Then came that whole Global War on Terrorism thing.
Nearly nine years after our war in Afghanistan kicked off, and more than seven years after Iraq was, uhh, liberated, a warrior caste entirely separate and distinct from the nation that produced it has evolved into being. The burden of many is being carried by very few. Soldiers deploy two, three, even four times, while combat zones become their definition of normality. Meanwhile ... American society does not comprehend. Let me reiterate that. They. Do. Not. Comprehend.
I do believe that most Americans care. They support the troops, in the classic "I don't know what to say to war vets or do for war vets" kind of way. When people shake my hand and thank me for serving, it does means a lot, and is appreciated. On a personal, micro level, that's often all anyone can do. If particularly connected, devoted, or understanding, a person works with soldier/veteran organizations and gives back in a practical, direct fashion. But that's not something many people do, for a variety of reasons. So the question raises itself - what can be done on a macro level?
In the initial months after my return from Iraq, I busted out my soapbox of self-righteousness, often blaming individuals for this disconnect between warrior and civilian. But as I've transitioned gradually back into the role of a citizen, I've come to understand there's a grander failure to blame for the stated societal gap. People have their own lives, the economy sucks, and day-to-day life drains. As Plato once said, "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." And yet ... We have young men and women in hellholes around the globe fighting in our name, regardless of our politics and beliefs. We all own these wars, and are all responsible for them, whether we like it or not. Simply asking people to care and be engaged is not enough. They - and by they, I mean society in general - won't care unless they are engaged themselves, directly. It's depressing, but a reality, nonetheless. For a country steeped in the merits of representing all facets of the population, at least in theory, something clearly has gone awry in terms of who's fighting the wars. There is a class element to all this, though it's not as pronounced or as clear as it was during Vietnam. But it's still there, and why nearly every one of my soldiers came from the south or the midwest.
During Kaboom's book tour this spring and summer, I've heard from soldiers, veterans, and vets' families alike on this. And more often than not, an angry, resentful condemnation comes out: "What have they been asked to sacrifice?" Beyond the dangers of grand, sweeping proclamations like "us" and "them" are kernels of truth. And the answer to their question is ... very little. There's the obvious, in terms of physical blood, sweat, and tears sacrificed abroad. Meanwhile, economically speaking, this is the first time in America's history taxes have been lowered during a time of war. And can you imagine the idea of the government selling war bonds today? On that macro level I discussed earlier, has any element of American life been altered due to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq?
Which brings me back to the Draft. I've become more and more convinced that a healthy republic needs conscription to keep it healthy and honest. The gulf discussed isn't anyone's fault, an unforeseen byproduct of the all-volunteer force - but this gulf must be filled, unless we're intent on recreating Legions loyal to their commanders over country. (An extreme example. We're nowhere near there. Yet.) The Draft would be controversial, debated, and very likely protested. All good things in a properly functioning people's government. Meanwhile, the benefits of such would be twofold:
1) The citizenry would actually hold their political leaders accountable, as they're supposed to. Apathy being a republic/democracy's worst enemy is not a new understanding, but it remains a poignant one. Let's face it - the justifications for going to Iraq in 2003 were, at best, exaggerated and misunderstood. While the world raged in anger, America collectively yawned, giving our leaders the ultimate in passive-aggressive approvals. Think that would've happened if the lives of affluent youth were on the line? Think again. Maybe with a Draft, we still end up in Iraq - but in that case, we'd have found some damn legitimate reason to do so beyond purported weapons of mass destruction. (Oh, you think deposing a maniacal dictator qualifies? Let's invade 80% of the world then!) Could another Vietnam happen, where society is rope-a-doped into a protracted conflict? Sure, potentially, though I think it's unlikely for a couple generations, given the lessons learned from these wars. (Famous last words? Likely.) But even if such were to happen, at least it's then on everyone rather than a select few.
2) Wars would become a collective undertaking by the nation as a whole, rather than an isolated segment of the population. This would prove beneficial to both society and to the military. The number of sons and daughters involved would greatly increase, thus increasing personal connections and a sense of engagement, thus increasing product output. I'm talking war drive stuff here, yo, leaps and bounds beyond a yellow ribbon sticker on the back of a bumper. Further, as stated above, the citizenry (theoretically) would be actively invested in the war's progression, rather than observing from a distance like a fan at a sporting event. As for the military, reinstituting the Draft would shore up that pesky lack of manpower. If we're going to keep getting into long-term, guerilla wars in landlocked countries, that'll prove kind of-sort of-definitely vital in the future. (Don't blame me. People much smarter than me have forecasted small, little wars as the way of tomorrow.)
Here's a couple preemptive attacks against potential retorts:
1) No, crazy graying hippie, the modern soldier is not a mercenary. More often than not, they join(ed) the service for honorable and profound reasons. That said, if we allow this separate warrior caste to continue to evolve for a few more generations, who knows what the result may be. Probably closer to Robert Heinlein's vision of a warrior-citizen, but still not what we've historically desired in America, where the citizen-soldier is revered and celebrated.
2) No, loony tune protestor, I'm not glorifying war. War sucks, and I don't mean that facetiously. It's absolutely the worst thing humanity has to offer. But it will continue to happen in the future, just as it always happened in the past. And young people will continue to be willing to fight for societies that don't deserve them. Don't shoot the messenger. So to speak.
3) No, rabid Army fanatic, I don't think the Draft would destroy the armed services as we know them. But the effects of the Draft on the military is an altogether different topic. Let's tackle that one some other day, and for now, just realize that if the Army can accept women and gays, it'll probably make soft, spoiled Caucasians just as welcome.
4) No, illiterate Bush apologist, my feelings about the Iraq invasion don't have to neatly equate to my feelings about counterinsurgency in Iraq in 2010. Complexity! It's what's for dinner.
5) And no, logical reader, I don't believe the Draft would work perfectly solve all our ills, be them personally, domestically, or globally. No doubt, the rich would find a way to weasel their children out of the Draft one way or another. But let's at least make them earn that deferment, you dig?