Another opening, another war

Not enough Americans have 'skin' to keep U.S. out of military adventures

March 21, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Because the United States has no military draft — and hasn't had one since Vietnam, the one and only war stopped by popular protest — the politicians and corporations running this country continue to do as they please. They might even launch a ground war in Libya next. What's to stop them? Public opinion?

Surveys show that a majority of citizens think we should get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Pentagon spending should be cut. But those sentiments are at direct odds with reality, and only a tiny fraction of Americans are willing to take to the streets.

A crowd estimated "in the hundreds" protested near the White House on Saturday. The occasion was the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. About 100 people were arrested in Washington, at least one that I know of from Baltimore. In New York City, 80 protestors demonstrated outside a military recruitment center in Times Square. There were protests in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, also with crowds in the hundreds. A rally in Cleveland had protesters "in the dozens."

While the last remaining street protesters might be pacifists and liberals predisposed to hate all war, they apparently voice the sentiment of a broad spectrum of Americans, many of whom voted for President Barack Obama. Indeed, up to 70 percent of citizens oppose the length and cost, in lives and money, of two wars. They just don't do much about it.

Lack of a draft, more than anything else, explains the complacency. In an earlier age, Americans were more vigilant because they had skin, or kin, in the game.

Over the last four decades, since the end of the draft in the Vietnam era, the U.S. military has been transformed into a professional elite, equipped with and trained in the use of high-tech weaponry, and, as never before, a culture apart from civilian society. The military-civilian divide, in fact, is wider than at any time in our history, and we abide that because it requires less thinking and sacrifice — and because it relieves us of worrying about a son being killed in Kandahar.

So, the military does as it pleases with the consent of a supportive Congress. And here's what we get:

Eight years after the March 20, 2003, invasion orchestrated by the Bush administration, about 47,000 U.S. service members remain in Iraq and they will likely be there well beyond 2011, despite agreements requiring year-end withdrawal. Iraq has a fragile, developing democracy, but some fear it will fall apart without the presence of the U.S. military. The estimates of troops needed to maintain stability — to ward off insurgents and prevent sectarian war — ranges from a few hundred to tens of thousands.

Ten years into Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus keeps telling Congress to take "the long view" on the longest war in U.S. history, and the war President Obama promised to end. Early in his administration, the president ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, saying they were needed to stabilize the country against the Taliban insurgency. Last week, General Petraeus raised the possibility of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, after training local forces and establishing joint operations.

To date, there have been 4,758 coalition fatalities in Iraq (4,441 of them Americans), and 2,373 in Afghanistan (1,508 Americans). American wounded in both wars was 42,517 through February. The Center for Defense Information estimates the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at $1.3 trillion. But other estimates, including the long-term cost of medical treatment for wounded veterans, run much higher.

Now we're leading a new, multinational mission in Libya. But it's one thing to protect civilians in rebellion against a dictator, another to force regime change.

"Moammar Gadhafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave," President Obama said sternly. So what is our Nobel laureate president prepared to do about that? Send the Marines to the shores of Tripoli? And what of Syria or even Bahrain? Would anyone be surprised if this president got talked into launching additional military missions? Would enough of us be appalled enough to stop him?

With plenty of recruits available as the job market remains weak, with a complicit Congress willing to continue giving the Pentagon billions, with a complacent public estranged from military life, there's no end to these costly and violent adventures, whatever their rationale. Ending the draft was one of the smartest things the politicians ever did.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays, on WYPR. His e-mail is

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