Uncle Sam Wants You

Let me add my voice to the skepticism about what seems to be the consensus position - running from Rudy through Romney, McCain, Obama, and Hillary - that we need a much larger army. I'm open to the possibility, but I'd like to have the whys of it explained a little bit more clearly.

I know that the Rumsfeld theory - that America needs a smaller, lighter, more-agile military, rather than a bigger one - is assumed to have been discredited by Iraq, but it's only been discredited by Iraq if you think that the U.S. should be committing itself to the pacification and democratization of more large Middle Eastern countries in the near future. This does seem to be the theory of at least some of the proponents of a larger army. For instance, Jim Talent, in a long print mag-only piece for National Review calling for a larger military, framed America's current national-security challenge this way:

The world today is, on balance, at least as dangerous as it was at the end of the Cold War. The U.S. is no longer in danger of a massive nuclear attack, nor is a major land war in Europe likely, but the threats we face are no less serious. America is engaged in a war against terrorism that will last for years. The danger of a rogue missile attack is greater than ever. China is emerging as a peer competitor much faster than most of us expected, and Russia's brief experiment with democracy is failing.

In this landscape, he argued:

The current force is too small and too old relative to the requirements of the official national military strategy. That strategy calls for a military capable of defending the homeland, sustaining four peacekeeping engagements, and fighting two large-scale regional conflicts at approximately the same time. The services today probably cannot execute even this strategy within an acceptable margin of risk. Certainly they will be unable to do so in the future unless the Army and probably the Marine Corps are made bigger and unless all the services have the money to recapitalize their major platforms with modern equipment.

... Even in an age of transformation and non-linear battlefields, America will always need the capacity to put boots on the ground. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, the U.S. needs the ability to carry on sustained, large-scale peacekeeping or low-intensity combat missions, without having to send the same units on three or four tours over the life of a mission. A nation of America's size and strength should not have to tie up essentially its whole active-duty Army, much of its Marine Corps, and many of its reserves in order to sustain 130,000 troops in the kind of low-intensity combat we are experiencing in Iraq.

I don't have any quarrel with Talent's points about the need to modernize equipment, and if that requires spending four percent of GDP on defense, as he argues later in the piece, then so be it. But the numbers issue, well ... Let's suppose, for a moment, that Talent's right, and America's national security requires, in the very near future, that we treat the Iraq occupation as the sort of thing we do as a matter of course (though Iraq is the first instance since Vietnam in which we've kept this many troops engaged in a "low-intensity" conflict for this long). Let's further suppose, as he suggests, that we actually need to be able to fight two Iraq Wars at once, while maintaining those four peacekeeping engagements as well. If he's right, then this is a dire and dangerous circumstance in our nation's history - and if it's so dire as to require an open-ended commitment to grueling, low-intensity warfare around the world for the indefinite future, wouldn't this be a natural moment to reinstitute the draft, rather than trying to fight our way through with an all-volunteer force? Indeed, isn't the real lesson of the Iraq War that an all-volunteer military is poorly-suited to the kind of national-security strategy that Talent and others have in mind? If you really think that the U.S. needs to be prepated to engage in a long series of Iraq War-style projects going forward, then tinkering around with an extra 50,000 troops here and there is frankly irresponsible: We need large-scale mobilization, along the lines of Vietnam if not the Second World War.

On the other hand, if you don't think the U.S. should be trying to do Iraq all over again any time soon - if you think, in fact, that the lesson of the last few years is that we ought to be fighting the War on Terror (or whatever you want to call it) with small-scale, pinprick operations, while avoiding quagmires at all costs - then it's not clear that the benefits of a bigger armed forces outweigh the drawbacks. It is clear that dramatically expanding the size of the military is going to involve 1) accepting lower-quality recruits, as we've already been forced to do by the Iraq War, 2) increasing the percentage of non-citizen soldiers, as we've already been forced to do by the Iraq War. A larger military, in other words, would be less representative of America and less American all at once - and both of these at a time when the civilian-military divide is already wide and growing wider, with unfortunate consequences for the republic.

And for what? None of our rivals is anywhere close to being capable of winning a traditional land war against us as it is; insofar as we need a deterrent against Russia or China or Iran, it's hard to see how extra boots to put on the ground would make it any more credible than it already is. Let's spend on the technology we'd need to defeat China in a cyberwar, let's spend on the special ops we'd need to knock an al Qaeda group in the Horn of Africa - but if we're spending money recruiting more grunts to throw into the fire, let's admit that the only reason to have those troops is for "freedom agenda" purposes - to get the next Iraq right. Which means that if we're going to have a debate about expanding the military, we should really be having a debate about where, when and if we're going to re-run the Iraq Project. That's the important question, and we can only decide how big our military should be once we've answered it.