Afghanistan, 11 Years On: Why I Want a Draft

Posted on September 11, 2012



The Washington Post headline summed it up perfectly Saturday morning:  “After nearly 11 years at war in Afghanistan, US troop deaths don’t evoke sense of shared loss.

As the war drags on, it remains a faraway puzzle for many Americans. Max Boot, a military historian and defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, has called Afghanistan the “Who Cares?” war. “Few, it seems, do, except for service personnel and their families,” he wrote recently. “It is almost as if the war isn’t happening at all.”

This has been my perception all along.  Not only about the Afghanistan War, but the Iraq War as well.  Way back in 2003, I was stationed at the Pentagon.  We had been in Afghanistan nearly two years, and had just gone to war in Iraq that spring, based on a shaky rationale that was controversial even then.  I wondered where the protests were, where the outrage was.  Christmastime, I thought.  When Christmas comes around and we have troops off fighting in two wars, we’ll hear about it then.

But we didn’t.  The malls were packed with shoppers, people going about their celebrations with nary a thought, it seemed, of the troops so far from home.  So I convinced myself that when we hit our 1,000th casualty, then there would be a public outcry.  That somber mark came and went in September 2004 with not a peep of public reaction, at least none that I saw.  And Christmas 2004 looked exactly like 2003.  And on it went, every year like the one before it, for eleven years now.

Those who write that “after nearly 11 years, many by now have grown numb to the sting of losing soldiers” are mistaken.  The general public is neither numb nor weary of war.  They scarcely seem to know it’s happening at all, or worse – they scarcely seem to care.

I’ll tell you who’s numb and weary.  The troops and their families.  The ones who have seen too many deployments, too many separations.  The families who have spent two or five or eleven years mourning the loss of a loved one.  The troops who have spent two years or five or eleven trying to adapt to their new prosthetics, or to rebuild their lives after a traumatic brain injury.  The kids who have spent those years growing up with an absent parent, or only the memory of one they will never see again.

“Thank you for your service.”  It’s a decent enough sentiment, but an incredibly awkward thing to hear.  Such thanks usually come from people who have no idea what it really means to serve.  Nor do they have any interest in serving, nor finding out more about what it’s like.  Why should they?  It’s completely their choice to not serve.  And that’s the problem.

I am in complete agreement with General (Ret) Stanley McChrystal, as quoted by Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy last summer:

“I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn’t solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population.  I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game….  The reserve structure is designed for major war, you fight and then you stop, but what we’ve done instead is gone back over and over to the same people.  We’re going to have to relook the whole model because I don’t think we can do this again.”

There are those who argue that a draft would be unfair; that bringing in untrained people would hurt readiness; that there just wouldn’t be positions for everyone to fill.  There are options and solutions for all of this.  The exact mechanism for implementing the draft need not be a carbon copy of the old ways of doing things.  But that is fodder enough for a whole separate article (example, see Thomas E. Ricks of the New York Times).  The point of this one is:  a draft would vest the public very directly and personally in our politicians’ decision to go to war, and then in the conduct of that war.

War is not to be entered into lightly or rashly.  It is the most expensive endeavor a nation can undertake.  No US war, save perhaps Vietnam, lasted eleven years.  Depending on how it is measured, even the duration of the Vietnam War may rank behind Afghanistan’s, closely followed by Iraq’s.  And both have been fought by a small, professional, over-extended military while the rest of America hardly notices.  Oh, there were a few protests at first.  I have to give credit to the anti-war drummer who I saw many times at the Pentagon Metro entrance.  But nothing changed, so the protesters got tired of protesting, and went home and turned their attention to their own concerns.  Even the guy with the drum probably had to hold down a job.

Vietnam was different.  The public was intensely interested, and I really think this was because any man – or anyone’s son, father, husband, brother –  could be drafted.  Inequities in the system only made it even more an issue for those who couldn’t get deferrals.  Indeed, the public protested very actively right up to the end of the war.  The media provided intensive coverage in response to the appetite of an interested and engaged audience.  And even Congress was much more active in challenging war decisions and using budgetary means to dampen the prosecution of the war.  By 1969, Nixon stated that he had a plan to end the war with honor.  By 1973, America was out of it.  Vietnam raged on without us.

Would that Afghanistan might rage on without us, too.

Meanwhile, if you want to thank a servicemember, do it by finding Afghanistan on a map.  Read about the history of the place.  Why we went there (9/11).  Why we are still there (that’s harder to answer).  What it means for the US, both good and bad.  Read about how this has entangled us with the rest of Central Asia and Pakistan.  Find out how much it costs per day to supply our operations there, not only in materials but also in extortionate charges from practically every country bordering land-locked Afghanistan.  How much fuel and cargo never makes it from Karachi to the Khyber Pass.  Find these things out, and you will start wondering.  Maybe you’ll even start getting angry.

Advertisements