Background: At the end of the Cold War – nearly 20 years after the institution of the all-volunteer military – the US Army had a total of 18 divisions (plus ten more from the National Guard, for a total of 28 combat divisions). To this you could add enough sailors in the Navy to man nearly 600 ships, and about 30-40% more combat aircraft than today.
They were all volunteers. And that was with a population that was tens of millions smaller than it is today. This was down, of course, from the 110-odd divisions in World War II (largely draftees) or the two-dozen-odd divisions, about a third of them conscripts, with which the US Army went to war in 1964 in Vietnam.
Summary: With a much smaller population, this nation has sustained a much larger military – proportionally and in absolute numbers – than it does today (where the US Army has 10 regular and 8 National Guard divisions).
Fast-forward to today.
I’ve been reading “Death Ground”, by Colonel Daniel P. Bolger. It’s a book about the least-glamorous part of the US military, and the part that, as it happens, actually wins the wars – the Army and Marine infantry, the guys about whom B.H. Liddell-Hart wrote, “You can keep your atom bombs, your tanks and your airplanes: you’ll still have to have some little guy with a rifle and bayonet who winkles the other b*****d out of his foxhole and gets him to sign the Peace Treaty.”
Throughout history, the infantry have accomplished their mission in one of three ways:
- Upon finding and “closing with” the enemy, the generals keep tossing infantry at them until the enemy finally caves in. It sounds wasteful – and it is. It’s the way infantry fighting is done when you don’t have the time and resources to take a 16-25 year old kid and turn him into a highly trained, skilled warrior, the kind who can make up in brains what he lacks in numbers. It’s how the Union fought the Civil War. It’s how most of the world’s armies fought World War I (with two exceptions – we’ll come back to that later), including the US. It’s how the Russians fought World War II. It’s how the North Koreans and Red Chinese fought the Korean War. It’s how Iran fought Iraq. It’s costly, charging a ghastly toll in blood. It’s how most draftee armies though history have fought.
- If you have the technology, when your low-skilled, usually-draftee infantrymen “close with” the enemy you can back the infantry up with overwhelming firepower. It’s how the US infantry won World War II; the infantry (who, in World War II, were the guys who the Navy, the Army Air Corps, the Airborne, the Marines, the Armored Corps and the Artillery all passed on) would close with the enemy – and when the fight got stiff, would hunker down and call in the artillery and air support to blast the enemy until he was killed or wounded, ran away, or lost their minds. The infantry would then slog through the rubble, clean up the resistance, and move to the next strongpoint. It’s the way fighting is done when you don’t have the time or will to train a bunch of draftees into professional warriors – but you do value their lives enough to come up with a better alternative to #1, above. It works OK in a conventional war – its how the US won World War II; it’s how we fought Korea to a stalemate with very few troops; it’s always been how Israel, for one, defended itself. As we found in Vietnam, and as Israel found in “Operation Peace for Galilee” in the eighties, t’s a terrible way to fight guerrillas; bombs and rockets and artillery shells are terrible at winning the hearts and minds of any unaligned civilians in the area.
- Finally – if you have the time and the inclination – you train your infantry to be highly-skilled at the art of closing with the enemy, outmaneuvering him, out-fighting him, stunning him with the violence and mobility of your attack, and cowing him into surrender, flight, or immobility that leads to his demise at your army’s leisure. It’s how the Romans, at the height of the Legion system, fought. It’s how the British Army started World War I – of which more later. It’s how the German Stosstruppen – the original “Commandos” – responded to the bloodbath of World War I. It’s how Canada fought World War II (Canada had a draft – but only volunteers served in combat. Canada’s army – especially their infantry – had a great reputation in World War II). It’s how the US Marines, Airborne and Rangers, and the British Paras and Commandos – picked, highly-trained volunteers – fought in World War II. And it’s how the US Army has treated its infantry since the end of the Draft; by treating the Infantry in all its types (mechanized, airborne, air assault, light and Ranger, as well as the Marines) as a picked, highy-trained elite, highly skilled at the art of outthinking, outmaneuvering and out-fighting the enemy (while still having the raw might of the tanks, artillery and Air Force on call, as needed). It is a philosophy that trades skill for raw numbers or brute force (as to the raw numbers – the US Army and Marines have between them about 100,000 infantrymen. That’s half the number of people who work for the US Postal service).
As Bolger points out, the US Army followed #2, above, during World War II, on the philosophy that it was easier to bomb and shell the enemy into submission than to train draftees to fight as highly skilled professional infantry, something that takes not only years, but a huge culture change. As Bolger also points out, #3 is the only way to fight guerrillas among people you wish to make your friends.
So why is Chuck Rangel trying to reinstate the draft?
Rangel, incoming chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said he worried the military was being strained by its overseas commitments.
“If we’re going to challenge Iran and challenge North Korea and then, as some people have asked, to send more troops to Iraq, we can’t do that without a draft,” Rangel said.
Of course, draftee armies are the worst way to fight counterinsurgency wars. Taking a scared 18 year old kid who’d rather be skateboarding or in college or working at K-Mart and giving him a gun and tossing him into combat sometimes works – if your nation’s surivival is at stake, or if you back that scared kid up with enough firepower to devastate anyone who stands in his path. Remember – we tried that in Vietnam.
But the US Army and Marine infantry are, today, to a man a group of volunteers, people who’ve chosen to devote between three and 30 years of their lives to learning the fine, horrific art of moving close to the enemy and killing, wounding or capturing him – with the added wrinkle of doing it with enough “finesse” to avoid killing and destroying everything around the enemy, to boot. This is an important wrinkle; we learned the hard way in Vietnam how vital it was.
So why does Rangel want to mess this up?
He said having a draft would not necessarily mean everyone called to duty would have to serve. Instead, “young people (would) commit themselves to a couple of years in service to this great republic, whether it’s our seaports, our airports, in schools, in hospitals,” with a promise of educational benefits at the end of service.
Ah. It’s a social program, then.
Make no mistake about this; the draft would, at best, dilute the fighting edge of the US armed forces – the Infantry – into a force that’s vastly less capable of fighting the types of wars the US is most likely to face today.
Ah. And could that be Rangel’s motive…?