This piece was originally written as a commentary for “Thinkwing Radio with Mike Honig”, broadcast on Talk650-AM (Houston) on July 12, 2010. You can hear the original show, with guest D.B. Grady (columnist at TheAtlantic.com) by clicking these links: Segments 1 2 3 4 (ThinkWing Radio with Mike Honig, 7/12/2010) Let me know if these links don’t work for you. As an alternative, click on the ARCHIVE tab and go to the show for July 12th. – Mike]
UPDATE: On February 19, 2013, The Washington Post published a story entitled “Stanley McChrystal says the U.S. should reinstitute the draft”. (Read it here.) His reasonings are not so different from mine.
The recent firing of General Stanley McChrystal once again reminds us that in the United States, civilian authority controls the military. That’s the way it must be if a democracy is to remain a democracy.
But here’s a question: Have our troops been abused by the deficient policies and strategies of some in civilian leadership? Are there things which our civilian leaders need to do better?
Any military which accepts civilian control does so with this implied contract: Civilian authority must respect the sacrifices of military personnel. It must refrain from shedding the blood of its warriors in useless pursuits, and it must expend their efforts with wisdom and respect.
The United States’ armed forces are among the very best in the world. The volunteers are courageous, loyal, and dedicated to serving their country. They often experience great hardship, risk and danger, and they do so willingly and even enthusiastically because they want to serve their country.
In return, all they ask is that their leaders don’t waste their blood and their lives, and manage them wisely.
Combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have run as long as 15 months. That can be a challenging experience for anyone, mentally and physically. Repeated deployments multiply those strains.
According to recent statistics, over 310,000 soldiers have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. About 31% — Over 96,000 — have served at least two tours. About 16% — Over 49,000 — have served 3 or more tours.
Times between deployments have been short. … Often less than a year. The short recovery times mean that many soldiers go back into combat zones with residual injuries and unresolved emotional issues. The strain of prolonged absence and emotional stress shatters families.
The deployments have taken a terrible toll on our warriors.
According to an article in USAToday,“The percentage of soldiers who are unavailable for combat has risen sharply during the past three years from 11% of each brigade in 2007 to 16% [in 2010]… . Repeated deployments and health problems have driven much of the ….”
Cumulative psychological stresses of combat, including the loss of friends and comrades, can be fatal.
In April, 2010, Time Magazine Reporter Mark Thompson wrote: “From the invasion of Afghanistan until last summer, the U.S. military had lost 761 soldiers in combat there. But a higher number in the service — 817 — had taken their own lives over the same period.”
So as of summer 2009, suicides by military personal serving in Afghanistan exceeded combat deaths.
The conclusion is that the size of our military is inadequate to the tasks currently before it.
In my opinion this is a direct result of the so-called “Rumsfeld Doctrine. I would call it a “less is more” strategy. Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times has referred to the “Rumsfeld Doctrine” as one of “just enough troops to lose”.,
But what’s done is done. So how do we move forward?
Asking our warriors to sacrifice more is not an acceptable solution and the wars are not going away as soon as we might wish. So, the only way to ease the combat burden on our forces is to increase our combat personnel.
Increasing wartime recruitment for an all-volunteer force is challenging and expensive.
Assuming that our military requirements will not decline soon, I think it’s time to consider new alternatives.
I think it’s time to seriously discuss the idea of National Civic Service.
I’m not talking about a draft in the usual sense. Rather, I’m thinking that every American, when they leave school or turn 18, should be expected to commit some period of time – perhaps 2 years, perhaps 1 year – to public service.
I think the program will encourage more young adults to consider joining the military as a form of public service. Many will choose other forms of service.
What kinds of service could these young people perform?
They might work with the domestic poor or disadvantaged. They might provide tutoring, or help teach reading skills. They might work in hospitals and aid in patient care.
There are many Native American communities which could use various kinds of human assistance.
There are still poor regions of this country which could use assistance in education and development of infrastructure.
Sometimes, even a little additional manual labor can be of enormous help, whether it be helping to build bridges or aiding in construction of shelters.
This nation needs many things done, and has limited money to do it. Universal Civic Service would give our country extensive human resources for the cost of room, board, and a reasonable stipend.
What would be gained by the young people providing this service?
For some, it might be the equivalent of serving an internship at an engineering firm or a hospital. For others, it might be like an apprenticeship, where they could learn trade skills. This experience could open professional opportunities for them when they leave Service
Some might choose to join the Peace Corps or VISTA … “Volunteers In Service To America”. And others might find that they would get the best value from their service time by experiencing the potential benefits and satisfaction of a career in the armed forces.
The advantage to business would be the opportunity to employ and train young people on a subsidized basis, and perhaps find excellent future employees.
But I think that the greatest benefit obtained by all these young people and the entire nation is the expanded perspective they would acquire of the world outside their personal experience.
The rich might experience the poor. The strong might come to better understand what it is to be weak. The aimless might find new goals and ideals. The disadvantaged might find the greatest opportunities they’ve ever had in their young lives.
For our nation, the greatest benefit would be future voters and citizens who have a broader understanding of their country and their world, and their responsibility to it.
I see the idea of a Universal National Service as a win-win.
Let’s talk about it.