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June 19, 2005

The State of the Volunteer Army

The right-wing Tacitus writes:

t a c i t u s || Battle fatigue.: I just spent an evening with a friend recently back from Iraq. Her stories were depressing enough -- she was running an aid station near Baqubah -- and now that she's back in the US, she's getting to follow up with many of the soldiers whose lives she helped save. They're without legs, or arms, or significant portions of skull, for the most part. Another peculiar trauma is one that is disproportionately affecting officers -- I forget the specific name -- in which a blast basically shakes your head so violently you suffer brain damage: shaken baby syndrome in adults. Horrifying all around. That's war, and that's what war does.

As troubling are the decisions taken by people like her to leave the Army as soon as possible. She told me when her unit is going back, and it's ridiculously soon. These young people in their twenties are volunteers, well educated, and tired of rotating in and out of war. My friend is lucky -- she's only been to war once. I know others who have been to war twice, and probably a third time before the year is out. It's not that these people have no sense of duty: to the contrary. But they don't see the sense in the open-ended mission, plagued by strategic incoherence, and chronically undermanned. It's impossible to blame them. "I've read about the recruiting problems," she said, "And I think, no joke."

The volunteer soldiers have proven themselves fine warriors. But the volunteer Army has failed. This is its first war of any meaningful length, and its lessons are clear: it cannot sustain this effort, through no fault of its own, because, in the end, its discrete parts are rational actors. It is impossible to externally incentivize war. The choice is therefore between that Army's continuance and a draft. If the choice is for its continuance, then the subsequent choice will probably be between losing Iraq and losing the Army. Losing Iraq will be a strategic disaster for the United States. But losing the Army would be the end.

I think Tacitus is wrong.

I would not say that the volunteer army has failed. The volunteer army has done fine in many of its missions. We have only run into trouble when the Bushies took America's volunteer army--the finest high-tech soldiers in the world--and deploy them as military police in a country where they do not speak the language on an open-ended mission with only one-third as many forces as they need.

The volunteer army has done fine at limited-duration war-fighting missions where its high-tech strengths are useful. The volunteer army has done fine at low-risk peace-keeping missions in the Balkans and elsewhere. The volunteer army would do fine at what ought to be its principal task: holding the line while the rest of us mobilize when something truly serious happens.

It's not the volunteer army that has failed. It's the Bush administration.

Posted by DeLong at June 19, 2005 10:43 PM