- - Friday, September 5, 2014

This week’s anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is becoming less about remembrance and more about prologue, with many more lessons identified than truly learned.

For most of 2001, I was a military analyst contributing to an MSNBC documentary set for release that fall with the working title, “Attack on Manhattan.” Any of us who had fought this new form of warfare — in my case since the 1970s — understood that such an “unthinkable” assault was actually quite likely. Still, nothing prepares you for the shock when your worst nightmares come true.

Have we really learned anything? Thirteen years later, Vice President Joe Biden confidently brays that we will follow the Islamic State to the “gates of hell” while conveniently neglecting to mention that his administration has made that boast unlikely by systematically stripping our defenses. Lately, pink slips have even begun to arrive in Afghanistan, with front-line combat leaders summarily dismissed. Even worse, President Obama cannot open his mouth in the presence of other world leaders without contradicting himself, declaring that the terrorist army that openly defied him should be “degraded” and reduced to “manageable proportions” rather than killed.

It is as though Mr. Obama had suddenly morphed into Percy Wetmore, that creepy prison guard in “The Green Mile” who tried to claim he didn’t know you were supposed to wet the sponge before strapping the hapless inmate into Old Sparky.

Maybe this is just what we deserve. Not only did we elect and re-elect this clueless duo, but we have also become a nation so detached from the tradition of the American soldier-citizen that we now insist on fighting wars using “other people’s kids.” Want to know why many of those captains and majors getting their pink slips have already served three or four combat tours? Got a mirror handy?

In polite company, of course, we don’t talk about “other people’s kids,” just about our all-volunteer military, and did we remember to thank you for your service? This summer, in The Journal of International Security Affairs, I revisited the issue of the all-volunteer military, a successful defense policy that is rapidly becoming infamous for its financial and social costs. Because volunteer manpower is scarce and expensive, we didn’t mobilize the nation after Sept. 11 to prevail in the war on terrorism. Instead, we sent our citizens back to the shopping malls — effectively drafting the reserves.

While some might blame President George W. Bush, the larger failure is institutional, bicameral and bipartisan, since Congress — not the president — raises armies and maintains navies. It all began back in 1973, the same year the Supreme Court decided that life in the womb was an option and not a right. Congress made the equally weighty decision that, like abortion, military service would henceforth be a personal choice. The direct costs of those decisions 40 years later: Roughly 55 million unborn babies and a volunteer military in which deploying a force to Afghanistan now costs $1 million per soldier per year.

Three West Pointers, all retired after distinguished military careers, are now bringing sustained, critical attention to the once-sacrosanct volunteer force. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who heads an Aspen Institute project aimed at producing a million-strong civilian service corps, says: “As important as military service is during the years of service, graduating military service alumni into every part of American society is critical. And we don’t do that very well right now.” Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University goes further, arguing in his book “Breach of Trust” that the relationship between the armed forces and American society has been compromised when less than 1 percent of our citizens ever serve in uniform. Ambassador and retired Lt. Gen. Karl Ikenberry even argues that ending conscription has corrupted American civic virtue. “We collectively claim the need for robust armed forces and yet as individuals we do not wish to be troubled with any personal responsibility for manning the frontier.”

Actually, our frontier may be exactly the right place to provide young Americans with direct exposure to the realities of war and peace. Why not create a tiered system of military service? While our expeditionary forces — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines — would remain volunteer and professional, the reserves — particularly the National Guard — might be rebuilt through some form of conscription. Their new mission: Defending our notoriously porous southern border, exactly as the Texas National Guard is doing right now. To get really creative, why not link shorter terms of military service to earned educational benefits?

However, the main public purposes are more urgent; namely, ending our disgraceful dependence on “other people’s kids.” And ensuring that future commanders in chief and congressional leaders begin their public service by serving first as grunts, facing the life-shaping lessons best learned while young.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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