A Thought Experiment

Now that the U.S. has officially lifted the ban on women in combat roles, it seems that some people are willing to take another look at other sacred cows as well.  Specifically, Rep. Charles Rangel, tax cheat representative from New York, has come out and is plumping for not only a co-educational combat force, but a co-ed draft as well.  He makes half his point very well, but left out the other half of it.  Specifically, he points out that with an all-volunteer force, the flesh-and-blood burden of defending the U.S. falls on an incredibly thin slice of our population, less than 1%.  True enough; the other part of his point is that the 1% that serves is not randomly-selected.  It is, after all, a volunteer force and volunteerism in anything is never randomly-selected, whether it’s Delta Force (where a high school classmate served), or the 82d Airborne (where a law partner served), or the SEALs (where a cousin serves still), or the combat fleet (where I served), or helping out down at the local humane society.

Both parts Rangel’s point are entirely true and an acknowledgment of that truth must underlie any intelligent, morally defensible discussion of the issue of whom do we ask to give what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”  Where Rangel may go off the reservation a bit (or a lot, as some have argued, q.v.) is in the implications he draws from that.  Chief among them is his statement that, “Since we replaced the compulsory military draft with an all-volunteer force in 1973, our nation has been making decisions about wars without worry over who fights them.”  I would suggest that to the extent that by “our nation” he means “people inside the Beltway, the socio-economic elite inside the Northeast Corridor, and the same bunch in coastal California,” he’s probably pretty much correct.  To the extent that “our nation” can be read to include us out here in fly-over country, or those who do not work for “non-profits,” or in upper-level government positions, or in academia, or on Wall Street, I submit his statement is pretty demonstrably false.  We’re the ones who staff up the armed forces, after all, by a widely disproportionate margin.  When hell-holes like Iraq, or Somalia, or Mali heat up, we’re the ones who can tick off a half-dozen or more people within our families and close acquaintances who may or may not come back from it in one piece.

 Rangel’s suggestions have not met with universal approval.  Over at Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin has a principled objection to the notion of a draft of any kind under any conditions but those in extremis.  They’re by and large of a libertarian bent over at the Conspiracy, which means that I sympathize if not outright agree with them the vast majority of the time.  And when I don’t it’s usually because I think they weigh and balance things other than I think they should.  This is one of those times.

Somin’s right about the nature of the intrusion onto personal liberty which a military draft represents.  It’s coerced labor, plain and simple.  In terms of how it stacks up against other forms of governmental intrusion upon what you are pleased to think of as your personal liberty, if you think requiring a 24-hour waiting period before getting a third-trimester abortion is a monstrous intrusion of the state into the sanctity of your uterus, then you ought to try a 7.62mm round through the reproductive system, or a sizzling shell splinter through ditto.  Just sayin’.

Somin’s also entirely correct that all else being equal you’re not likely to get as high-quality a military through conscription as you would if you relied on an all volunteer force, at least not in American society.  For the counter-argument, I refer Gentle Reader to the examples of the Kaiser’s army and the Old Contemptibles in World War I.  The Kaiser’s was an enormous conscript army, and put huge numbers of reservists into front-line units right out of the gate (in fact, it was the Allies’ belief that you couldn’t feasibly do that which lead them woefully to underestimate the manpower which Germany was able to pour into Belgium in August, 1914).  The BEF was all-volunteer and, thanks to years of colonial warfare (not least the Boer War) had extensive combat experience; it also continued the British military tradition of being able to withstand incredible pounding without breaking (a point Wellington understood very well at Waterloo, but which Napoleon didn’t grasp until he saw it, by which time he was screwed).  No one who saw the oceans of feldgrau underway that summer would suggest that the conscripts gave anything away to the volunteers.  I will say this much, though:  There were (and are) important cultural differences between Anglo-American and German society which might well impeach the validity of my comparison.  On the other hand, I would suggest that different experience levels will dwarf other sources of qualitative difference, such that a conscript army with prolonged combat and related experience is going to be vastly better than a volunteer but little-used force.  In that connection it’s important to realize that right now and for the foreseeable future, the U.S. armed forces, however constituted, are predictably going to be the most experienced forces on the field, no matter against whom measured.

In any event, where I depart from Somin is not in his objections to the draft as an intrusion on personal liberty, or even in his concerns with what quality military we’d get from the exercise.  What I don’t think he’s adequately confronted is the speed at which modern war unfolds.  The only reason that the Old Contemptibles weren’t ground to mud before 1916 was because the French could field a massive (conscripted) army of their own and hold the overwhelming portion of the Western Front, and because until 1917 Germany had significant forces tied down in the East.  The only reason that the British Army was able to reconstitute itself after June, 1940 was because there was an English Channel between Hitler’s divisions and them, and because of Göring’s fatal abandonment of the assault against Fighter Command, right at the point he was about to win it, and so win air control over the Channel.  The only reason that Japan didn’t conquer even more of the Pacific than they did was the iron law of time and distance.  The only reason that Stalin was able to re-build the Red Army was because Germany ran out of steam literally at the gates of Moscow, and even then Russia damned near didn’t pull it off.

With all possible respect to Brer Somin, no future general war is going to grant us the kind of time Britain had in 1914-16, or in 1939-42, or we had in 1942-43.  With modern transportation and logistics there’s a decent chance that ol’ Graf Schlieffen’s vision of a war over in six weeks is going to be borne out in the event.  If the key to military victory is concentration of forces at the critical points in the decisive theater, then I’m going to state that there is no way the United States can with an all-volunteer force achieve that level of concentration sufficiently quickly as to stave off strategic set-backs if not defeat.  In 1990 we were able to suppress Iraq while we built up our attack forces in Saudi Arabia, but what if Saddam had been able to contest the C3 battle?  What if he’d been able to keep us from controlling the air?  Would we have been permitted the several months’ build-up?  With a peacetime draft we can cycle vastly more people though the training system, keeping them as reserves (as did Wilhelmine Germany), and recalling them to the colors as needed.  It would entail re-structuring the permanent, regular forces, as we diverted resources to increasing the reserve, but then that’s a cost I’d be willing to bear.

But none of that really has to do with my thought experiment.  Some time ago I announced (to thin air) on this blog that in future I would run all of my political thinking through the filter of which policy choices and candidates would minimize the likelihood of my sons having to fight to fix the balls-ups that Dear Leader and his fellow anti-Americans are preparing for us.  By the time my boys start hitting the age for military service I am quite convinced there will have been at least one nuclear exchange in the Middle East.  Someone has to clean that mess up, and the folks who get to enjoy that task are by and large the P.B.I., as the English used to call them — the Poor Bloody Infantry.  So let’s ask the question whether formally lifting a ban on females in combat positions will or will not increase that likelihood.

For starts, nothing about lifting the ban will make any such war more or less likely, so that criterion is a wash.  By increasing the theoretically potential numbers of combat troops relative to overall force size, it would dilute my boys’ statistical probability of finding themselves in a combat unit, in a combat role.  So that criterion argues in favor of lifting the ban.  On the other hand, if you assume that if my boys do end up in those units, and those roles, but with X% of their unit made up of females, will the females’ presence increase or decrease the likelihood of my boy stopping a round instead of one of them?  Here I’m afraid the answer relies on knowing how the males and females in those units are going to react.  This has little to do with hypothetical gender-norming of roles or whatever the hell you want to call it.  The males will take care of the females.  The males will end up shouldering increased burdens, either because they decide to, or because the females in fact cannot keep up.  The males will end up accepting the greater risks the unit faces.   In a specific combat situation, is it more likely to be the males or the females who get sent out to close with the enemy, as opposed to providing covering fire, or communications with the rear, or simply to provide the reserve (in World War I it was not unusual for units slated to go over the top to leave a certain percentage of the troops behind to reconstitute the unit if the attack waves were annihilated . . . as not seldom happened)?  I know, I know in my heart, that it will be the females who are left back, which means that my boys’ statistical likelihood of not being among the guys who have to cross the open field, or clear out the block of houses, or cross the canal, or whatever, will go down.  I’m not just making all that stuff up, sitting here at my desk.  Others with far greater knowledge and experience — close-quarters combat experience — seem to have the same reactions.

Thus I conclude that with females in combat positions I am more rather than less likely to get that folded flag, saluted, and thanked by the honor guard captain for my boy’s service to his country.  I am, therefore, opposed to females in combat roles, notwithstanding my visceral desire that all those women who dutifully trooped down and voted for Dear Leader because of what some MSNBC operative told them what Mitt Romney really in secret wanted to do to their uterus and their daughter’s as well — notwithstanding Romney had said nothing of the kind — ought to enjoy the spectacle of their daughter’s flag-draped coffin (assuming there’s enough left of her to fill a coffin; artillery fire will work hell on your mascara).  I realize that increasing the hypothetical possibility for that happening will actually in fact increase the likelihood of my own boys’ deaths, and so I must forego that pleasure.

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