Col. Paul Yingling is one of the most thoughtful soldiers of his generation. In particular, his articles in Armed Forces Journal on the failures of military leadership and the compact between the United States and the men and women who fight the Long War have provoked much needed debate. The second of these pieces, “The Founders’ Wisdom,” a call for a return to a conscript military as the most effective and equitable way to raise forces for this struggle, has merited particularly close attention, rebuttal, and now, thanks to the folks over at Small Wars Journal, an invitation to further discussion. An offer I can’t resist.
Yingling makes three arguments for abandoning the current All-Volunteer Force. The first argument is based on the experience of the two world wars of the 20th century and based upon Yingling’s reading of the American tradition. Both these points are suspect. Take the analogy between the world wars and the Long War. The world wars were, relatively speaking, large and short, overwhelmingly conventional and decided by firepower. The Long War is, well, long, and though it has taxed the current force nearly to its breaking point, it is still rightly regarded as a series of small wars or campaigns. And the “American tradition” must account for the Civil War as well as the world wars. While the Civil War marked the first use of conscription in America, both Federal and Confederate armies were volunteers; conscripts accounted for about 6 percent of the total Union army.
But Yingling also extends his reading of this tradition: “[T]his approach demands popular participation in national security decisions and provides Congress with powerful incentives to reassert its war powers. Unlike the all-volunteer force, a conscripted force of citizen soldiers would ensure that the burdens of war are felt equally in every community in America.” This is a revealing quote, echoing two laments often expressed by American officers. The first is the belief that, absent a formal congressional declaration of war, an imperial presidency rides roughshod over the people’s representatives in committing long-service regulars to war. This is a highly corrosive myth (and one of the enduring problems in American civil-military relations) that conveniently overlooks what Congress does do, such as voting its direct approval of the Iraq war (a vote demanded by Democrats in the Senate, most stridently by Joe Biden) by a 78-22 margin, and what it intentionally does not do, namely, directly fulfill its Constitutional war declaration responsibilities. The convention of war resolutions suits the Congress and the executive, but also the strategic situations a global great power is apt to find itself in. This is, undeniably, a kind of buck-passing exercise, and it might be preferable in the abstract to have a straight-up declaration of war. Nonetheless the resolution votes amount to much the same thing: no member of the Congress is in any doubt about what the vote means, and its has been the consistent practice of even the most ardent proponents of executive power in many White Houses—even those named “Bush—to seek approval from Capitol Hill before deploying large forces. The idea that Congress would want to “reassert” its war powers by committing a conscript force is highly speculative. It’s also belied by the Vietnam experience—the ultimate in unhappy endings for a conscript force. The Vietnam experience also undercuts Yingling’s second lament, that the burdens of war would be more widely felt. If anything, the Vietnam-era conscript force became more demographically unrepresentative even than today’s AVF, more skewed toward the truly poor and the underclass. And an unfair system of conscription has been and would be a recipe for turmoil at home.
Yingling’s second argument is that conscription will allow for a sufficient expansion of the force to meet its long-term commitments. Yingling believes that conscription would result in amelioration of the excessive burdens imposed on today’s force: “stop-loss policies or an endless cycle of year-on, year-off deployments.” As one who has long argued for an increase in the number of U.S. ground forces, I’m entirely sympathetic to the stated goal—the size of the force has not only meant an excessive burden for soldiers and Marines (and unexpected duties for sailors and airmen), but been a confounding strategic and operational constraint—but I am entirely suspect about the means. What’s needed is something like an active-duty increase of 200,000 to 250,000, both to offset the over-use of the National Guard and Reserve but to ensure that there are sufficient regulars available to do what needs to be done. A rough estimate, based on U.S. Census data, of the military-service-age population of the United States, would be about 80 million Americans; thus the needed increase represents about a quarter of one percent of the appropriate demographic slice of the population. That’s a small proportion, but one that could only result in a most inequitable form of conscription. It’s also bound to result in a loss of military effectiveness. In a two-year period of enlistment, a conscript can only be expected to do one tour of duty in combat—in a kind of combat that rewards professional competence and experience. While the price to be paid for tactical misjudgments wouldn’t be as high as in World War II, it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be some cost measured both in terms of American casualties and itchy trigger-fingers leading to other casualties. In sum, a draft isn’t the right way to achieve the necessary increase and would introduce some level of uncertainty about indiscipline and combat effectiveness.
Yingling adds that “a conscripted force would not rely on exorbitant bonuses and reduced enlistment standards to fill its ranks.” It’s is unclear whether he means to be asserting a moral point or one about combat and cost effectiveness. What’s “exorbitant” is either in the economic eye of the marketplace or the moral eye of the beholder. And as to enlistment or recruiting standards, I know of no evidence that the marginal lowering of high school graduation rates and other traditional measures of some recent lean years have been translated into a less effective force, or a less disciplined force. And we don’t really know what the most expensive military benefits, like TriCare for Life, have meant in terms of the surprising resiliency of the AVF. The moral point is even more obscure: how to fully quantify what the many who don’t serve owe the few who do?
One begins to sense a larger agenda. Elsewhere Yingling elides these issues. Rebutting a manpower-policy critique of his Armed Forces Journal piece, Yingling argues that “raising and training an army and committing it to war [are not] merely exercises in labor economics, devoid of strategic and political consequences.” Later Yingling gets to what may well be the underlying point for him: “Does [former Undersecretary of the Army Nelson Ford] believe that the United States would have gone to war in Iraq if doing so had imposed conscription and higher taxes on the public?” It sounds like Yingling’s arguments are as much surrogates for a closet complaint about Iraq than a debate about the AVF per se.
This agenda appears even more clearly in Yingling’s third argument for conscription, wherein he asserts it would be “less expensive.” Again, he means not only to be critiquing the analytic case for the AVF but to be including “the human cost of war. There is no consideration for the damage caused to soldiers and families from repetitive, year-long combat tours, including the soaring rates of suicide, PTSD, and substance abuse. Nor is there any acknowledgement that these ills are made worse by policy choices that lay the heavy burdens of war on too few soldiers.” Again, this sounds less like a debate about the shortcomings of the force asked to fight the Long War than about the folly of the Long War.
And so at the close of his SWJ essay, Yingling ends with an explicit call for some “focus on these larger issues of justice and civic obligation.” Amen to that. But we will no more come to a satisfactory conclusion—or be able to fashion any durable Long War strategy—if we simply weigh those questions in the abstract or in isolation. The proper set of questions is how to balance military effectiveness and maximize the prospects of strategic success while maintaining a fair and just compact between soldiers and the citizenry they serve. That is, we must work to secure the world we would like and fight the wars that thus seem necessary while preserving the domestic society we cherish.
A better analogue than the world wars, or at least a useful Long War thought exercise, is to think about how Great Britain conducted the small wars of the 19th century or indeed how Americans protected their Western frontiers. These were trying experiences for the regulars on whom the burden fell; think “Tommy this and Tommy that” or Frederic Remington paintings. But the exigencies of those wars demanded long-service regulars, who inevitably came from a small and otherwise invisible segment of society. To forget them was unjust, and a failure to meet civic obligation on the part of civilians. But to have employed conscript forces to chase Cochise or to fight the Zulu wars would have been equally unjust and a failure of military art and science as well as civic obligation.
Yingling is quite right that a relentlessly cheery, what-me-worry attitude toward the AVF is no longer plausible. But the dream of the citizen-soldier is likewise implausible and a very poor remedy for our current conundrum. Wishing away the wars we have — particularly the frontier half-conflicts that comprise the Long War in the Muslim world—in favor of the kinds of wars we’d like, brief and big, conventional and congenial to conscripts rather than regulars is not a satisfactory answer.
And it’s a fact, not propaganda, to observe that the AVF has proved vastly more resilient than one might have imagined on September 10, 2001. It needs relief and repair, not replacement. We can afford the regular Army we need, and I would say that justice and civic obligation demand that we pay for it and to do without the very little bit of our comfort that such costs would impose. Whether we choose to raise taxes or to limit other forms of government spending is a secondary matter; the nation’s and the government’s fiscal and economic problems have very little to do with the war or military spending.
As a self-professed student of the American Founders, Paul Yingling must understand the “constant necessity,” as Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist 10, “for keeping small garrisons on the…frontier.” He continued:
These garrisons must either be furnished by occasional detachments from the militia, or by permanent corps in the pay of the government. The first is impracticable; and if practicable, would be pernicious. The militia would not long, if at all, submit to be dragged from their occupations and families to perform that most disagreeable duty in times of profound peace. And if they could be prevailed upon or compelled to do it, the increased expense of a frequent rotation of service, and the loss of labor and disconcertion of the industrious pursuits of individuals, would form conclusive objections to the scheme. It would be as burdensome and injurious to the public as ruinous to private citizens. The latter resource of permanent corps in the pay of the government amounts to a standing army in time of peace; a small one, indeed, but not the less real for being small.
In a modern context, the U.S. regular “garrisons” in Iraq and Afghanistan—or in Germany, Korea, or Japan—are a very small investment that return huge rewards in the way of security, stability and, yes, liberty. It would be burdensome and injurious to the broad public good—that is, the nation, which Hamilton clearly distinguishes from the “private” sphere—to replace them with “occasional detachments from the militia.”
As a postscript, let me reiterate my wonder and express a worry that the AVF debate is a surrogate for a war-policy debate. Col. Yingling has been a very strict observer of civil-military norms, so his suggestion that it should be a purpose of personnel or tax policy to constrain the commander-in-chief’s prerogatives is notable, as is the repetition of the persistent myth of congressional abdication of war powers. If I have drawn inferences from Yingling’s arguments that are unwarranted, I apologize, but add that paranoia in the defense of civilian control—most of all, the civilian “right to be wrong”—is no vice.
Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies.