“They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain,
There’re hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain…”
That sweetly cynical ballad from the button-downed, short-haired Kingston Trio of the pre-hippy late ’50s and early ’60s reminds us of just how much our world has changed — and how much it hasn’t. Oh, they’re not starving in Spain (and they weren’t then either though it rhymed nicely with ”rain”), but things aren’t looking all that good there either. And there’s rioting, and worse, in Africa. And not just in Africa: rioting is worsening in oil-rich, poverty-stricken Venezuela. And then, the tragic civil war in Syria; an upcoming one, perhaps, in the Ukraine; not to mention the Taliban upping the ante in Pakistan and, surely, later this year or next in Afghanistan.
But the good news is that the US has learned its lessons: we’re not only decamping from Afghanistan, even though President Obama insists on checking once again with Afghan President Karzai to make sure he really doesn’t want us to stay on; and we’re clearly not about to find another third world country to democratize. To underscore this is the most overlooked news story of the week: “Pentagon Plans to Shrink Army to Pre-World War II Level” headlined the NY Times.
Remember when — and this is going back to Defense Secretary McNamara’s day — our military doctrine was the 2-and-a-half war policy: we must be prepared for two big ones and a little one simultaneously.
The Nixon Doctrine took it to slightly less Dr. Strangelove levels — one major front and one minor one at the same time — reflecting our Vietnam experience. But the key to Nixon’s approach was his switch to an all-volunteer army, a direct reflection of the behavior of draftees, and prospective draftees, at the height of the Vietnam War.
It was an idea that, at the time, seemed a welcome and rational approach to the world that lay head. Coincidentally, I was in Vietnam in the late ’60s and at one point, on loan from the State Department, was working on “pacification” or “revolutionary development” as it was upgraded to — take your pick. Military and civilian roles in that area were somewhat interchangeable. There was a young lieutenant colonel, very bright, who was foisting what seemed a far-out idea at the time, late 1967: get rid of the draft and create an all-volunteer force.
Part of the discussion, I remember — this is through the fog, not of war, but of nearly half a century — was the thought that if you had to rely on a bunch of volunteers, you’d obviously have more committed fighters but you wouldn’t have the fodder to plunge into unpopular, Vietnam-like conflicts.
The irony is, at least when it came to Iraq, that it was precisely because we had an all-volunteer army that President Bush was able to start an unnecessary war and then continue it for nearly a decade. An army of draftees would have, quite quickly, realized that we were seen as occupiers not liberators in Iraq, and would have started reacting in exactly the same way their fathers — those sent to Vietnam and those who didn’t want to go — had a generation earlier.
An all-volunteer force, at least up to a point, is like a mercenary army of old: our country’s leadership can use it to fight unpopular and unnecessary wars without having to worry about a serious anti-war resistance movement springing up among our fighting-age youth.
The draft — quite apart from the unruly nature of some of those drafted, or about to be, to fight in a revealingly stupid war — is quite expensive. It’s unfortunate that some sort of required non-military service, an “at home” Peace Corps working in inner cities or poor rural areas, was never initiated for today’s draft-age youth.
But that’s another issue. The good news is that Secretary of Defense Hagel intends to reduce the size of the army to 1940 levels, cutting back nearly 25% from its height during the Iraq War. Part of what makes such large cutbacks possible is the vast improvements in technology. But, as Hagel pointed out in announcing the plan, technology is a two-way street: “The development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations mean that we are entering an era where American dominance, in the skies and in space, can no longer be taken for granted.”
Hagel’s defense cuts were of course originally stimulated by the Pentagon spending cap legislated in the 2011 Budget Control Act. But bringing defense spending into Congressionally-mandated budget guidelines does not mean Congress is going to be happy with the results. In announcing the budget reductions, Hagel warned that the Pentagon would work aggressively to close unnecessary bases, something which is anathema to local congressmen.
And even as he was rolling out his plan, some Congressmen and retired military officers were gearing up to fight plans to retire the A-10, an Air Force low-level fighter dating back to the 1970s; the National Guard Association was circulating talking points in Congress aimed at rejecting anticipated cuts; and the naval ship-building industry, supported by Congressmen from the relevant districts, is going into high gear to oppose any plans to cut back on new ships. And, of course, with mid-term elections looming in the fall, both Democratic and Republican Congressmen whose districts will be adversely affected by cuts will go on the offensive.
Hagel was upfront about concerns that a smaller army meant greater risk: “You have fewer troops, fewer ships, fewer planes. Of course there’s going to be risk.”
But there are advantages, too. The idea that Bush’s two multi-trillion dollar fiascos might keep us from further meddling in faraway countries, where our national interests are not at stake, is wishful thinking. Ukraine may ultimately precipitate a heavy-handed Russian reaction, and, assuredly, we’ll remain on the sidelines. Yes, we have learned a lesson for the near-term. But, remember, Bush got us into Iraq only 30 years after the last American soldier left Vietnam. When it comes to learning lessons from history, Americans are no better than the rest of the world.
To the extent that a reduced military force designed for today’s world — and the real risks it poses to the US — might be one step in keeping future presidents from future Vietnams, or Iraqs, or Afghanistans, the cuts are not just a money-saver, they are a positive benefit to our strategic position in the world.
Graduating from Yale in 1964, Mac Deford joined the Foreign Service the following year, spending three years in Vietnam. He studied Arabic in Beirut, after which he was assigned to the embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He was posted to Washington, New York, and Amman, Jordan before joining Merrill Lynch International in 1978. He spent much of a nearly two-decade career with Merrill in the Far East, retiring in 1997 to Maine. He has written a weekly foreign policy column for the local newspaper since 2001. He has served on a number of non-profit boards, including International College in Beirut, the newly-established graduate School for Policy and International Affairs at the the University of Maine and the Neiman Fellows for Journalism at Harvard.