Return of Rangel’s Dumb Idea

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Like, Iraq.

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…?

18 thoughts on “Return of Rangel’s Dumb Idea

  1. Damn Israel and it’s stupid social programs…

    You’re right Mitch. Mandatory service would NEVER work.

  2. Well, Doug DID mention “Mandatory Service”, which is a *little* different from the draft. It’s how it’s done in Israel and Switzerland; EVERYONE serves a year or three, and then in the reserves until age 50 or so. They also keep their assault rifles at home, ready to use. And that’s not what Rangel supports.

    No, he wants a return to the Draft; “Selective” service, with its lotteries and deferments for people with the resources and/or connections to get out of it via college or whatever. It’s deeply unfair – and, worse, gives us a military that is pretty useless for the threats we face today.

    So what is it, Doug? What do you support?

  3. Let’s see, who instituted the last peacetime draft (1948)? Dems.

    Who reinstituted the Selective Service in 1980 as a wimpy, gutless, and useless symbolic response to Soviet aggression? Dems.

    Who accused Bush of plans to reintroduce the draft and now are doing it for political reaons themselves? Dems.

    What is it with the Dems and forced military service? Do they believe folks won’t serve their country unless forced? And WHY IS THAT? If you believe in the theory of psychological projection you might almost conclude that they don’t love their country as much! Not that we would ever question their patriotism! We have to wonder if it parallels the reasons liberals want the government to fund more poverty programs, while not contributing as much to charity themselves. Not that we’re suspecting their morality!

    Actually, Rangel did admit he wants the draft to prevent the US from using force in the future. It’s nice to know where he comes from and that he’s straightforward about his motivations. Not that we suspect the other Dems of sharing them! Nope, not at all!

    Talk to the folks who were in the transition from a draftee army to an all volunteer army and you’ll find out how much better this current force really is. The previous one really was pretty bad: unmotivated, resentful, and unprofessional.

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  5. Rangel’s theory assumes that, in the face an unpopular war, a conscript army will mutiny; therefore, the military will only be used where there’s overwhelming popular support for the war.

    Might work as a limitation on getting us into idiotic nation building schemes. Some appeal there.

    Except – he’s ignored the fact that public discourse is dominated by Baby Boomers. Are they going to support a war, ever, anywhere, beyond the first week of fighting? If not, is a mutiny really the right solution?

  6. You offer an academically interesting, if factually inaccurate, analysis of the United States military since WWI. As a combat veteran of the Marine Corps, I had the distinct honor of fighting alongside many draftees…yes, the Marines drafted as well…and found them to be every bit as professional as we, who chose to join, were.

    As far as “taking years” to build a highly-skilled and effective infantryman from a “scared” 18 year old…that’s just silly. The Marine Corps has consistently done exactly that since its inception…offering little time between the 16 weeks of bootcamp and the first night on the front line. For your information, any person who says they weren’t terrified in combat is lying. War’s a bitch, you know.

    My father, a draftee in WWII, fought his way from Omaha Beach through the Battle of the Bulge to the Rhine in 1945…and…were he alive today…I do believe he might take umbrage at your classification of him as “low-skilled”.

    More important than whether a person is drafted or volunteers is the humility one gains from offering his or her life in honest and unselfish service to this country and the freedoms which make it so great. I find it disturbing that seemingly an entire generation has come to the conclusion that these freedoms are an entitlement rather than ideals worthy of personal discomfort.

  7. Ah, Nate, your argument gets to the central point of Rangel’s idiocy. We don’t need an army any bigger than the one we’ve got. If we did have a problem filling the ranks, increased pay and retention bonuses could make up the numbers. All the army or the politicians have to do with Rangel’s Rangers (Ha!) is keep them serving in “our seaports, our airports, in schools, in hospitals” and away from combat and their will be no mutiny. Of course congress could dictate that a certain percentage of draftees would have to fight on the front lines, but what congressman would vote for such a thing? Except Rangel, I mean.

  8. He also said (both this time and the last time he pulled this stunt), that if members of the congress and senate ran the risk of THEIR children being forced to go fight in a war, they’d be less likely to vote for going to war.

  9. You offer an academically interesting, if factually inaccurate, analysis of the United States military since WWI.

    The analysis is not mine. It is that of Col. Bolger.

    As a combat veteran of the Marine Corps, I had the distinct honor of fighting alongside many draftees…yes, the Marines drafted as well…and found them to be every bit as professional as we, who chose to join, were.

    Right. But as I noted, the Marines DID take the time to turn their (very few) draftees into Marines – and the Corps’ idea of what makes an infantryman is very different than the Army’s was, until about 1973. (As a Marine, you certainly know that).

    As far as “taking years” to build a highly-skilled and effective infantryman from a “scared” 18 year old…that’s just silly. The Marine Corps has consistently done exactly that since its inception…offering little time between the 16 weeks of bootcamp and the first night on the front line. For your information, any person who says they weren’t terrified in combat is lying. War’s a bitch, you know.

    Right. But that wasn’t my point. The Marine Corps creates an infantryman in half a year – but it took 200-odd years to create the Marine Corps. Likewise, it took the US Army years to change its’ “culture” from draftee to all-volunteer.

    My father, a draftee in WWII, fought his way from Omaha Beach through the Battle of the Bulge to the Rhine in 1945…and…were he alive today…I do believe he might take umbrage at your classification of him as “low-skilled”.

    Again, take it up with Col. Bolger. It’s his characterization. Bolger notes that if you give almost anyone a rifle and put them in combat, they’ll evolve into an infantryman – if they survive. The US Army’s infantry training in WWII, Bolger notes, was sorely wanting; more driven by training schedules than by any notion of creating troops that could close with the enemy and win without either massive casualties and/or fire support.

    If your father were alive, I’m sure he could tell you about how well “replacements” fared in WWII. The US Army’s assumption that replacements sent to units (to replace men killed or wounded) didn’t NEED a whole lot of training; they’d get that “on the job” with the unit. Replacement casualties were astoundingly high.

    More important than whether a person is drafted or volunteers is the humility one gains from offering his or her life in honest and unselfish service to this country and the freedoms which make it so great. I find it disturbing that seemingly an entire generation has come to the conclusion that these freedoms are an entitlement rather than ideals worthy of personal discomfort.

    Maybe, but that’s not an argument about what makes a better military; you’re now delving into social engineering. And I agree that there’s a place for what you describe – but Rangel’s proposal to re-institute “Selective Service” is the worst way to accomplish what you want. Better to do what the Israelis, Swiss or even Norwegians (sort of) do; require everyone to serve.

  10. “As Bolger also points out, #3 is the only way to fight guerrillas among people you wish to make your friends.

    Like, Iraq.”

    But another of Bolger’s points was that a highly professional army based on a small number of highly trained infantrynman is an exteremly fragile instrument, that can not fight a grinding battle of attrition, like Iraq. While 3,000 dead may look like a small number compared to other wars, the 3,000 lost in Iraq are highly non-replaceable. At the end of Death Ground, Bolger writes of his great fear that if the modern U.S. infantry does not win quickly, he will be trapped in the ‘Death Ground’ and killed like any other infantryman. As I read Bolger, Iraq II is exactly the kind of war he did not think we could win.

  11. “…but Rangel’s proposal to re-institute “Selective Service” is the worst way to accomplish what you want. Better to do what the Israelis, Swiss or even Norwegians (sort of) do; require everyone to serve.”

    But Mitch, can you think of any way to better instill an even deeper distrust and loathing of the US government than to enact Rangel’s proposal? Just think of the generation of conservatives you’d be producing!

  12. But another of Bolger’s points was that a highly professional army based on a small number of highly trained infantrynman is an exteremly fragile instrument, that can not fight a grinding battle of attrition, like Iraq.

    True. I haven’t noticed if Bolger mentioned the “Old Contemptibles”, the British regular infantry of 1914, possibly the army with the greatest qualitative edge over friend and foe alike that ever went to war. Man for man, they clobbered the Germans of 1914 – but there were so few that they were worn down to nothing by 1916.

    If you follow the British playbook for fighting counterinsurgency wars, what’s called for is extensive intelligence, “policeing” and infiltration – calling for special forces, Civil Affairs troops, MPs and intelligence-gathering troops – with support from small groups of regular military to back them up.

    While 3,000 dead may look like a small number compared to other wars, the 3,000 lost in Iraq are highly non-replaceable. At the end of Death Ground, Bolger writes of his great fear that if the modern U.S. infantry does not win quickly, he will be trapped in the ‘Death Ground’ and killed like any other infantryman. As I read Bolger, Iraq II is exactly the kind of war he did not think we could win.

    I think you’re misinterpreting slightly. Bolger points out, rightly, that there just aren’t enough infantry to carry on an eternal counterinsurgent war on the enemy’s terms.

    Will continue reading.

  13. BillC said:

    “He also said (both this time and the last time he pulled this stunt), that if members of the congress and senate ran the risk of THEIR children being forced to go fight in a war, they’d be less likely to vote for going to war.”

    Even Rangel himself doesn’t believe that line of BS he uttered. Remember, he voted against his own bill to bring back the draft in 2004.

  14. Charlie,
    First of all thank you for your service. Second, please understand that most of us are not veterans and are forced to draw conclusions from either historical reference (anecdote) or popular media (Full Metal Jacket, anyone?).
    When we see a shameless exploitation of the military for political gain, such as Mr. Rangle, or Mr. Murtha, for that matter, we have to go to the sources available to draw our conclusions.
    When your father fought his way from Omaha Beach inland, the people organizing his effort didn’t even provide him with winter clothing. It got mighty cold in Brittany that year.
    I don’t think anyone here would disparage the sacrifices made by conscripted military.

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