Would Conscription Put the Brakes on War?

Andrew Bacevich's new book offers a powerful critique of U.S. foreign policy-but the solution it proposes is no remedy.


Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, by Andrew Bacevich, Metropolitan Books, 238 pages, $26.

War critics sometimes argue that modern militarism isolates Americans from the action, keeping the general population unaware of intervention's bloody costs. This theme is aired extensively in Andrew Bacevich's Breach of Trust. Bacevich, a veteran Army officer and Boston University historian, has penned many critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and his newest contains many valuable insights. But those of us who prioritize individual liberty will disapprove of many of his conclusions, particularly his endorsement of conscription.

In the past, Bacevich argues, the United States maintained a "neat division of labor," comprising "a smaller regular army for everyday needs while mobilizing a much larger citizen-army in time of great emergency." Then Vietnam-era politics culminated with the end of the draft. After the public withdrew from the traditional "arrangement" with the military, Americans "disengaged from war, with few observers giving serious consideration to the implications of doing so."

In the new era, Bacevich continues, military service is no longer a shared national sacrifice but an elective personal choice. This shift coincided with Americans' general desire to keep war remote. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration solidified the new American way, which Bacevich calls the "three no's": Americans refuse to change their way of life, to pay the financial costs up front, or to share in the blood sacrifice. The "nation did not mobilize," he writes. "Congress did not raise taxes, curtail consumption, or otherwise adjust domestic priorities to accommodate wartime requirements."

Bacevich makes many good points as he tells this story. He thoughtfully questions U.S. Middle East policy, from the 1953 CIA coup in Iran to Washington's tilted relationship with Israel. He warns against excessive anti-Islamism, faults Obama for continuing the Bush doctrine, and laments the liberal establishment's lack of antiwar stalwarts. The book entertainingly chronicles the conservative pundit David Brooks's triumphant tone in the early Iraq war, his prose failing to waiver until he changed his mind entirely.

Most important, Bacevich discusses the hyper-militarism that followed Vietnam: "Since the draft ended, along with Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan, U.S. ground forces have intervened for stays ranging from weeks to years in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo," plus many lesser interventions. He harshly appraises the popular Persian Gulf War of 1991, which "plunge[d] the United States more deeply into a sea of difficulties for which military power provided no antidote," as well as taking on post-9/11 policy.

For Bacevich, the core problem is that most Americans do not share war's burdens. Borrowing some Occupy rhetoric, he casts soldiers as victims and everyone else as perpetrators: "the 99 percent who do not serve in uniform…ruthlessly exploit the 1 percent who do." His proposed remedy is unlibertarian and not exactly original: coercive national service including a military track. Some antiwar figures, such as Noam Chomsky, have advocated such a plan to deter war, but Bacevich knows it's not so simple: "Conscription hadn't dissuaded Harry Truman from intervening in Korea in 1950 or stopped Johnson from plunging into Vietnam in 1965," he writes. But he does think that citizens would have "skin in the game" and that the distance between the populace and military would shrink, encouraging more public deliberation on war's costs. The author condemns the modern "proclivity for wars that are, if anything, even more misguided and counterproductive than Vietnam was"—and yet 58,000 Americans and millions of Asians died in that brutal, futile bloodbath, so perhaps the national revulsion at broad war mobilization was indeed a blessing.

Bacevich's relative approval of past conflicts guides his assessment. He labors to distinguish America's historical wars from its activities around the world today, writing favorably of the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the World Wars. Bacevich does not fully acknowledge that the military-industrial complex he devotes a chapter to criticizing is not new. He warns that where "profit-and-loss statements govern, devotion to duty, honor, and country inevitably takes a hit," and he favorably cites Smedley Butler's famous pamphlet War is a Racket. But Butler was not writing recently—his booklet focused on the profiteers of World War I. Bacevich's suggestion that past wars were less commodified or politicized, or their costs more fairly distributed, is not substantiated. Bacevich condemns the reliance on reserve troops in Iraq: "The military…voided the implicit contract that had defined the terms of service for these part-time soldiers—that the nation would call upon them only in extreme emergencies." Yet whatever "extreme emergencies" prompted deployment in Cuba, World War I, Korea, and Vietnam, a consistent anti-interventionist easily finds as much fault in the wars before 9/11 as in the decade following.

Once, Bacevich writes, "Americans accepted fighting for freedom as their job; today, with freedom still their birthright, they expect someone else to do the fighting." The problem might not be that everyday Americans avoid combat, but rather that they regard U.S. wars as necessarily advancing freedom—a misconception Bacevich clearly does not hold himself. If the wars are misguided, perhaps we should discourage people from fighting rather than force the entire nation to share the costs.

Rather than reinstating the draft, a less drastic proposal exists, one more consistent with human rights, more conducive to peace, and more respectful of those on the front lines: a truly voluntary military. Today, unlike most any other U.S. institution, the armed forces practice indentured servitude: Employees agree to a term of service and face imprisonment or even execution should they quit. We do not consider it a "voluntary" job if a warehouse or factory forcibly prevents workers from quitting at will. Those who wish to honor the humanity of America's soldiers should agitate not for conscription but for the freedom to resign. The remaining soldiers would be there by choice, and if they continued fighting unjust, counterproductive wars, it would be harder to regard them as victims of bad leadership and an apathetic populace.

Of course, many troops would have chosen to resign honorably before returning to Iraq or Afghanistan for a third or fifth time. True freedom for soldiers would foster peace.

Breach of Trust's remedies do not obviously follow from its critique—not if the goal is less war. Bacevich attempts to reconcile a critique of modern interventionism with a call for an even more entrenched and ubiquitous militarism, one with little chance of tempering the belligerence of the political leaders he criticizes. Libertarians must oppose this idea from first principles: Nothing would compromise American liberty more than a national slave army. Instead, we need to nurture a culture of war-weariness, anti-militarism, peace, and individual liberty.