The return over the weekend to something like a set-piece battle in Iraq, though conducted in the context of a guerrilla conflict rather than the usual army-vs.-army context, could heighten what is still a looming threat to American liberties: a draft.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan recently responded with a quick and emphatic "no" to the question of whether a reinstitution of the draft is being contemplated. However, as Charles Pope reported in the November 8 issue of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, "military observers and some members of Congress say that the notion of a possible military draft is gaining traction." The traction is coming from some interesting places.
The American soldiers who reportedly killed some 46 guerrilla attackers in a guerrilla-style ambush in the Iraqi city of Samarra, near Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, demonstrated that when it comes to set-piece battles for which they have had occasion to prepare, the American military is virtually unsurpassed in today’s world. The Americans suffered only five wounded, while reportedly killing 46 of the guerrillas. They also wounded 18 of the attackers and captured eight.
The American display of force, apparently used because similar convoys had suffered ambushes in the recent past, can be viewed as part of Operation Iron Hammer, the increased focus on taking the war to the enemy that became US policy a couple of weeks ago. In light of the increasing number of attacks on US, coalition and civilian targets, the US military is becoming more aggressive in trying to seek and destroy pockets of resistance or operations. This convoy had heavier armament than had been the case in the past, and it dealt more destruction than it suffered.
GUERRILLAS AND NUMBERS
Surely the numbers had something to do with this shift in tactics. Some 81 Americans were killed in November, compared to 73 in April, the month of the actual invasion. Instead of becoming more peaceful (although there are surely areas that are an exception to this rule) Iraq is becoming a more dangerous place for the troops of the foreign power occupying the country. The increasing emphasis on military rather than civil-oriented or "peacekeeping" operations reflects a recognition of this reality.
As almost everybody I have interviewed in the last six or eight months, from President Bush’s former troubleshooter in Afghanistan to experts from think tanks of varying ideological persuasions, has emphasized, the first task of an occupying army is security. Anything resembling normal daily life, from rebuilding infrastructure to farming to running marketplaces is more difficult when people are worried about whether they might catch a stray bullet, or a bullet aimed at them precisely because they are trying to go about life in a relatively normal way and in cooperation with the American occupiers.
Perhaps it is too early to say definitively that the United States is now involved in a classic guerrilla war in Iraq. The insurgents in Iraq seem to come from a variety of groups, from old Baathist Party loyalists who still pine for the return of Saddam (or perhaps Baathist domination without Saddam) to foreign Islamist extremists to ordinary Iraqis who might have welcomed the Americans at first but have become disillusioned. Given the perfunctory character of American intelligence in Iraq, including the necessity of relying on locals who may or may not really be loyal to US interests to gain the kind of information that can only come from speaking the language and being able to "blend in," it is almost impossible for those on the ground let alone those of us thousands of miles away to know for sure how many people out there are willing to take up arms against the American occupation.
US military officials have estimated that there are perhaps 5,000 guerrilla fighters, and have speculated that there may be a centralized structure providing financial resources and broad orders (subject to abandonment if the guerrilla band on the ground thinks conditions are not right). But they have to acknowledge that their information is sparse. Nobody knows for sure if a few key strikes that kill relatively large numbers of guerrillas at once will lead to disenchantment among other would-be guerrillas or serve as an effective recruiting tool for would-be guerrilla leaders, malcontents and the personally or ideologically ambitious.
What seems certain, however, is that if there is a bona fide guerrilla insurgency developing, more American troops will be needed. Classic military doctrine holds that conventional troops need a significant numerical advantage in order to defeat a guerrilla insurgency. You can get arguments over whether the required advantage is 10-to-1, 20-to-1 or even 50-to-1, but guerrilla insurgencies fought against by people who are not either natives of the area or can fairly easily disguise themselves to look like natives seldom succeed without overwhelming numerical superiority.
The need for such overwhelming numerical superiority might be counterbalanced somewhat by the use of special forces trained in counterinsurgency, penetration, infiltration, intelligence and strategic killing. But if the goal is to defeat a guerrilla insurgency militarily, more troops than are presently in Iraq will probably be required. And US doctrine, at least for now, is to use the military against the guerrillas.
The usual rule is that to keep 100,000 troops actively in the field, you need 300,000 troops available, to keep replacements coming, give those on the front lines an opportunity to return home for a while, and prevent disillusionment and serious morale problems. Unlike, for example, some British troops in the 19th century, American troops have not been prepared logistically, tactically or psychologically for the idea that they might have to garrison imperial outposts for years at a time, or even spend most of their lives overseas. Perhaps that mindset could be changed, given a more honest statement of long-term imperial ambitions, but that would take years.
The military newspaper Stars and Stripes has run several articles that suggest that, contrary to the more optimistic reports, there are serious morale problems developing among the military in Iraq (even discounting for the fact that Americans, bless ’em, consider it their birthright to gripe and grumble about their superiors). There are also lots of National Guard personnel in Iraq, performing duties significantly more stressful than going out for maneuvers with your buddies one weekend a month.
The upshot is that it is entirely possible we won’t know for months, perhaps for many months that the US military will experience serious recruiting problems in the wake of our excellent adventure in Iraq. Today’s gripes about extended stays in Iraq could translate into people deciding not to re-enlist when their current terms are over, or serious reduction in the number of new recruits, especially for the National Guard.
FEELING A DRAFT
It is hardly surprising, then, that we’re starting to hear rumbles about conscription. The Defense Department early in November placed a notice on its Web site asking for "men and women in the community who might be willing to serve as members of a local draft board." Elaborating, the notice on the Selective Service System Web page, explained: "If a military draft becomes necessary, approximately 2,000 Local and Appeal Boards throughout America would decide which young men, who submit a claim, receive deferments, postponements or exemptions from military service, based on federal guidelines. Positions are available in many communities across the Nation."
The Defense Department didn’t comment on the notice and pulled it from the Web site without explanation. Unofficial explanations revolved around the "we don’t contemplate a draft but it’s only prudent to plan for every conceivable contingency" line.
Prudent contingency or not, however, that Web site notice marked the first time since 1973 that an official or quasi-official source made a formal or semiformal comment about reestablishing draft boards. That’s an important development.
BOOSTING THE BUDGET
Beyond the mysterious appearance and disappearance of a reference on the SSS Web page, there’s the matter of an increased budget next year for the Selective Service System. I’m still trying to confirm the figures for myself, but a website run by Democrats has a link to the SSS Annual Performance Plan for FY 2004, along with the statement that the Selective Service budget for 2004 has been increased by $28 million. Is this actually an increase of $28 million or is that $28 million for the Strategic Goals for 2004? One poster said the budget for 2003 was $26 million, so if it’s been boosted by only $2 million that might not be all that significant. I’ll find out for sure and report back. But the strategic goals outlined in the performance plan sound like an agency gearing up to go into action after decades of dormancy.
Here are the strategic goals and budget allocations in the plan:
- Increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the Manpower Delivery Systems (Projected allocation for FY 2004 – $7.942 million)
- Improve overall Registration Compliance and Service to the Public ($8.77 million)
- Enhance external and internal customer service ($10.624 million)
- Enhance the system which guarantees that each conscientious objector is properly classified, placed, and monitored ($955,000)
Those goals are further broken down into subgoals that suggest serious retooling. They are (paraphrased in some cases): 1) Develop an Area Prototype Exercise to test the Health Care Personnel Delivery System; 2) Redefine Agency infrastructure; 3)Prepare and conduct an Area Office Prototype Exercise to test the activation process from SSS Lottery input to issuance of the first Armed Forces Examination Orders; 4) Ensure that 90% of people tested are capable of implementing activation procedures; 5) Ensure that 95% of predefined readiness objectives are attained in an Area Office Prototype Exercise; 6) Train 90% of assigned State Directors and Reserve Force Officers (RFOs) on HCPDS and Timed Phased Response functions; 7) Attain a 92% or higher compliance rate for men aged 18-25; 8) Attain and appoint Registrars in 85% of the Nation’s high schools; 9) Obtain 75% of registrations electronically; 10) Maintain an average change request time of 39 days; 11) Maintain customer satisfaction level of 87%; 12) Have telephone call completion rate of 93%; 12) Answer correspondence in less than 10 days; 14) Train 90% or state directors and RFOs on Alternative Service plans and procedures.
There are other objectives, including:
1.2: Ensure a mobilization infrastructure, including state offices, 442 area offices and 1,980 local boards to be operational within 75 days of an announced return to conscription.
2.1: Improve registration compliance. The document indicates that 88% of 18-25-year-old men registered in 1999, but in 2000 only 65% of 18-year-olds registered. That figure isn’t broken out in subsequent years, but the document claims overall (18-25) compliance was increased to 91 percent in 2002. The 2003 goal was 92 percent. Among the strategies the agency plans to employ to improve compliance are lobbying states to pass laws requiring SS registration as a precondition for a driver’s license or state ID card, along with special mailings and media appearances
The Selective Service System is supposed to report on March 31, 2005 how it has done in meeting these goals.
Some of this may be bureaucratic boilerplate, the kind of verbiage bureaucrats are skilled at turning out to conceal the fact that they aren’t really doing much of anything. But as I read the plan there’s a certain sense of gearing up. In 2003, under goal 2.1, for example, the agency was supposed to develop an Area Office Prototype Exercise to test the activation process. In 2004 it is supposed to conduct an exercise to make sure it can actually do it. The section on dealing with conscientious objectors is quite detailed, although to be fair it appears that groundwork has been laid for several years.
NO CHILD UNRECRUITED
Hidden deep in the vaunted "No Child Left Behind" act which substantially increased the federal government’s power and control over most aspects of the educational system (another Constructive Republican Alternative Proposal, no doubt), is Section 9528, which states in part:
" each educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters or an institution of higher education, access to secondary school students’ names, addresses, and telephone listings." That act does include a provision to the effect that a student or parent may request that the student’s name not be released without prior parental approval, but notification to parents of this right is spotty or buried in acres of fine print. So military recruiters are going after high school students fairly aggressively.
Conscription might make such aggressive recruitment unnecessary or plant the seeds for a future rebellion against conscription. It is worth noting that active college campus protests against the Vietnam war came to a virtual end when the draft was repealed back in 1973. It is hardly a denigrating comment to note that college students facing imminent conscription to fight and die for Uncle Sam tend to be more activist than those for whom the fighting is either something seen on television or something done by kids who couldn’t or didn’t get into college.
The SSS bureaucracy may not be posting provocative suggestions on its website any more was that a trial balloon to see if anybody would notice and whether there would be any initial protest or activism? but it is gearing up bureaucratically. And you hear the occasional legislator suggesting that it might be time to reconsider conscription, what with the way things are going in Iraq and all. Hardly anybody uses terms like "providing permanent garrisons for imperial outposts," but that’s certainly in the air as well.
The people I talk to in Washington (not a representative sample, perhaps, but a sample nonetheless) hear conscription talk mostly from moderate liberal Democrats of the sort who have always had a tender spot for the draft as a way of "equalizing" society by providing a common experience and forcing people to perform a variety of unpaid or underpaid service to the state.
What they tell people quietly is that plenty of moderate to conservative Republicans are urging them on, but don’t want to be seen as in the forefront of calling for conscription. Whether this is because they don’t want to get out ahead of the administration (an especially craven but typical attitude for GOP legislators when somebody with an "R" behind his name occupies the Oval Office) or because they want to maintain a semblance of credibility when it comes to being for limited government (while undermining it with almost every vote, especially on budget matters) I do not claim to know.
The upshot is that conscription is starting to look like a possibility. It would be just like this administration to stay quiet or deny during an election year and then spring it in 2005. The Shrub seems to have the presidential weakness for loving surprises and quick "dramatic" action to an unusual degree. (To be fair, there were a couple of instances when LBJ decided not to take certain actions when rumors leaked, so it’s hardly unique to Dubya.) Another way of putting it, of course, is keeping the people in the dark until the president decides the time is right for his latest masterstroke
REVIEWING THE ARGUMENTS
If the speculations have any validity, there will be some time to refresh ourselves on all the substantive arguments against conscription before a draft is imminent. However, there’s better evidence for the imminence of a draft than there ever was for the imminence of a real threat from Saddam Hussein to the United States, so it’s probably justifiable to prepare for a preemptive strike against the resumption of conscription.
The most fundamental argument, of course, is that conscription is a form of slavery. Even if "alternative service" is offered, its essence is to tell a young man that he belongs to the government rather than to himself, and that the government has a claim on the entirety of his life quite literally, because the essence of conscription is placing young men in the position of being required to kill or be killed to serve the greater good of the State.
The argument that we abolished slavery so conscription is unconstitutional has never been tested in court these things tend to get appealed during wartime, which is when courts truly faithful to the founders’ vision should be especially suspicious of overweening executive claims of inherent power, but when in fact (because there’s a war on, you know) courts tend to cut the executive a little more slack than usual. But whether or not it’s unconstitutional as validated by a court or not, conscription is slavery, the very negation of freedom. That’s a powerful and valid argument that should be used again and again. In the old days we used to call it the Selective Slavery System.
There’s also the practical argument that a volunteer military tends to provide an effective test of whether a foreign policy is sensible enough to command functional assent. If a policy does not lead to a shortage of recruits or leads, as some war party folks have predicted, to increased enlistments then whatever its wisdom to some of us more inclined than average to be critical, it is popular enough to stand without promoting outright rebellion (which to some extent is what happened in the 1960s). If a policy leads to declining recruitment, that’s an important signal for policymakers to be able to receive. This is a rough-and-ready test of policy, to be sure, and it might not be as effective a test as it could be given that for some young men in a flat economy the military is the most attractive option out there. But it’s still an important potential check on imperial ambitions.
Most people in the military contend, often with some vehemence and with a fair amount of documentation, that having a volunteer military has led to having a more effective and sophisticated military. Officers are dealing with people who have decided they want to be there rather than with people who don’t want to be there and are likely to be troublemakers or slackers for the two years they’re forced to serve. I’m not in a position to judge the contention that having a volunteer force has contributed to having a better force, better able to cope with the increasingly technological demands of today’s military than a bunch of surly draftees would, but it’s certainly a plausible argument.
I hope we won’t find ourselves in the position of having to make these and other arguments any time soon. But there are enough portents that it would be prudent to be prepared.