The Pitfalls of Privatizing Patriotic Duty

More than 400 American soldiers have died in Iraq for a president whose popularity seems impervious to dropping below the 50-percent mark. The loss in American lives seems to have had little impact on the American public. On the other hand, the president*#8217;s request for eighty billion dollars for aid to Iraq almost scuttled the president*#8217;s ratings. The American people appear much more concerned with the loss of treasure rather than blood. Why?
Why not, one might ask? In Vietnam, 54,000 American soldiers, mostly draftees, lost their lives in a war started by a President whose initial approval ratings rivaled those of the incumbent. Many thought that war might be as destructive to the American Republic as Athens*#8217; ill-fated expedition to Syracuse two millennia earlier. Happily, the Soviet Union was not Sparta. The difference in popular attitude seems to stem from the fact that today*#8217;s soldiers are all volunteers.
Trying to avoid the political disaster that engulfed Lyndon Johnson, the Nixon Administration decided to abolish the draft and institute an all-volunteer Army in 1972. This would free American politicians from the grim task of explaining to mothers of 19-year-olds why their sons had to die in countries whose names they could not pronounce. The ploy came too late to save the Nixon Administration, but it has characterized the American Armed Forces ever since.
The professional Armed Forces embraced the concept enthusiastically for different reasons. As a practical matter, long-term volunteers are much cheaper to train on today*#8217;s complex weapons. The inconsistencies of the old draft guaranteed that educated college graduates who could easily adapt to modern weapons systems were not drafted. The draftees were the poorest and least educated, who could not be properly trained in two years on modern systems. By the end of the Cold War, the American Armed Forces, though reduced in size, were much more potent and agile. Advanced weapons and electronics were, correctly, seen as multipliers to make up for smaller forces. Our ability to defeat any armed force in conventional combat was guaranteed. The forces were also much smaller. The Army, for example, had shrunk to less than 800,000 troops from a pre-1972 maximum of 1.5 million. After the Soviet Union disappeared the active Army declined to its present strength of 480,000.
However, we also discovered that downsizing, while improving lethality, brought other problems. A highly professional combat force could not recruit volunteers who would do the drudge duties that soldiers had performed for thousands of years. The new Armed Forces could not attract volunteers if the soldier*#8217;s job included kitchen police and grounds keeping. To make up for this difference the Armed Forces began to contract out the non-combat duties. Companies like SAIC, Dyncorp and Vinnell were created, often by recently retired soldiers, to perform these non-combat duties. Not only did these companies do the drudgework, they soon came to perform many less glamorous jobs, such as guard duty, that were once the province of soldiers.
In Iraq, the folly of this policy has begun to manifest itself. An Army of 480,000 men in ten divisions cannot sustain an occupation of a country of 25 million. Soldiers who joined the reserves thinking that this meant little more than a few weeks a year of polite training are now on extended assignments in Iraq, and many have died. Others watch as their jobs, their businesses and even their families at home disintegrate. No one believes that reserve enlistments will cover the hemorrhage that will follow redeployment of units to the United States.
Now we have pressed the contractors into more military jobs, jobs they are doing badly. Recent news reports from Iraq highlighted one more example of the consequences of the commercialization of America*#8217;s national security. The first newly trained battalion of the new Iraqi Army trained by the U.S. disintegrated as more than half of its members went home. Some complained about low pay, others about ethnic tensions. None felt any obligation to their brothers-in-arms. Delving deeper into the article one discovers that the battalion was trained by a civilian contractor, Vinnell Corporation, working under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.
Reading further, we learn that the training of the new Iraqi police force has been contracted to SAIC. Housing and feeding the United States Army has been contracted to Haliburton Corporation, whose CEO until recently was Vice President Cheney. Civilian contractors are motivated only by money and cut corners wherever they can. New Iraqi policemen are being pushed out into the street with only a week or two of training. The contractors lose no opportunity to make money. Although Iraq is awash in abandoned and captured AK-47 rifles, the contractors are paying $200 to $300 each to buy AK-47s in neighboring countries.
What is next? Air defense is a good candidate for privatization. It only takes three men to fight a Patriot anti-missile battery, working from the warmth and comfort of fully climate-controlled vans. Most Patriot batteries are maintained by civilian contractors. How much more of our national defense will we contract out to private contractors?
No one seems to read history. Nicola Macchiavelli in the Prince makes no secret of his contempt for mercenaries who will either flee the field of battle or turn on their masters for more money. As students of Greek history, we should learn again that the final catastrophic decline of the Byzantine Empire followed a decision by the politicians in Constantinople to streamline their Armed Forces from a national Army made up of landowning villagers to a purely mercenary force. In one motion, the politicians enriched the large landowners who could now seize the heretofore inviolate land of the soldiers. The politicians even went so far as to enlist the Genoese to replace the heretofore efficient Byzantine Navy and pay the Genoese by giving them a monopoly of Byzantine seaborne trade. In 1070 a mercenary force abandoned the Emperor Romanos to the Turks on the field of Manzikert and started the inexorable slide that led to fall of Constantinople in 1453. It does not take much imagination to draw parallels with the current American experience.
There is another cost to an all-volunteer Army. Middle and upper class youth in America have lost all touch with the concept that they must do something to protect their rights as Americans. It should come as no surprise that Americans who have never had to worry about defending their country, should be so cavalier about the steady erosion of their political and civil freedoms under the current administration. On a social level, young Americans do not know, nor care, to make the acquaintance of people who are not white enough, nor educated enough, to socialize with. The old experience of basic training, which pushed the rich and poor together in a crowded tent, is no more.
Some members of Congress see the danger. Representative Charles Rangel of New York introduced a bill that would create a new universal national service. Under his bill, the draft would apply to all men and women ages 18 to 26; exemptions would be granted to allow people to graduate from high school, but college students would have to serve. Acknowledging the large numbers that would be called up, Rangel proposes using those not serving in the military other necessary non-military jobs like forest rangers, police officers and prison guards. College graduates could be much more easily trained on modern systems. Unfortunately, many see Rangel*#8217;s bill as a ploy to undercut support for the Iraq War*#8212;which it was*#8212;rather than an imaginative effort to restore some sense of equality and national purpose to our youth*#8212;which it also was.
I realize that in today*#8217;s self-indulgent social and political climate few will embrace the idea of national service. I wonder, however, what sort of America our grandchildren will inhabit if we do not make some changes.