Monday, February 5, 2007

It seems a strange question, but might soon be warranted: In its current form, is the all-volunteer military doomed? Philip Gold thinks so. Though not quite in the way of Rep. Charlie Rangel, Mr. Gold thinks Selective Service belongs on the ash heap. That is, despite its wide popularity, he thinks the current all-volunteer force strays too far from the citizen-soldier ideal of the Founders, and is not sustainable the next time a war on the scale of Iraq occurs, to last much longer.

“The Coming Draft” — itself no brief for conscription, just the victim of a sensational title — is a useful critique of both the all-volunteer force and a century and a half of inequitable drafts before it. Entertaining yet historically erudite, this book takes the side of neither as it puts a politically explosive yet technical issue where it belongs — squarely in layman’s territory, between snoozy think-tank papers and angry opinion journalism.

It takes the side of the citizen-soldier to ask: “Is there, can there be, any morally compelling, rationally structured, and military effective relationship between service and citizenship in the world and the age now upon us?”

Mr. Gold never quite answers that question with the kind of specificity his title and subtitle seem to promise. He calls for more and better national service, in both a deeper and wider cross-section of society, while preserving room for conscientious objectors. Under no circumstances does he want a return to the bad old days of the draft.

That’s not to say it lacks the beginnings of an answer. One intriguing idea consists of revitalizing the little-known state guards and militias — “Few Americans even know they exist,” Mr. Gold correctly writes — which could conceivably take up some of the domestic slack for homeland-security contingencies or natural disasters. How to accomplish that beyond some unprecedented outpouring in national service — as opposed to public service — is not so clear. It would take even more than the reaction to September 11.

But coupled with a shift for the Reserves and National Guard into the de facto second standing army the Bush administration has made them, such a renewal of service could yield a significant manpower boost. Mr. Gold is not very comfortable with this “second standing army” business, however.

“The Guard can no longer be expected to do months- and year-long overseas federal deployment” while also taking responsibility at home for natural disasters and homeland security. Hard to argue with that.

A word about the author, who, agree with him or not, seems to have stood consistently with principle over the years. A historian, former officer in the Marine Corps and frequent contributor to this newspaper until 2004, this conservative culture warrior broke with his movement over what now look like prescient worries about Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003, which, the story goes, resulted in his termination at the conservative Discovery Institute.

As he was quoted in the Seattle Times back then: “When we invade Iraq, are we just going to tell them to act like good little boys and girls?” The subject was Iraq’s ethnic divisions, particularly the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. There is also a deeper disappointment with conservatives beyond Iraq: “One of the reasons I’m fed up with conservatism is that it’s lacking pessimism” of the Edmund Burke sort.

Mr. Gold is at his best as a historian, conveying the litany of embarrassments and injustices that characterized the draft era, followed by an All-Volunteer Force which, for all its merits, quite plainly isn’t what the Founders had in mind — it is even deemed unconstitutional by some — and exists as an act of expediency in a country which practically willed it into existence.

Mr. Gold can justifiably be called something of a dreamer. He admits to thinking — “viscerally, at any rate” — that every American male “should spend some time in uniform as a normal part of life and of citizenship,” even as he relates the long history of schemes by which half or more of eligible males avoided service including during drafts. The two propositions are practically at war with one another throughout our history, and probably more so today, when most young people probably do not even consider military service.

That’s not much of a fault, however. The country would be better off with more dreamers of Mr. Gold’s sort, and it’s hard to criticize him for failing to establish, in a single book, some full groundwork of a Third Way of military organization. No one has, partly because the issue isn’t forced upon us yet, even with the great strain of Iraq. The pessimist in Mr. Gold at one point suggests that the country might not do it until another major terrorist attack occurs, or some other conflagration. Here’s some conservative pessimism for Mr. Gold: He’s probably right.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times and a journalism fellow at the Phillips Foundation.

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