Enslaving our kids

I’m late to the party on this, but I couldn’t let Thomas Ricks’ stupid op-ed go without saying something. Ricks is a respected journalist who covers military issues and has a blog at Foreign Policy magazine. I’ve read a couple of his books — Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and Making the Corps about U.S. Marine training — and thought both were pretty good. That’s all I knew about him until I stumbled on his recent idiotic New York Times op-ed titled “Let’s Draft Our Kids”:

IN late June, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan, called for reinstating the draft. “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”

Um, the whole point of having a military is so that “every town, every city” is not at risk. You know, national defense. Lots of good it does to defend our citizens from being killed by middle eastern terrorists if our government kidnaps young men and sends them off to the middle east to be killed by terrorists.

This was the first time in recent years that a high-profile officer has broken ranks to argue that the all-volunteer force is not necessarily good for the country or the military. Unlike Europeans, Americans still seem determined to maintain a serious military force, so we need to think about how to pay for it and staff it by creating a draft that is better and more equitable than the Vietnam-era conscription system.

We already have a system that is better and more equitable than the Vietnam-era conscription system: The all-volunteer military.

As it turns out, Ricks isn’t actually proposing a draft — conscripting the soldiers who will fight our wars — but a much broader requirement for universal national service:

A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.

Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.

The idiocy of this is astonishing. In the first two paragraphs, Ricks quotes McChrystal saying conscription would be good because when a nation goes to war, everyone should have some “skin in the game.” Then in the next two paragraphs, Ricks proposes a national service system in which no one is forced to go to war. How does that solve the problem? How is that skin in the game?

It’s not, of course. It’s basically just slavery, as we will continue to see.

As for the third option, it’s just some anti-libertarian snark:

And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.

Can I also have no war on drugs, no militarized police forces kicking down my door, and no taxes? ‘Cause that would be a pretty good deal!

It’s odd that Ricks would slam libertarians, since he appears to have taken the libertarian option and opted out: His online biographies (FP, CNAS) make no mention of a term of military service, nor any government public service position. Perhaps he thinks his work as a journalist is public service enough. Of course, the rest of us, who are not important people, are just freeloaders.

Critics will argue that this is a political non-starter. It may be now. But America has already witnessed far less benign forms of conscription.

Such as slavery, which is what this is.

A new draft that maintains the size and the quality of the current all-volunteer force, saves the government money through civilian national service and frees professional soldiers from performing menial tasks would appeal to many constituencies.

Except the slaves. Also, does he realize that a policy that “frees professional soldiers from performing menial tasks” will means that they spend more time in combat? Does he realize that means spending more time away from their families? I’m sure the soldiers realize it.

A final objection is the price tag; this program would cost billions of dollars. But it also would save billions, especially if implemented broadly and imaginatively. One reason our relatively small military is hugely expensive is that all of today’s volunteer soldiers are paid well; they often have spouses and children who require housing and medical care. Unmarried conscripts don’t need such a safety net.

Proposed for your consideration: We should be allowed to hunt Thomas Ricks for sport. I’m sure it would be great fun for us, and I think that if skinned and properly tanned, his silver-haired visage would look great on my living room wall. I see no obvious downside. Ricks might argue that it’s got a downside for him, but I see no reason we can’t ignore the cost to him, much as in saying a draft “would save billions” he has chosen to ignore the cost to all the people whose labor he proposes to confiscate.

The other reason our “relatively small military” is hugely expensive is because when you want soldiers to fight your wars of their own free will, you have to make an effort to convince them to stay enlisted. Naturally, this requires decent pay and benefits, but it also requires good working conditions. And in the middle of a war, good working conditions cost a hell of a lot of money.

An all volunteer army isn’t going to put up with shoddy equipment and poor support. They want reliable guns, body armor that can stop an enemy bullet, vehicles that can take a rocket hit or an IED, good battlefield intelligence, air support, decent food, medical care, internet service, and so on. There’s a reason it costs over $800,000 per year to put a soldier in Afghanistan, and it isn’t the soldier’s pay. The only way you’re going to save that money is by giving our soldiers crappy equipment like we used to when we had conscripts.

And much of the labor currently contracted out to the private sector could be performed by 18-year-olds for much less.

Or we could just force them to perform labor at gunpoint, which would be even cheaper. Actually, since Ricks’s libertarian “opt-out” is just a joke, this rule would have to be enforced by threat of prison, enforced by armed police, so we really would be forcing them to perform labor at gunpoint. As I keep saying, Ricks is advocating a system of slavery.

And we could raise the retirement age for the professional force from 20 to 30 years of service. There is no reason to kick healthy 40-year-olds out of the military and then give them full retirement pay for 40 years. These reforms would greatly reduce both recruiting and pension costs.

This would only work if we assume, as Ricks appears to, that American soldiers would be too stupid to notice that their period of service has increased by 10 years, and would still keep enlisting at the same rates for the same pay.

Similarly, some of the civilian service programs would help save the government money: Taking food to an elderly shut-in might keep that person from having to move into a nursing home. It would be fairly cheap to house conscript soldiers on closed military bases. Housing civilian service members would be more expensive, but imaginative use of existing assets could save money. For example, V.A. hospitals might have space.

Christ, this is like something a child would write, and we’d congratulate little Tommy for being so inventive — ”Taking food to an elderly shut-in, isn’t that sweet?” — even as we chuckled at his youthful naivete. This damned fool wants to enslave millions, and he doesn’t even know what he wants them to do!

(Although, the V.A. hospitals comment is so stupid that it makes me wonder if this is all a satire and I’m missing the joke.)

The pool of cheap labor available to the federal government would broadly lower its current personnel costs and its pension obligations — especially if the law told federal managers to use the civilian service as much as possible, and wherever plausible. The government could also make this cheap labor available to states and cities. Imagine how many local parks could be cleaned and how much could be saved if a few hundred New York City school custodians were 19, energetic and making $15,000 plus room and board, instead of 50, tired and making $106,329, the top base salary for the city’s public school custodians, before overtime.

So we need to enslave people to make them…street sweepers and janitors? WTF? I guess you can tell he’s a liberal, because he doesn’t suggest selling the slave labor to private corporations the way a conservative would, right?

But most of all, having a draft might, as General McChrystal said, make Americans think more carefully before going to war. Imagine the savings — in blood, tears and national treasure — if we had thought twice about whether we really wanted to invade Iraq.

Despite Ricks’s idiotic blather about national service, I think I know what Ricks is getting at here. It’s a common belief among liberals supporting a return to conscription that the wealthy elites support our foreign wars because they know only poor people’s children who will enlist in the military — their own children have better opportunities — so if we switched from a volunteer system to a system of conscription that might take the wealthy elites’ children, they would be less likely to support unnecessary wars.

(This assumes, of course, that the wealthy elite wouldn’t figure out a way to protect their children from conscription as they have always done.)

Aside from the sheer immorality of enslaving children as a deterrent to their parents, this idea also founders on basic economic principles. Conscription is less expensive than paying a fair-market wage, especially when you include the savings from slashing equipment and support costs. Does anybody really think you can discourage warmongers by making it cheaper for them to wage war?

The Vietnam War was this country’s last major war under conscription. We had 58,000 soldiers killed in that war. In ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with a well-equipped, well-supported all-volunteer army, we’ve had fewer than 7000 soldiers killed. You can argue that these are not comparable wars, that it’s a different kind of fighting, but that just goes on to prove the point. The folks who run our government are a lot more careful with the lives of American soldiers when they have to pay the full market price.

Don’t give them a discount on the lives of American soldiers.

About Mark:
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.
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  1. Miranda
    Posted July 24, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Awesome post. Your rage is righteous! Thanks for taking the time to point out the idiocy in the quoted article.

  2. Susan
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re misinterpreting why certain liberals want to reinstitute the draft: the reason is because wars would become unpopular among the masses, not the elite.

    Also, you are incorrect about the military’s intentions. The last thing they want is a conscripted or drafted fighhting force, because if that happens, wars would become unpopular, and the military would lose most of its funding and reason to be.

  3. Susan
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink


    That’s not to say that there isn’t a draft. The military has a stop-loss measure which forces personnel back into multiple tours of duty. But you cannot draft civilians for for “resource wars” or “wars of choice”. Only mercenaries, or what are euphamistically caused “volunteers” will do. They learned that little lesson from Vietnam.

  4. Felix
    Posted July 29, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    My fading memory says that one of the lessons learned from the Vietnam War was to get rid of the safe haven that the Reserves had become precisely because, as Bush 43 showed, it was where the draft dodgers went, and there was a heck of a lot of corruption involved in kids with connections jumping the line to get in, not to mention rich kids staying in college even wit poor grades. The military leaders wanted to make sure that the entire population had some skin in the game and they wanted to get rid of the draft with all its corrupting exceptions.

    I’d be willing to bet the unions would howl bloody murder if slaves were to replace their janitors and street sweepers. I’d also be willing to bet that all these slaves would learn pretty quickly how to do minimum work for minimum pay, just as I did so many years ago. And lastly, I have no doubt that the well-connected kids would somehow not be doing the really menial jobs.

    Aside from the slavery bit and the corruption and everything else, he is so inconsistent and naive that I wonder how he can even get by day to day.

  5. Posted July 30, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    In response to both Susan and Felix, I don’t really know why the military eliminated the draft. A lot of people felt it was unfair, as you say, because no matter how much lip service it paid to equality, the sons of the wealthy and powerful were less likely to be conscripted. Milton Friedman thought it was inconsistent with a free society. Nixon thought (correctly, I think) that ending conscription would quiet the anti-war movement. Finally, military historians are pretty consistent in observing that conscript armies do terribly in the battlefield compared to volunteer armies.

  6. Michael
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Just from my own personal experience, I’d like to take issue with Rick’s idea of housing conscripts on closed bases. Time crumbles things, and when I stopped at Hahn on the way to Afghanistan I saw the state of the buildings which had been mostly abandoned for roughly 20 years. They were all cracked up and overgrown with weeds. And Rick’s seriously wants these unfortunate conscripts to live in these places?! I’d also like to point out that many closed bases are out in the middle of nowhere, like old K.I. Sawyer up in Upper Michigan. Either we’d have to spend money fixing the places up or just let the conscripts suffer. I wonder what Rick’s would think an acceptable suicide rate would be?