NY Times: Democracy Should Be Painful

A recent editorial in the NY Times by Stanford professor David Kennedy really has me flabbergasted. So much so that I have rewritten this post three times and still not been able to adequately communicate my horror of this editorial.   Mr. Kennedy argues that the all volunteer, non-drafted, non-coerced-service army is a huge threat to America.

But the modern military's disjunction from American society is even more
disturbing. Since the time of the ancient Greeks through the American
Revolutionary War and well into the 20th century, the obligation to bear arms
and the privileges of citizenship have been intimately linked. It was for the
sake of that link between service and a full place in society that the founders
were so invested in militias and so worried about standing armies, which Samuel
Adams warned were "always dangerous to the liberties of the people."

By the way, his words "disjunction from American society" are his coy way of saying a volunteer army is not somehow as representative of America as a draft army.  This
article, as far as I can tell, is totally and completely about the
benefits of
draft (without ever actually using the word).  He is arguing that
forced compulsory military service is somehow more democratic and more appropriate for a free society than voluntary
service.  Forgetting how stupid this is for a minute, why is the volunteer army so "disturbing" to him?   It is really hard to figure out.  He keeps saying things like "the danger is obvious" but I guess I am just stupid - I can't find a clear statement of the danger in his editorial.  The closest I get is this:

But thanks to something that policymakers and academic experts grandly call
the "revolution in military affairs," which has wedded the newest electronic and
information technologies to the destructive purposes of the second-oldest
profession, we now have an active-duty military establishment that is,
proportionate to population, about 4 percent of the size of the force that won
World War II. And today's military budget is about 4 percent of gross domestic
product, as opposed to nearly 40 percent during World War II.

The implications are deeply unsettling: history's most potent military force
can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it
does so. We can now wage war while putting at risk very few of our sons and
daughters, none of whom is obliged to serve. Modern warfare lays no significant
burdens on the larger body of citizens in whose name war is being waged.

This is not a healthy situation. It is, among other things, a standing
invitation to the kind of military adventurism that the founders correctly
feared was the greatest danger of standing armies - a danger made manifest in
their day by the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Jefferson described as
having "transferred the destinies of the republic from the civil to the military

So in other words, its bad that wars are much less costly in lives and property.  If wars are less costly, and the combatants volunteers rather than conscripts, then we as a nation are more susceptible to military adventurism.  His bio says he is a historian, but what possible historical evidence does he bring forward for this?  None.   

In fact, there is no evidence that the government is any less likely to send a non-volunteer army (e.g. Korea, Vietnam) into harms way than a volunteer army (e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq).  In fact, we may actually be starting to see, via reenlistment rates, that the volunteer army provides a useful check against unpopular wars.  The author wants to imply that we would fight fewer bad wars with a draft, non-volunteer army.  But does anyone think we could have fought the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War with a volunteer army?  Only the draft made continuation of that war possible.  So where is his argument now?

Beyond the fact that his logic does not hold together, how morally bankrupt is it to long for the day when wars were much more costly in terms of lives and property?  Oh for the good old days of the 1960's when we could watch those much higher draft army body counts on the nightly news.  My guess is that he is not actually arguing that we should go back to higher body counts, but that the bodies we do have should represent a broader cross section of America.  In other words, he wants more elite rich white bodies (but not elite rich white Stanford bodies, since he and the Stanford faculty actively oppose all sorts of military recruiting and ROTC programs on campus). 

I have zero tolerance for this kind of forced-to-be-free fascism.  I have no idea what the author's politics are, but his argument reeks of collectivism and totalitarianism.  Think I am exaggerating?  Here is how he concludes:

The life of a robust democratic society should be strenuous; it should make
demands on its citizens when they are asked to engage with issues of life and
death. The "revolution in military affairs" has made obsolete the kind of huge
army that fought World War II, but a universal duty to service - perhaps in the
form of a lottery, or of compulsory national service with military duty as one
option among several

Sorry, but in a free society, there is not universal duty to service.   There is not "link between service and a full place in society."  When someone starts arguing that you have a "duty to service" and that government should "make demands on its citizens" rather than the other way around, run the other way because they are selling totalitarianism.

Update:  This is a pretty compelling article about a volunteer army at work.  Would they really be better off with a draft?

The south gate of Muthanna army barracks in Baghdad is one of the most
frequently bombed sites in Iraq.

Suicide bombers have killed 198 people here since last year.
Almost all were potential recruits to the country's fledgling armed forces.
Another 465 have been wounded.

Body parts that had been hurled by an explosion over the 30ft
high concrete wall a week earlier were still being picked up when the second
suicide bomber struck last week.

But, in an extraordinary display of optimism, the youngsters
hopeful of being recruited into the forces still come to queue....

The young men and handful of women in the queues say they are as
keen for the private's salary of $400 a month as they are to serve their country
to rid it off insurgents.

There are others who have had friends and relatives among the
estimated 25,000 civilians killed over the past two years. Some also believe
that the only way to get an American withdrawal from Iraq is to build a secure
and substantial security force.

But all have an air of defiance, and in some of the fresh
recruits there is a hint of gratitude for just making it through the queue at
the murderous south gate, on Zawraa Road.

Postscript:  I'm not really into the patriotism finger-pointing exercises so many people are into nowadays, but if you want some of that, try conservative blogger Captains Quarters writing on this same editorial.

  • http://atrainwreckinmaxwell.blogspot.com/ KurtP

    I think, by some kind of subliminmal thing- that he means that the majority of the military is conservative. That's the danger he sees- that the focused objective isn't diluted by unmotivated slackers being dragged in off the street.

  • http://bigcatchronicles.blogharbor.com roaring tiger

    In reading this post, I had two thoughts on Kennedy's questionable idea.

    1) If we instituted a draft, then why stop with young adults? After all, they're inexperienced, right? Why not widen a draft to include folks of all ages including, oh say, college professors. Sure, maybe some folks would be too old to withstand the physical rigors of combat, but there are plenty of noncombatant positions they could fill.

    2) Perhaps Kennedy would like to model our modern army after the Romanov Russian one. Now there's a study in sacrifice for a historian! Sure, in the early days of constription, the draft meant a life sentence for draftees, later relaxed to a mere six years. And sure, the Russian army had little patriotic ferver, after soldiers were yanked from their villages and all. And sure, Russian soldiers were also cannon fodder. But talk about the glories of sacrifice!

  • http://www.spectregunner.blogspot.com spectregunner

    Wait a minute -- one of the biggest arguments for getting rid of the draft was that it unfairly took lower income youth who did not have the financial or political wherewithall to buy/get/earn/acquire an exemption.

    Now how many youth whose parents were member of Congress served in Vietnam?

    Well, yeah, and he had his own personal bodyguard as he played journalist.

    How many others?