Why the Military Draft is a “Forlorn Hope”
by T.S. Allen
This article originally appeared in War on the Rocks and is reposted here with the permission of the original author. This first appeared in The Havok Journal January 20, 2015.
In the 17th century it was customary to begin assaults on fortified places with a wave called the “forlorn hope,” led by a junior officer who could expect to die in the attempt — or live to see himself decorated and promoted. In a recent editorial, former Marine Lieutenant Benjamin Luxenberg launched a forlorn hope of sorts for America’s draft advocates. Luxenberg’s goal, as expressed in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, is to lead the masses into what he calls “America’s last bastion of social and economic equality” — the armed forces.
The nub of our era’s great problem of inequality, as Luxenberg sees it, is not inequality per se, which he concedes is here to stay, but the lack of noblesse oblige and trust between America’s increasingly immutable classes. The children of the elite, he accurately notes, are unlikely to serve. But, he argues, they are the ones that are fated to lead. “If more of society’s privileged served in uniform,” he dreams, “we would foster leaders from more spheres — military, business, government — who know firsthand the rewards of caring for their fellow citizens.”
There is no “solution” in Luxenberg’s article. There isn’t even a problem. While he seeks to address “inequality,” and his citing of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century notwithstanding (which only proves that he’s been to a bookstore in the last year), he doesn’t engage deeply with the nature of the problem. Although he bemoans a “lack of trust,” he fails to explain who does not trust whom.
Such aimlessness pervades the current raft of articles on the draft and its glories. The problem is that many of the draft advocates see conscription as a panacea, and when you have the solution to everything, problem definition becomes unimportant. John Bridgeland, who is working with retired General Stanley McChrystal to encourage a national service program, is guilty of the grandest flights of fancy. “The World War II generation that served together had higher levels of charitable contributions, volunteering, voting, social trust, trust in one another,” he recently gushed to Dana Milibank of the Washington Post. “Even the gap between rich and poor was at its lowest levels. This greatest generation had an ethic of service that transcended politics and partisanship and belief.”
Bridgeland, who never served a day in uniform, is propagandizing, but his utopian language is not as atypical as one would hope. In a love note to the draft within James Fallows’ recent series on the “tragedy of the American military” in The Atlantic, 1950s draftee Joseph Epstein argues that a new draft can give young Americans “a vivid sense of the social breadth of the country,” which would change “the American social fabric” for the better. The questions of how the American social fabric would change and to what end, of course, remain unanswered — such is utopianism.
The idea that the military draft may have a military purpose in addition to its social one has not entirely escaped the latest commentators. Epstein, for example, insists that a draft “would redistribute the burden of the responsibility for fighting wars, and engage the nation in military conflicts in a more immediate and democratic way.” This, of course, is the answer to all of our ills, because as James Fallows’ centerpiece in that series insists, “[civil-military] disengagement inevitably leads to dangerous decisions the public barely notices,” and is the root of all foreign policy evil. “The next time we go to war,” retired Admiral Michael Mullen told Fallows, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for it.”