Biting the Bullet: Military Conscription and the Price of Citizenship

A tip to travelers: Avoid Zekistan. It has crummy tourist amenities and lethal concentrations of lead.

I found this out back in June, patrolling one side of a city street in the country’s capital. I was hunting for fedayeen with Alpha Team, a stick of four light infantry troopers. Across the street, Bravo Team did the same, commanded by the Evolver, a buddy who had logged in from San Francisco. They hugged a wall as they moved.

At the corner, Bravo came under fire from a machine- gun nest fortified behind a collapsed wall. The Evolver radioed for help, and I dropped a smoke grenade in front of the nest to screen his team’s movement. Bravo sprinted across an intersection to flank the machine gun, ending up in the sights of another concealed gunman.

With Bravo pinned down, I led Alpha Team across the street, behind steel garbage containers and tangles of rubble, and around a back alley. I now had a clean shot at the gunman from the rear. But just as he was about to meet Mohammed, a guy with a rocket launcher, three stories up in a building behind me, shared it with my entire team. Game over.

“Zekistan,” of course, doesn’t actually exist. And Full Spectrum Warrior is just another video game—but not really. The first in a new wave of “first-person thinker” games, Full Spectrum Warrior began life as an alarmingly accurate U.S. Army training tool. Soldiers move, fire, and react as they do in real combat. Ammunition runs low. Soldiers must lug wounded comrades to the nearest aid station before they bleed out, frequently under fire. Macho, blast-’em-up tactics get a player very dead very fast. Instead, the game rewards planning, careful movement, a focused use of force, and team coordination. Even the troopers’ language is, well, realistic.

Simulations have a long military history. Back in the early 1990s, attending West Point, my eldest son crewed a virtual Abrams tank in a fast-moving, battalion-sized armored battle involving more than 150 networked computers. Today the Army’s simulated battlefields have vastly more detail and a realism approaching that of The Matrix. But they also show a shift in the focus of combat training.

“With [Full Spectrum Warrior] the Army decided that it needed to think less about educating people on the physics of artillery tubes,” says Jim Korris, creative director of the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), “and start teaching them how to make smart discriminations very quickly in close urban fights—training in cognitive decision-making rather than skills.”

ICT, which developed Full Spectrum Warrior with Army guidance and funding, offers a number of “tactical decision aids” that open a window on the landscape of warfare in the 21st century. It’s a world called MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), with very different rules and needs from anything the American military imagined during the Cold War. It’s a world where Trident missiles mean very little. “Boots on the ground” mean everything. Say goodbye to mobile tank battles. Say hello to Black Hawk Down. As one Marine infantry officer, fresh from the Middle East, said as he watched a Full Spectrum Warrior firefight, “That’s the way it was in Iraq.”

The Challenges of Modern Warfare

Two years before the 1993 battle in Mogadishu that sparked Mark Bowden’s book and Ridley Scott’s film, military historian Martin van Creveld published The Transformation of War. Brief but prophetic, van Creveld’s premise was simple: “[T]oday, the most powerful modern armed forces are largely irrelevant to modern war indeed [their] relevance stands in inverse proportion to their modernity.”

How is that possible? Weapons never develop in a vacuum. They help shape our ideas about war and the ways we need to fight it. But weapons themselves also derive from those ideas. Modern Western armies draw heavily on the experience of tank and artillery warfare, rapid maneuver, nuclear deterrence, and strategic bombing of the last century. To trim friendly casualties, they try to kill the enemy from as far away as possible. As a result, they depend on technology. But that same technology slants military thinking in some directions and blinds it to others. It also devours precious resources and breaks down more often as battlefields become harsh, dense, and chaotic.

Thus, Israeli tanks failed to win control of the heavily built-up areas of Lebanon in 1982. German bombing helped the Stalingrad defenders in 1942 by creating an ocean of rubble. And a small band of urban rebels easily beat a much larger and technologically advanced—but also slow and heavy—Russian force in the first battle of Grozny in 1994-95.

For van Creveld, modern regular forces are often useless in fighting today’s wars precisely because they depend so much on technology. “[B]etween maintenance and logistics and sheer administration,” he argues, “[the] number of troops in their ‘tails’ will be far too large, and the number in the fighting ‘teeth’ far too small.”

In lay terms, the leadership structures and battle methods of modern armies are just too clumsy. They can’t deal with light, quick, street insurgents in the cities of the Third World. But by 2010, 75 percent of the world’s population will be jammed into urban areas. So for any power with global interests—notably the United States—that poses a problem.

Much of the combat in World War II, Korea, and even Vietnam was fought horizontally by large units for the control of resources and territory. Urban warfare is profoundly vertical. It flows up into office buildings and down into sewers, cellars, and subways. It’s also a manpower hog. Street combat demands large numbers of light, agile, well-trained and well-disciplined infantry. Fighting devolves to the squad level—up-close and compartmentalized. It causes high casualties. It drains soldiers emotionally and physically. It demands special gear like knee and elbows pads and eye protection from exploding masonry in firefights. The enemy is rarely obvious. Command and control easily break down. Urban structures interfere with radios. Sanitation is bad, so septic threats increase. The civilian population limits air and artillery support.

In such circumstances, Machiavelli’s dictum that war should be “short and sharp” no longer seems to apply. It’s no wonder that van Creveld says that, “like a man who has been shot in the head but still manages to stagger forward a few paces, conventional war may be at its last gasp.” And it’s also no wonder that the key concept driving U.S. military thought since the mid-1990s has been “transformation.” According to Douglas Johnson, a 30-year Army veteran and now a research professor in national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College, the Army “is undergoing an unbelievable change, the biggest change since the First World War,” struggling to address a “[fundamental] design problem and get agile.”

The Increasing Need

But there’s a dilemma. As historian Niall Ferguson and others have pointed out, the United States is a global power with a chronic manpower shortage. That has become brutally clear in Iraq. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, the Army had 1,570,343 active-duty personnel. By 1984, that number had dropped to 780,180. During the First Gulf War the ranks dipped to 710,821, then to 610,450 at the start of the Clinton administration. Today, fighting an insurgency with far less international help than in 1991, U.S. Army active-duty personnel number 494,000-40 percent fewer than the First Gulf War—with 212,000 in the Army Reserve and several hundred thousand more in the National Guard.

With too few troops and a war taking longer than expected, guess who’s gone from a strategic reserve to an operational force? Roughly half of the Army National Guard is now on active duty or on alert for possible service. This has “upset the traditional understanding of the Reserve and Guard,” according to Thomas Donnelly, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for defense and national security issues. “Most Reservists and Guard members signed up assuming they’d be activated only for extraordinary circumstances and then only for a limited time.” Now they’re engaged in an ongoing war zone, and people are coming home dead. In that context, the October 2004 incident where reservists in Iraq refused to drive a fuel convoy on a dangerous mission was only a matter of time.

The manpower shortfall explains why Senator John Kerry invoked the draft boogeyman during the 2004 election campaign, and why President Bush quickly promised not to bring it back. But it’s an obvious question: In the face of military need, why not have a draft?

With nearly 300 million people, the United States has a vast manpower pool. Despite the Bush administration’s commitment not to reinstate the draft, senior officials of the Selective Service System and the Pentagon did study ways of revamping conscription as recently as 2003. Discussions involved stretching the maximum required draft registration age from 25 to 34 years old, including women for the first time, and identifying registrants with critical skills for specialized military and government service.

In a February 11, 2003, proposal to key defense of-ficials, the Selective Service System reviewed 30 years of U.S. draft registration planning and argued that, “in line with today’s needs [and] the Selective Service System’s structure, programs and activities should be re-engineered toward maintaining a national inventory” of registrants of both sexes available for conscription to fill urgent national security, health, and community needs. Pentagon officials have, thus far, not accepted the proposal.

At its best, military conscription—either alone or as part of a larger system of mandatory universal service— builds national unity, levels ethnic and social differences, and forces young people to invest a piece of their lives in the duties of citizenship. “You don’t value what doesn’t cost you,” one former Army officer said in the course of researching this story. Nothing important, including maturity, comes cheaply. So it is in families, friendships, work—and, arguably, in coming of age as a citizen. Thus Congressman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) argued for “a national universal draft that includes women with no exemption” except to allow students to finish high school.

It’s also why Air Force Academy and Kennedy School of Government graduate and author David Englin believes that “military service would strengthen our social fabric by bringing the reality of America closer to America’s ideals.” In his view, a draft would also make reckless military adventures less likely because of their immediate cost in blood to average American families.

Englin, a Kerry supporter and American Prospect/New Republic liberal, chides Democrats for their negative misconceptions about the nature of the U.S. military and the value of conscription. He argued in 2002 that “military service has always been a great equalizer, and there is intrinsic democratic value to making young adults from every corner of America and from all walks of life train together, serve together and depend on one another as brothers and sisters in arms.”

A Firm ‘No’

But resistance to the draft comes from unexpected quarters. I was a participant in the Army War College’s weeklong National Security Seminar in 2003. I raised the question of a draft with the dozen or so rising officers in my seminar group who will one day populate the Army’s general grade. Nobody liked the idea. Most felt that unwilling conscripts create more problems than they solve. The memory of Vietnam—fighting an unpopular war with unhappy draftees on short tours of duty, 10,000 miles from home—remains vivid in the military.

“The Israeli and Swiss conscription models are successful for unique reasons,” one infantry colonel said. “For the Israelis, universal service is a matter of national survival. With the Swiss, you have four different language groups and a tradition of neutrality. Conscription is a glue for their national identity.” But neither the Israeli nor the Swiss situation applies to the United States. And many European governments have been moving away from conscription in recent years.

For Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), citizen-soldiers do have value as a strategic reserve in time of national emergency. But a mixed con-script/volunteer Army would “devalue the tactical competence” of everyone involved. Combat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is “real soldiering” that requires well-trained, disciplined, motivated, professional troops. “Sending conscripts to patrol the streets of Kabul would be a recipe for disaster,” he says.

Donnelly’s view fits well with a recently deactivated member of the elite 101st Air Assault Division. “There’s a reason Claymore mines have the words, ‘This side toward enemy’ stamped on the front,” he said. “Too many grunts are lunkheads, and conscripts would make it worse.” In principle, he supports the idea of military service as an obligation of citizenship. But he also finds the prospect of large numbers of under-educated, under-motivated, minimally trained people, armed to the teeth with lethal weapons, “scary—I wouldn’t want them anywhere near me.”

Douglas Johnson of the Army War College remembers his own mixed experiences with draftees as an officer. “In combat you spend a lopsided amount of time dealing with the problem children   the guys who mess things up for everybody else,” he says. “And the way you usually solve the problems is by sending them to work in the rear, not for their own sake but to protect the good men in the forward areas. But what does that do? It pollutes your rear area with a higher number of the dregs. So the guys who are sup­porting and supplying your best men are disproportionately your worst, which endangers everybody.”

Johnson feels that the Army’s current manpower short­ages are partly real and partly an echo of December 1944. “We reached a point around the Battle of the Bulge,” he says, “where it became clear that we had total air superiority, and we’d had it for a long time. We had too many ground-based anti-aircraft units, and we needed more infantry. So we disbanded some of the anti-aircraft units and reconfigured them into infantry.” Some of the same “combing out” of the Army’s force structure is happening now. The difficulty of “combat in [Iraq’s] cities isn’t really the problem” for U.S. forces, Johnson believes. Rather, “we need a better system of supply” to sustain the men doing the fighting.

Maybe, and maybe not. In a sense, supply problems seem to confirm van Creveld’s thesis that modern armies have tails too long and teeth too few. “In the jungles of Viet­nam, the mountains of Afghanistan and the closed, heavily populated Lebanese countryside,” he wrote, “forces on foot were often as mobile tactically as their mechanized oppo­nents. They were also much better able to make use of the terrain, with the result that it was always the conventional forces who were pinned down or blown up.”

According to one veteran infantryman, van Creveld’s premise is borne out again and again at the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). Theoretically, every Army light infantry brigade spends a month on a regular basis at JRTC honing its combat skills, with ten days “in the box”—simulated battle ranging from search-and-destroy missions to defense to urban combat.

Facing them is a battalion of OPFOR (opposing force) soldiers comprised of specially trained U.S. paratroop­ers. “The OPFOR guys operate as irregulars, usually in teams of four to ten,” said the veteran, “and they cut the brigades to pieces every time, just completely slaughter them. The urban combat phase is harrowing. They’re the most hated guys in the Army.”

The need to maintain some level of strategic and heavy conventional forces is unlikely to go away any time soon. But in a world where the rules of war have clearly changed, the United States is faced with two different problems: re-configuring our armed forces to fight successfully a new kind of war in a new kind of environment and sustaining the forces that actually do the fighting. The former is—so the Army believes—at least under way. The latter is much more ambiguous.

At the moment, both Donnelly and Johnson agree that we need more boots on the ground. Both also agree that a draft can’t accomplish what we really need to achieve. We don’t simply need more boots—we need the right kind of people wearing those boots. Donnelly believes that “for the foreseeable future, recruiting a larger Army is mainly a matter of Congress choosing to spend more money” to get the size and quality of the volunteer force we need. Johnson sees two options for the world’s only superpower: We can approve larger forces and then be willing to pay for them, or we can disengage and retire from some of our global commitments.

We can do one or the other, in Johnson’s view. We can’t avoid both.

The Utility of Conscription

And what about that unsettling Selective Service System proposal still floating around from 2003?

One line has remained with me ever since reading Mark Bowden’s book, Black Hawk Down: “[E]very enemy advertises his weakness in the way he fights. To Aidid’s fighters, the Rangers’ weakness was apparent. They were not willing to die.” Events, of course, proved the opposite. The Rangers in Mogadishu’s Bakara Market fought with now-legendary heroism against enormous odds. But do such men represent the character of the nation at large? I don’t think so.

I avoided the draft in 1970 through a medical deferment. Was it legitimate? Yes. Did I do everything I could to enhance my case in getting it? You bet. Looking back over the decades, do I feel good about not serving? No. Nothing in my medical record would have finally barred me from joining the military if I’d wanted to. I didn’t.

I never really believed that the Vietnam War was—at its root—immoral. I just didn’t want to fight in it. And while I did know fellow students at Notre Dame who had reflected deeply on the war and felt it was wrong, too many of my classmates were just like me—eager to avoid the military, whatever it took, and get on with their careers. The anti-war vocabulary of the day offered a pleasing gloss to our self-deception. It also worked pretty well with the chicks.

My point is this, and it echoes Niall Ferguson’s insight in Colossus: America is an empire in denial. We want the benefits of hegemony without admitting to it and without being willing to pay for it in the blood and resources that global power requires. The moral break between World War II’s “greatest generation” and the generation—my generation—that now runs the country is the truculent self-absorption that has shaped our entire culture since Vietnam. I helped create this. So did a lot of other people my age who haven’t fessed up to it and never will—from ex-presidents on down.

The armed forces personnel fighting and dying in Iraq today imply more good things about our nation than we may deserve. I support mandatory, universal, national service—including a military draft—because we need it. Not because of its military utility the experts can argue about that—but because of its moral utility. We need it the way a drunk needs a cold shower.

To mean anything, citizenship must have a cost in personal sacrifice for the common good. Yes, I know, it’s easy to say that in hindsight. But it doesn’t make it any less true. A nation is only as good as the ideals its people are willing to live for, defend, and—if necessary—die for. By that standard, the United States is in trouble, and it’s a problem no amount of Army transformation alone can solve.

  • Francis X. Maier

    Francis X. Maier, the father of four, writes from Philadelphia.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...