05 July 2004

One Iraq-related controversy that is beginning to simmer behind the scenes is the relationship among troop strength, a "draft," "stop-loss" orders, and the recall of Individual Ready Reservists to active duty. (I'm not subject to the latter; those of you on the Right can stop groaning any time.) As E.J. Dionne implied this morning, this is in at least one dimension a struggle between the haves and the have-nots. Although the military is far more integrated in all respects than is American society as a whole, it is nonetheless highly class-based: There are a lot more children of poverty than children of privilege, and the more senior one becomes the greater the disparity. There is more than a sliver of truth to Michael Moore's "ambush" of Congressmen in Fahrenheit 9/11, in which he asks them to volunteer their children for Iraq. I am from probably the last—and quite possibly after the last—officer year-group that had a significant number of members who followed and believed Kennedy's rhetorical aspirations for public service.

We paid a terrible price, economically, socially, psychologically, and ethically. But we chose to pay that price. In a perfectly just world—which does not and probably cannot exist; Plato, after all, did not want to live in The Republic—we would have received something of value for that price other than the satisfaction of fulfilling that aspiration. Whether it's a reasonable wage (snort! I made less than a Catholic schoolteacher my first year on active duty—and I know, because my then-future-wife was one) or double Green Stamps, or even just enough respect that bureaucrats and politicians won't lie to us (such as calling the supposedly generous "retirement" system "deferred compensation" when it fails all of the ERISA definitions of both "deferred compensation" and a "pension" so that we still paid in to Social Security), we would get more respect.

However, both ends of the "manpower" equation are being handled ineptly, and nearly criminally so. On the one hand, the usefulness of a "draft" has been limited since the middle of the Second Thirty Years' War; by the time that mechanized land warfare and airpower and submarines and the carrier became the dominant modes of combat, cannon fodder was not enough. Today's infantryman is vastly better trained and more sophisticated than those who went over the top at Third Ypres—and that's before one considers the sophistication of today's logistical system, that ensures that said infantryman has recently had a hot, nourishing meal, boots that fit, sanitation to avoid typhus, and enough ammunition to make a difference. In 1917, one expected to make a functioning infantryman from a raw recruit in around ten to twelve weeks. In 2004, infantrymen are not considered "combat ready" for nearly a year in the Western armies. In 1917, one turned a recruit who had never flown into a combat-ready pilot in around fifteen weeks. In 2004, the process of making a fighter pilot out of a raw recruit takes around five years (much of which occurs before one ever attends flight school).

On the other hand, drafting those with experience—and, functionally, that is exactly what "stop loss" and mobilization of the IRR are—creates an extreme risk of placing psychologically unprepared soldiers, sailors, and airmen in critical positions. With not that many exceptions these days, career personnel choose when to leave the military. Sure, some leave due to "up or out" policies; far more, however, do not. So, instead, we are now going to be putting critical military functions—and the critical functions in today's military extend all the way from Baghdad back to Washington—in the hands of people who are being told that they made the wrong choice in departing the service. That is not going to help combat readiness. It is, however, the necessary corollary of our inability to expand military strength quickly through a draft.