Conscription Is Not the Answer Either

Andrew Bacevich's powerful critique of U.S. foreign policy backs the wrong remedy.


Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, by Andrew J. 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 new Breach of Trust. Bacevich, a veteran Army officer and Boston University historian, has penned numerous critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and his latest contains valuable insights. But those who prioritize individual liberty will disagree with many of the book's conclusions, particularly its 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, leading Americans to become "disengaged from war, with few observers giving serious consideration to the implications of doing so."

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

Bacevich makes many good points in Breach of Trust. He thoughtfully questions U.S. Middle East policy, from the 1953 CIA-backed coup in Iran to Washington's tilted relationship with Israel. He warns against excessive anti-Islamism, faults Obama for continuing the Bush doctrine, punctures the triumphalism of early Iraq War enthusiasts like David Brooks, and laments the liberal establishment's lack of anti-war stalwarts.

Most important, Bacevich discusses the hyper-militarism that emerged after the Vietnam debacle. "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," he notes. As for the popular Persian Gulf War of 1991, this "plunge[d] the United States more deeply into a sea of difficulties for which military power provided no antidote."

For Bacevich, the underlying problem fueling all this interventionism is that most Americans do not share in the burden of making war. Borrowing some Occupy Wall Street 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 neither libertarian nor original: coercive national service, including a military track.

Some anti-war figures, such as Noam Chomsky, have long advocated conscription as a way of avoiding war, but Bacevich at least knows that it's not a simple case of A preventing B. "Conscription hadn't dissuaded Harry Truman from intervening in Korea in 1950 or stopped Johnson from plunging into Vietnam in 1965," he observes. Still, he argues that having citizens put "skin in the game" would decrease the distance between the military and public, encouraging more public deliberation on war's costs.

Bacevich is not reflexively anti-intervention; he labors to distinguish America's historical wars, many of which he approves, from the exercise of U.S. military might today. So the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the two World Wars get positive nods, while the less savory post-World War II activity is framed at least in part as a function of the modern military-industrial complex. But in his eagerness to warn us that where "profit-and-loss statements govern, devotion to duty, honor, and country inevitably takes a hit," Bacevich glosses over the fact that the military-industrial complex also influenced decision making on the wars he prefers.

Breach of Trust 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. Any suggestion that past wars were less commodified or politicized, or their costs more fairly distributed among the population, is not substantiated.

For instance, 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 would easily find as much fault in the wars before 9/11 as in the decade following.

Once upon a time, Bacevich writes, "Americans accepted fighting for freedom as their job; today, with freedom still their birthright, they expect someone else to do the fighting." But the problem might not be that everyday Americans wish to avoid combat but rather that they do not regard U.S. wars as a necessary tool for advancing freedom. If wars are misguided, perhaps we should discourage everyone from fighting rather than force the entire nation to share the costs.

Instead of reinstating the draft, there is a less drastic proposal, one more consistent with human rights, more conducive to peace, and more respectful of those on the front lines. That is, having 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 of service men and women 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 or an apathetic populace.

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 follow logically from its analysis-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 should oppose this idea from first principles. Nothing would compromise American liberty more than a national army of slaves. Instead we need to nurture a culture of war-weariness, anti-militarism, peace, and individual liberty.