Let’s Draft Our Congress
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, previously the top commander in Afghanistan, and Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, caused a stir by calling for a new military draft. Supporters and critics on both sides immediately rose up, many bolstering or attacking the details of Ricks’ plan. Before arguing about whether a house should have curtains or blinds, though, it’s best to check out the foundation. In the case of the proposal, exactly what problem is the draft supposed to fix?
General McChrystal stated at the Aspen Ideas Festival, “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.” Although Ricks would have the kids mowing lawns versus paving al Qaeda members, the idea of compulsory service as a way to put the brakes on unnecessary wars is the same.
Certainly, reinstating some sort of draft is one way to go. But that’s the “easy” answer, and one with potentially unintended consequences. Having a draft for the Vietnam War may have ended it sooner, but at the start of the war, young men were signing up to go to defend their country voluntarily. Compulsory service in World Wars I and II did not mean that the United States did not fight that war to the bloody end, nor did it diminish public support either for going to or staying in the wars. In other words, compulsory service alone is not a silver bullet to stop a nation from entering a war, making the same critical errors within a war, or ending a war.
In the case of Vietnam, however, sending a bunch of young men off to war who didn’t want to go in the first place had a deleterious effect on morale, discipline, and operational effectiveness. The Mai Lai massacre in 1968 occurred for many reasons, but one cannot rule out that many (at times, surely all) on the ground in Vietnam would have much preferred being in the corn fields of Iowa than the jungles of Vietnam. That is not to make the logical fallacy that members of the All Volunteer Force do not violate international law, or that conscripts cannot make exemplary soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines (as recent atrocities such as Abu Ghraib on one side, and the countless heroic members of the “greatest generation” on the other, demonstrates).
Common sense dictates, however, that if one signed up for military service, the chances of embracing military values increases, which in the United States includes not killing innocent civilians or violating the Geneva Conventions.
If the problem identified is that the United States needs to take war more seriously, what are the alternatives to a draft? Before asking unwilling kids to “put skin in the game,” U.S. legislatures should start by putting their own butts on the line and performing their Constitutional roles when it comes to warfare. Specifically, no more wars for free (or from money borrowed from future generations), and war should actually be declared when the country puts its men and women in harm’s way.
On the first point, never before in U.S. history have taxes gone down during wartime as they did during the “Global War on Terror.” That does not mean that lives equal dollars, but as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote some two hundred years ago, personal dollars matter in a special way in the United States. Recall that after 9/11, the President told citizens to go shopping instead of planting Victory Gardens or paying higher taxes for the war(s) that they were about to enter. Sacrifice can come in many ways other than blood, specifically treasure.
Article I, Section XX bestows on Congress the sacred responsibility to declare war. The Founders gave this responsibility to Congress and not the President for a very important reason. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are drawn from the citizenry, and if citizens are to put their lives on the line and potentially die, then the branch closest to the people must make the call on whether a cause justifies the ultimate sacrifice. Congress is that branch.
Congress has not declared war for 69 years – since June 5, 1942, against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Perhaps the smaller ventures, such as Haiti, Somalia, and Panama did not warrant such as declaration, but it is harder to fathom not doing so for Korea, Vietnam, and especially Afghanistan – America’s longest running war. Not since Pearl Harbor had the homeland been directly hit in such a spectacular way. Ultimatums to give up the men responsible for 9/11 went unheeded by the Taliban. Terrorist training camps continued to operate.
Yet instead of declaring war on the country, Congress passed The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (Public Law 107–40) on September 18, 2001, giving the Executive Branch what in effect was a blank check. According to the law, the President was “authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Honest people can argue over whether such license led to what some feel became the excess of Executive power in the years following that bill, from the strategic level (i.e., the invasion of Iraq) to the tactical that became strategic (i.e., water boarding and Guantanamo). The argument could also be made that by declaring war, Congress would have elevated Osama bin Laden to a level he did not deserve. Yet sending men and women to fight in Afghanistan, a needed step, necessarily rose bin Laden’s stature. Congress should have been marching alongside the troops.
Some argue that Congressional oversight exists for wars in other ways, like the power of the purse – if Congress disagrees with a war, or how that war is being conducted, it can simply cut off funding. This is a perilous argument for two reasons. One, the Founders clearly thought a nation going to war was serious business and should therefore require a declaration by those who represent the people most closely. Two, especially after tremendous and justifiable guilt for the horrible treatment of veterans after the Vietnam War, Congress hasn’t used the power of the purse for war policy, though in 2007 it threatened to do so with Iraq. This “nuclear option” was taken off the table, and is mostly never entertained, because it would lead to political suicide and is seen as not funding troops versus not funding the war.
These examples of Congressional abdication of authority leads to a seminal question: Why would Congress cede such authority when DC is a land that thrives on the elixir of power? Although several answers come to mind, the one that is closest to the truth has potentially disastrous consequences for U.S. democracy. With power comes responsibility, and therefore by shirking power, Congress ultimately is also shirking responsibility, a point made to me by a retired Senator-statesman. For instance, by not declaring war, the Commander-in-Chief alone bears full responsibility for U.S. casualties overseas, and Congress can distance itself from the sacrifices of U.S. men and women at arms.
This state of affairs is not good for the nation, its democracy, or even Congress. Although such a caustic strategy may win short term elections, in the long term, branches that are out of balance risk the republic as a whole. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers, “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.” Before even considering signing up U.S. young people to compulsory service, Congress would do well to utilize its own foundational powers first.
Dr.Tammy S. Schultz is a Truman Security Fellow. The views expressed in her writing are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the United States Marine Corps.