Actually, this has been an ongoing debate on one level, and an episodic debate on another. Charles Rangel and other progressives have beat the drum for a military draft ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, not because it was necessary militarily, but because Rangel and his allies thought it would make America more isolationist and pacifist. They argued, and continue to argue, that military sacrifice falls disproportionately on the middle and working classes, as well as on minorities — despite the fact that the US military has been entirely volunteer since the end of the Vietnam War forty years ago. Forcing rich kids into the military would put the warmongers on notice, the argument goes, and would shift politics into an entirely pacifist direction … the actual history of US foreign policy under the draft notwithstanding.
Ron Fournier’s argument at National Journal follows the more episodic debate, which focuses more on effectiveness and resources rather than claims of the social injustices imposed by voluntarism. The headline is unfortunate, suggesting that we can “defeat ISIS with millenial spirit and service,” but the actual argument more serious than the silly headline suggests. Fournier wants compulsory service for all Americans between 18-28, presumably without deferments, either in the military or in community-building groups such as AmeriCorps or Teach for America:
This may seem like a radical plan until you compare it with two alternatives: the status quo, which clearly isn’t working, or a military draft, which might be the boldest and fairest way to wage the long war against Islamic extremists.
Remember in September when the beheadings of two Americansgalvanized the nation against ISIS? President Obama, who had dismissed ISIS as a “JV team,” promised, “We will degrade and ultimately destroy”the Islamic State. Nine months later, ISIS is winning. …
“A problem in America is we’ve let the concept of citizenship diminish into a series of gripes,” McChrystal told me. “One of the ways we can rebuild that sense of ownership, sense of shared ownership, is through experience, and so I believe that every young person deserves—I don’t think this is an onerous thing—deserves the experience of being part of something bigger than themselves.”
Bowing to political realities in risk-averse Washington, the Franklin Project aims to make a service year a social expectation rather than a legal requirement. I would mandate it. So would McChrystal—if he had his way.
While ISIS and other terrorist groups are having no trouble recruiting suicide bombers, McChrystal said, Americans are struggling to redefine their national identity for the 21st century. “A year of service for young Americans would be a step,” he said. “Not a panacea, a step.”
I think we should take it.
The episodic nature of the more serious debate, in which Fournier’s argument definitely belongs, correlates to failure and lack of clear direction in the wars. No one debated whether we needed a national draft in 2003-4 when we swept Saddam Hussein’s vaunted army off the map and pulled Hussein himself out of a spider hole. Likewise, no one thought we needed a draft after we crushed the Taliban’s hold on power in Afghanistan in 2001-2, although some (like my father) were stunned at the lack of crowds at recruiting stations after 9/11. The military operations ran smoothly, once unleashed, with some glitches, such as the failure to get Osama bin Laden in late 2001.
Now that we’ve had more than a year’s worth of failure from Obama on ISIS, a failure Fournier explicitly acknowledges, this debate has now emerged once again. The problem with it in this context is that we’re not losing the fight against ISIS due to a lack of troops. We’re losing it due to a lack of leadership, and the lack of a will to commit troops to a war we’ve already pledged to fight. Fournier estimates that it may take as many as 100,000 troops to beat ISIS, but the US military has 1.4 million active front-line personnel, and another million in reserves. We could increase that by funding new divisions and upping the ante for recruitment if needed. We managed to defeat Hussein with about 250,000 troops, and we could have prevented the rise of ISIS by keeping 25,000 in place four years ago.
It’s not a numbers problem. It’s a leadership problem. Barack Obama keeps insisting that he wants to “degrade and eventually destroy ISIS,” but has no strategy that would lead to that eventuality. Forcing every young American into national service of one kind or another won’t fix that problem. A military draft that gives Obama a standing ground force of 5 million soldiers and Marines won’t fix that problem. Obama won’t go back into Iraq even if he had a 20-million-man infantry — and that’s the problem.
All that compulsory national service will do in this context is strip young people of their freedom to choose how best to serve their country or to do so at all, and put more of them at the whim of the same failed leadership that is losing the war against a marauding army of monsters who could easily be broken if the US and the West really had the will to defeat them. The argument for national service has merit for other reasons, but it’s not a prescription for victory over ISIS. It’s a distraction from the failure of will at the top.