- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Since July, national attention has focused on the vigil of Cindy Sheehan. Last week, the president highlighted the patriotism of another mother, Tammy Pruett, who has watched her husband and five sons march off to war. The president announced, “America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts.”

President Bush is wrong. The Pruetts’ patriotism is unquestionably admirable. However, contrary to the president’s assertion, it has been the citizen-soldier, often times drafted into military service, and not the patriotic volunteer, that America has historically relied on secure our freedom.

Offering Mrs. Pruett to counter the emotional and political momentum generated by Mrs. Sheehan is a metaphor for a more profound issue: Whether the constitutional checks and balances against military adventurism have been fundamentally distorted by the ability of the president to rely on the all-volunteer force. Thus, the issue is not whether the unflinching patriotism of volunteers reflects the wisdom of the president’s policies, but whether their volunteer service allows the administration to avoid asking all Americans if they, too, are willing to accept the same burden.

The president’s continued emphasis on the patriotism of the volunteers executing the policies developed by men and women who almost universally avoided the call to arms in their own youth has struck many as hypocritical. However, the true hypocrisy was that instead of reminding voters that the true test of support for the war in Iraq was a willingness to, if necessary, bear the burden of war, Mr. Bush pledged that under no circumstances would he ever consider reinstating the draft. With this no-draft pledge, and his continued desire to tout the loyalty of the armed forces as proof of the wisdom his policies, Mr. Bush is subverting the true meaning of the great power of our democracy.

Our founders understood that the best way to check military adventurism was to ensure the people bore the cost of war. To limit executive power, they established checks and balances to ensure that resort to war would only occur with the genuine support of the people. Thus, for the first approximate 100 years of our republic, the aversion to large standing armies resulted in our nation relying on a small professional standing army. This army served as the nucleus of larger forces created when necessary by calling upon the states to provide their militias for federal service.

The increased wartime need for manpower, beginning with the Civil War and running through the Vietnam War, resulted in conscription to fill the ranks. This “democratization” of the human cost of war created a palpable connection between the decision to wage war and the people, and at times contributed to peace movements, most notably during the Vietnam conflict. This phenomenon has been reversed by the post-Vietnam emergence of the all-volunteer force. While this force, including the Reserves and National Guard, served the military needs of the nation exceptionally well, it has also enabled policy-makers to avoid resorting to “involuntary” service.

Today, for the first time in our history, a president is relying on a large all-volunteer force to fight a sustained, indefinite and costly conflict. Coupled with the erosion of other checks and balances against military adventurism — deficit spending, limited congressional involvement, and the “federalization” of state forces — the constitutional scheme of limiting the power of the president to commit the nation to military conflicts has been fundamentally eroded.

This erosion is what is really reflected in the competing emotions of Cindy Sheehan and Tammy Pruett. Is the president right? Have we become a nation that is content to “displace” the human cost of war onto only the willing volunteers? Or, is there something fundamentally wrong with a democracy such as ours engaging in a long-term military struggle without calling upon all Americans to genuinely contemplate the sacrifice necessary to sustain such a struggle.

The chord being touched by Mrs. Sheehan is that the president has decided to fight a crusade for democracy in an undemocratic way. If this struggle is worth the cost, if this ends truly justify the means, all Americans, and not merely the Sheehans and the Pruetts, must be reminded that, if necessary, they, too, will be called upon to become “Gold Star” families. Only through that lens — a lens both Mrs. Sheehan and Mrs. Pruett have gazed through — will their judgment on support for this war be legitimate.

This, Mr. President, is the great power of the American way of war, and a tradition that truly has secured the blessings of liberty for the American people. But it is also a tradition that has ensured that the causes we fight and die for are indeed just, and the benefits indeed worth the costs. Perhaps, in this context, the president is talking to the wrong mothers.

Geoff Corn is a professor of national security law at South Texas College of Law and a former adviser to the Army Judge Advocate General. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he served for 21 years.

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