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A Devil’s Bargain: Ditching the Draft and Enabling Forever War

U.S. soldiers serving in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 2007. (U.S. Navy / Petty Officer First Class David M. Votroubek)

War is over, if you want it.
War is over now.

— John Lennon and Yoko Ono, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

This Christmas season I got to thinking about John Lennon. After all, holiday music seems to dominate the radio airwaves earlier and earlier each year, despite the political right’s obsession with a (nonexistent) so-called “War on Christmas. ” One of my favorites has long been the 1972 staple, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Truthfully, it’s not the greatest song. Nevertheless, every year it brings tears to my eyes in quiet holiday moments.

As a veteran of two failed wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, I resonate to Lennon’s Vietnam-era ballad ever more sadly with each passing year. The hard truth—one I’ve finally accepted—is that today’s wars may never end, because ultimately, the American people don’t want it. At least not badly enough. U.S. ground combat in Vietnam tragically dragged on for nearly a decade, but it did finally end. While they may not have been the chief trigger for peace, millions of citizens took to the streets in a massive popular outcry to end the war. My parents’ generation at least tried, but mine could hardly care less. This national disgrace of apathy has many causes, but one is paramount: the decision to end the draft.

The indifference of the American public regarding war and foreign policy is a cancer eating at what remains of the “republic.” This lack of engagement derives from the populace’s lack of “skin in the game,” with less than 1 percent of the population serving in the military at any given time. Today’s reality became all but inevitable when President Nixon cynically ended conscription in 1973 and with it, any form of mandatory national service.

How different it was not so long ago. As Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars assaulted scores of U.S. military outposts during the 1968 Tet Offensive, American citizens—of all ages—were deeply invested in the ongoing war. All across the country, male high school and college graduates faced the prospect of combat; wives and sweethearts dreaded lengthy separation from loved ones; mothers feared for sons; fathers for mourning mothers. By necessity, each family member read of and watched daily combat footage with concentration bred by personal involvement. Few were exempt from at least the potential of service.

Every son, wife, mother and father had a decision to make, a question to answer: Where do I, personally, stand on this ongoing war in Vietnam? Millions served, millions more dissented, and, tragically, more than 58,000 Americans (plus perhaps 2 million Vietnamese) died there. Still, at least there was a national debate. Today we’re treated only to the sounds of silence.

At the time, as the war wound to its tragic conclusion, everyone seemed pleased with the end of the draft, though for different reasons:

● High school and college-age youth delighted. Understandably, they had little interest (and much to fear) in military service during a distant and unnecessary war.

● Mid-level military professionals (like, well, me not so long ago) also cheered. Tired of the unmotivated, ill-disciplined recruits they had begun to associate with drug abuse and “fragging”—the murder of superior officers—the career martial class looked forward to a new volunteer force.

● Nixon and an entire generation of (mostly, but not solely, Republican) war hawks, however paradoxically, even got behind the draft’s demise. Sure, they’d lauded personal responsibility and citizen service in earlier times; nonetheless, practical as ever, these cynics saw an opportunity to take the steam out of the popular anti-war movement. Regrettably, it worked. No longer facing conscription, and with Vietnamese now doing most of the dying, fewer young Americans rallied to the peace banner in the conflict’s final years.

That explains why Americans made the Faustian bargain. Unfortunately, few foresaw the awful consequences. I’m no (at least not anymore) militarist, and certainly maintain healthy caution about coercive state power. Still, the dissolution of the draft matters for a range of reasons.

First, the responsibility for national defense should be egalitarian and wars only waged when the citizenry is invested and involved. Once upon a time, future presidents, politicians’ kids, movie stars, Ivy Leaguers, even the Kennedys, served. In World War II, 453 Harvard men were killed in action. Similarly, 488 West Pointers died in combat in Europe and the Pacific. By way of comparison, few, if any, Ivy League undergraduates made the ultimate sacrifice in the “war on terror,” while West Point buried at least 94 of their own—eight in my graduating class alone.

The Way Our Society Wages War Defines Who We Are

Dostoyevsky astutely observed that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Likewise, one could say the same about how a nation conducts its wars and the role it allots to the people in that conflict. Seen this way, 21st-century America increasingly resembles a mercenary, garrison state.

Second, reliance on an all-volunteer, professional force has made it far too easy for policymakers to take America to war. The U.S. Congress hasn’t declared war since 1942. Upwards of 100,000 men and women have thus died in undeclared hostilities. Presidents—Republican and Democratic—wage war at will, with ever less public debate. Fewer congressional combat veterans translates to weak checks on war and executive power. Retired colonel and West Point grad Andrew Bacevich summed it up thus: “With the people opting out, war became the exclusive province of the state. Washington could do what it wanted and it did.” Perhaps that helps explain why American troops now operate in 70 percent of the world’s countries.

Finally, today’s armed forces no longer reflect society at large. That is decidedly not how our Founders envisioned American military service, obsessed as they were with the danger standing armies posed to individual liberty. The civil-military divide is real, and scary. Fewer and fewer service members hail from the large coastal cities. America’s military is increasingly rural and Southern. A purportedly national institution is becoming increasingly regional. My own platoon counted no New Yorkers or Angelenos but four Kentuckians!

Bridging the growing civil-military gap will become increasingly difficult and remain perpetually dangerous. Thankfully, a military coup is (hopefully) unlikely. Nevertheless, look at the three generals atop President Trump’s inner circle or consider how Americans worship military leaders and expect them to save the republic, and there’s reason to worry. This is Roman Empire stuff, and it sure ain’t healthy.

All these unexpected consequences translate, above all, to one common result: perpetual war. Furthermore, I surmise Americans don’t even realize the extent of the forever war’s toxic effects. My 15-year-old stepson was born into war, lived it as a matter of course, and could potentially die in the same one. His generation—born after 9/11—will vote in the 2020 election. Will they even know what questions to ask or what peace looks like? I suspect not.

And, remember, the warmongers count on your indifference. Nefarious neocon Max Boot spelled it out ever so clearly: “public apathy presents a potential opportunity” to wage worldwide war. A far more clear-eyed thinker and military man, George Marshall, famously declared that “a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years’ War.” Perhaps Marshall was more right than he knew—after all, militarists like Boot don’t want a real democracy. That would stand in the way of his and his ilk’s ultimate desire: an unrestrained executive policing a worldwide imperium.

So it is that contemporary Americans inhabit an era of irony. We live in strange times in which, on one hand, fewer citizens serve in the military, while on the other, the public is treated to increasingly militaristic displays at, for example, sporting events. Consider again the words of Andrew Bacevich: “Cheering for the troops, in effect, provides a convenient mechanism for voiding obligation and perhaps easing guilty consciences.”

Today, America’s wars stretch from West Africa across two continents to Pakistan in South Asia. It’s hard to keep track. These wars will never end until a critical mass of U.S. citizens demands termination. This will likely require “street” action, not lazy, social media “activism.” Look not to Congress—there is no mainstream political party that veritable anti-war advocates can count on. The Democrats and Republicans were bought and sold long, long ago. The political, military and corporate interests that perpetuate the forever-war machine are too entrenched, too flush with cash, to change direction of their own volition.

This author, at least, is less than hopeful. For all the horror of Vietnam, there existed a genuine, citizen’s anti-war mass movement. Today, thanks to the end of national service and the apathy which derives from a lack of responsibility, the anti-war lobby (though often heroic) is paltry at best.

We are living with the consequences. This Jan. 1, America’s all-volunteer military enters its 18th year of perpetual war. All the while, the populace yawns.

The war could be over, if, as Lennon sang, we truly want it.

The views in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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