Carry a Big Stick or Be Quiet - A Case for Conscription
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
-- Theodore Roosevelt
Each year as they testify before congress, America’s armed service chiefs roll out pleas for the latest technology ‘essential’ to confront a predictable cast of global boogeymen. A pessimist could accuse them of using such testimony to scare congress and the public into supporting their slice of annual defense budgets. A pessimist could justify his position by pointing out the testimony’s conspicuous omission of conscription, essential to victory against any one or combination of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. While the technology of warships, aircraft and combat vehicles trotted out during testimony season is impressive, it can only give America an edge. Nations win wars on an irresistible wave of resources. America must therefore either include conscription into any discourse about confronting Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, or stop talking about confronting them.
America’s approach to warfare has changed for the worse. Current conflicts indicate a disturbing satisfaction with stalemate as a substitute for victory. America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offer abject lessons about a national strategy unready to win a global war, much less isolated regional engagements. The stalemate in both conflicts betrays America’s inability to translate success and sacrifice at the tactical and operational level into anything close to strategic victory. America’s powerlessness to generate the political will for victory emboldens adversaries and exposes significant strategic vulnerabilities.
America cannot win a global war without conscription. Relative to the requirements of a global war, both the Iraq and Afghan theaters are miniscule. At their peak, the wars in Afghanistan (98k, 2010) and Iraq (144k, 2009), waged against organized insurgents, consumed less together than would be required to match, much less defeat the trained and equipped conventional armies that Russia, China, North Korea or Iran could put into the field. Furthermore, neither conflict experienced the types of casualties or associated force regeneration requirements that a conventional war would generate.
The national dialogue over the 2007 Iraq and 2009 Afghanistan surges was instructive. President Bush’s proposal to increase the number of existing active, reserve and National Guard troops met with overwhelming opposition. In order to generate any public support for conscription America must demonstrate that it is constitutional, necessary and that it can competently address the training, equipping and care of its conscripted citizens. America’s elected and military leaders must demonstrate all three. Avoiding the subject altogether is not an option.
Service chiefs must advocate for their services, and their insular approach to congressional testimony is unlikely to change. Although they generally agree on nature of global threats, their recommendations on the means to address those threats are mostly divergent and unsurprisingly parochial. Thus the F-35 fighter, Columbia class submarine, more Stryker brigades are born and sustained, for better or for worse. The only thing harder to find than one service chief’s support for a competing chief’s priority acquisition is any of them raising the topic of conscription.
Congress does not want to hear or think about conscription, and the service chiefs want to secure their slice of the budget pie, so one of the most essential, neglected elements of our national power remains untouched. Few in Congress have the courage to confront a constituency forced to send their sons and daughters into service, an activity they can sidestep as long as the military can advise them that America only needs a new aircraft, ship or brigade full of volunteers.
In 1978, the American Secretary of Defense boldly explored America’s ability to mobilize and deploy forces in time of crisis. Although Nifty Nugget ches78 provided reams of useful data to drive necessary changes, its undertaking also represented an admirable and courageous subordination of political ambition for the sake of national readiness. Its commissioners had to have known that the results would reflect poorly on readiness. A pessimist could argue that there is no motivation to undertake such a useful effort today given the political risks associated with any inconvenient flaws such an exercise might expose in America’s state of strategic readiness. A pessimist could further argue that such an endeavor is unlikely given America’s apparent satisfaction with the mediocre outcome of its current conflicts and increasing social disconnection from its service members.
Rather than repeating each year’s threat based call for resources, America’s cadre of senior military advisors would serve America better by advocating the inclusion of a Nifty Nugget 78 styled exercise within the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), with special focus on the selective service related questions investigated in 1978, which are as relevant today as they were then. The resulting feedback regarding changes to organizations, authorities, and resources would provide the baseline of a radical shift in American security policy, and reflect an objective, pragmatic approach to strategic readiness. The execution of such an exercise would resonate more powerfully among our adversaries than the combined multinational exercises currently at the core of American security cooperation efforts. Furthermore, it would remind Americans that its government has the constitutional authority to force them into military service. The public interest in national security generated by such a personal link to American policy choices is a critical step towards generating the political will to win a global war.
Whereas public interest is unlikely to orient toward support for conscription, opposition will prove constructive. Voters with a more personal stake in political decisions are theoretically more responsible constituents. The corresponding increased pressure of an engaged constituency forces elected officials to be more judicious about the application of military forces to American interests and may usher in a more pragmatic era of American security strategy. Any reduction in the number of voluntary conflicts in which America participates would be extraordinary, potentially curbing the appetite for tangentially relevant adventures like Grenada, Iraq and Somalia.
As America’s armed service chiefs testify before congress in the coming years, the must resist the siren call of parochial challenges and unanimously paint a responsible place for American forces in global security. They must consistently present global threats in terms and context of the tough strategic issues required to address them. Discussions about potential confrontation with Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, must be attended by a candid and difficult discussion of the human costs associated with them, and America’s preparedness to provide them.