Any Volunteers?

April 28, 1994|By TRB

WASHINGTON — If anything is clear about President Clinton's Bosnia policy, it is that he will not insert U.S. ground troops into the war there. But many armchair strategists say that air strikes alone will inevitably fail. What's more, Mr. Clinton is still committed to using U.S. troops to help police any peace settlement, if it comes. And even air strikes put American pilots at risk.

Thus there's no avoiding the question whether Bosnia is worth American blood. But there might be a better way of deciding -- or rather, of deciding who decides.

The eternal moral dilemma that old people make the decisions about war but young people pay the price is heightened these days by two developments. One is the end of the Cold War, which seems, at least, to make the use of military force more optional. America's vital national interests are not so clearly at stake. The second development is a president who famously avoided military service in his own youth. That makes it harder for him to decide to send today's youths into battle.

Deciding to risk other people's blood in war is surely the most difficult decision any president must make. Need it, though, be as difficult as it is now? Need it paralyze policy, as it seems to have done in the case of Bosnia? Must it leave America in a position where we cannot use our military might to do good in the world -- or even to serve less-than-paramount national interests?

A letter to the editor in The New Republic last July had an interesting proposal for cutting through the moral agony of sending other people to fight and die in foreign wars. Why not ask for volunteers? Why not a volunteer expeditionary force for Bosnia?

There may be practical complications, but the principle is a fine one. It is perfectly suited to the post-Cold War world, where potential uses of American force are likely to be smallish and discretionary. Let no American be placed at risk against his or her will. But let America not be paralyzed by fear of American bloodshed.

To be sure, the United States military is already composed exclusively of volunteers. But even in the all-volunteer force, each member didn't volunteer for any particular military action, and each may well have a different philosophy of intervention from the president (especially when the moment comes). The beauty of the volunteer expeditionary force idea is that every soldier would have volunteered for this particular mission.

To appeal to conservatives, you could call this a ''market-oriented'' approach to the problem of intervention. For any use of force to occur, it would have to attract enough ''customers'' willing to ''pay'' for it by putting their own lives on the line.

I suspect that in most cases it would not be difficult to find recruits. There are two obvious sources.

One is true believers in this or that particular cause, like the Americans who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

The other is people who simply long for adventure, enjoy the thought of military derring-do, and don't mind risking their lives in search of it. There is nothing ignoble or irrational about this. Many occupations carry risks that their practitioners think are worth taking.

Indeed, as you start thinking about this notion, you find yourself reinventing the wheel of the all-volunteer standing army itself. Why not, for example, a permanent, volunteer expeditionary force explicitly committed to being available for service in

humanitarian interventions where American national interest may be involved but is not necessarily paramount?

Yet how different is that from the various commando units we have now? Do these courageous soldiers really hope to sit out their entire careers, never using the skills they've developed, unless there's a frontal attack on the United States itself? Somehow I doubt it.

Let the soldiers themselves decide whether the cause they are fighting for is worth risking their own blood. Of course that still doesn't make war a completely voluntary affair. Even volunteer soldiers will be killing people who haven't necessarily volunteered for the honor. Some national leader will still have to decide that a particular cause is worth the deaths of foreigners.

But that, perhaps sadly, is an easier decision.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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