Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Fallacy of Thomas Ricks and the End of the All-Volunteer Military

A daft idea from the usual suspects comes from a brief article in the Washington Post by Thomas E Ricks, a think tank pundit who has made a career of being an academically credentialed military observer.  Ricks proposes that the volunteer military should be abolished, precisely because it has worked so well.  I am not making this up:
Since the end of the military draft in 1973, every person joining the U.S. armed forces has done so because he or she asked to be there.  Over the past decade, this all-volunteer force has been put to the test and has succeeded, fighting two sustained foreign wars with troops standing up to multiple combat deployments and extreme stress. 
This is precisely the reason it is time to get rid of the all-volunteer force.  It has been too successful.  Our relatively small and highly adept military has made it all too easy for our nation to go to war – and to ignore the consequences.

He goes on to say that while we have been so unfortunately successful, we should focus instead on the “political and ethical” drawbacks of going to war: by having “one percent” of the population do so well in fighting our wars, the rest of us can “turn our backs” and go shopping; and our enhanced capability encouraged us (well, George W Bush, in an unsaid allusion) to seek military adventures.  He says that Iraq was invaded “recklessly”; Afghanistan was the “right thing to do” but we would have left by mid-2002 or we could have avoided handling it so “negligently” thereafter if a draft had been in effect.  Sure, a draft did not hinder Lyndon Johnson with Viet Nam but it was instrumental with the people taking notice of it.  A draft, he says, would be “good for the nation and ultimately for our military”.

Let me interject, before we get too far into this, that Ricks is a journalist and author of several books, even winning a Pulitzer Prize.  His published oeuvre primarily disparages the US war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush administration (first volume: Fiasco).  For example, he explains in his book The Gamble how the Army finally and begrudgingly “allowed” General Petraeus to use the surge to turn the war in Iraq around, but skips over the fact that it was President Bush who insisted that we shift to the surge, against the advice of practically anyone around him – particularly the striped-pants crowd, in addition to the collective mindset of most of the higher brass.  (He is clear though that Obama lacks leadership in addressing the situation in Afghanistan.)

Ricks had the good fortune to spend his early teenage years in peacetime Afghanistan (1969-1971), the son of a relatively disinterested academic (Ricks would disappear for days by busing around the country, with his parents often having no idea where he was).  His main influence was books and his Yale classmates, and soon discovered the “racket” of being a foreign journalist, having his expenses paid by way of an employer’s credit card.  He lamentably took to heart Evelyn Waugh’s observation of “News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read”, and sought to change it.  He soon found that, as opposed to the State Department, the White House, or intelligence agencies, the military seemed a refreshingly candid culture to investigate, particularly the Marines.  Unfortunately, as with so many such pundits, he felt that mere observation was sufficient to understand the culture, and his interest did not extend so far as to actually ... you know ... join the military for a true experience.  He instead seeks and encourages being embedded with units and finds the younger enlisted a superb source of insight, as they certainly are, but this can lose the greater perspective.  A Berkeley academic praises his approach in avoiding the ember of “military propaganda”, a typical and telling touch that avoids the 'plank-in-your-eye' of liberal academic intellectual incest, or the tailored man-in-the-street fallacy of quoting those with whom you agree, and the whimsy that all the military can be represented by the views of a few PFCs and Lance Corporals.  His choice of fitting in with the Sophisticati of academia reminds me of another of Waugh’s quips: “He was gifted with the sly, sharp instinct for self-preservation that passes for wisdom among the rich.”

Ricks does have a talent for writing and he has a smooth prose, which I discovered in perusing his Making of the Corps.  An example to his approach, though, is his comment about how the Marine morale and quality hit “rock bottom” in the early 1970s due to the Viet Nam experience, but he fails to note or notice the impact of Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000, a major social engineering blunder of Johnson’s Great Society, which I observed first hand.  Ricks’ same blinders about the efficacy of using the military as a social science lab are seen in these comments of his in the Washington Post.

Ricks also fails to make the case of what a ‘fair and equitable’ draft would look like, and more importantly, how we would do it.  Would we draft the yearly cohort along racial lines (where we already have a significant misconception), or socio-economic strata, ensuring that the Best and Brightest actually pull their weight now that the straw man of DADT has been eliminated?  If he had learned anything from his observation of the Marine Corps, he would want to answer how such a successful enterprise, relying on people who want to be there, would change with a return to a collection of modern galley slaves, and what degree of sacrifice in quality would we be forced to accept.

And what of the one percent figure that he presents of the military portion of the population?  That number is expanded over ten years of rotations, unless he expects us to believe that the same warriors are trapped in some kind of Groundhog Day illusion over and over again, and he neglects to note that the number is set by political policy, not a control exercised by the military.

He interjects that a retired general told him that we would not have invaded Iraq if the draft had been in place.  He appeals to an unnamed general who has an authority that Ricks lacks, but this is at least a tacit recognition (whether he fully realizes it or not) that high rank in the military, including good officers and staff NCOs, is earned at each promotion as a result of precise education and hard and sometimes bitter experience, a healthy dose of reality, that a politician or a journalist need not require.  I have worked for and with an interesting collection of flag officers, and now that I am retired from the service, I know a few retired generals too.  They share a wide variety of opinions, and I am not impressed with Ricks quoting of just one of his acquaintance.  This is another indicator that he believes the military culture is one in which all echo the same line, a lock-step society that requires no thought except for that sufficient to obey.  Thus he can quote one PFC and walk away believing that he has the insight into how a war is being fought, or quote one general and have the answer to our grand strategy.

He fails to grasp that the purpose of the military is to fight and win this nation’s wars, not to nurture the cut-and-run attitude of the Left, to cater to the ‘we have to do something’ crowd when faced with the cause de jour (whether necessary or fashionable) until we stumble back out (Ricks holds that we need to learn that winning a war is “getting kicked out” of a country).

He insists that the draft is the “best way to reconnect the people with the armed services”, but I would invite his attention to the fact that the idea of the citizen soldier began with the Founding Fathers and is today nurtured in the Reserves and the National Guard.  Even in this deep blue section of Oregon where I live, the public is very well aware that their relatives, neighbors and co-workers are engaged in a war overseas.  It is not the public connection to the military that he seeks.  He wants a population kept hostage to those who feel that nothing is worth fighting for.

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