young Americans at that time. It did not change the levels of social equality, and it did not bring down social barriers. In fact the draft created a new social boundary of it's own as Vietnam vets were repeatedly shunned and shamed when they returned home.

    Going back further one could argue that the draft did all of the above in World War II, but it can be countered with the assertion that the war efforts during that time had a greater purpose and the draft was simply a vehicle to that purpose and not the entire medium.