Sunday, May 25, 2008

How will we fight our next wars? (Memorial Day Special)

This post is inspired by two articles found in today's Albuquerque Journal. The first, from Christopher Wills of the Associated Press, is about a dispute between McCain and Obama over benefits and scholarships for veterans. The second, from ABQ. Journal writer John Fleck, is about the presidential candidates attitudes on "Reliable Replacement Warheads", a program name which entails many things, but the basis is updating the US's nuclear arsenal. The combined gist of these two articles?

The conventional war fought by citizen soldier armies is dead. Sort of.

First, the bit on nukes - as John says, "all of this suggests that the next customer-in-chief is not likely to be an eager nuclear weapons buyer". A de-emphasis on new nuclear weapons can mean many things, but the important point here requires a look into the last modern nuclear plan. The bunker buster was widely touted by Bush, had some controversy in New Mexico (good for the labs? bad for people who don't like nukes used in war?), and involved an interesting workaround for nuclear treaties. The warheads would be from other missiles, making a new weapon but not a new warhead. There was some squabbling of semantics over this (John can, more clearly than I, relate what exactly the squabbling was), but the gist of it was that the US wanted to pursue a small nuclear weapon that they would use in conventional warfare, primarily in Afghanistan. Several years down the road, a curios thing happened:
The Bush administration removed its request for funding of the weapon in October 2005. Additionally, US Senator Pete Domenici announced funding for the nuclear bunker-buster has been dropped from the Department of Energy's fiscal 2006 budget at the department's request.
Nuclear weapons are not going to be used in conventional warfare anytime soon; the Bush Administration gave that plan up, and all the viable presidential candidates aren't currently planning to do anything new and big. Nuclear weapons will, instead, remain giant, aging, and nation-destroying. Combat applications are gone. This means unchanged conventional war, and can't possibly herald the end of war-as-we-know-it, can it? Well, sort of. War as we know it, war that can draw from history up until Truman's decision to not use nuclear weapons in the Korean War, is a wholly different kind of war than what is fought now. That war, especially the era of cataclysmic total war, required that a nation going to war be ready to fight the war until its death, and to do everything imaginable to win. Napoleon set war up like that, though the change from territorial squabbles to wars for national existence are not entirely his doing. Likewise, the European colonial experience provides an example of military conflicts of a different mold in the midst of an era of military changes; the French even had separate militaries for this problem. That division didn't render total war unavoidable, as both World Wars prove. But nuclear weapons, with global reach from one nation to many within the space of an hour, has in all but name eliminated the specter of total war.

The factor that made total war possible was mass conscription and the draft, and this is how the French Revolution, fought for fraternity, equality, and liberty, ended with an emperor who had conquered almost all of Europe. Citizens, invested in their nation as equally as everyone else, had military service as a civic duty. nations preparing for World War counted among their estimates of strength a sizable number of reservists and draft age males. The entire population of an nation could be the army, and the ratio of professional servicemen to enlisted citizens changed dramatically over the course of both world wars. Notable in the US, and to the AP article, is the GI Bill, which after the war made a college education for its citizen army part of the social contract of military service. The large armies would, after the war, go back to civilian life, or so was the plan.

Obama is advocating for a veteran bill that rewards military service of 3 years or more with scholarships. This is a commitment to the new citizen army, and it draws from the lessons of the military conflict I've avoided mentioning until now - Vietnam. I see the draft as a way of limiting the use of military force (advocated here), but that requires citizen soldiers, who can express their dissent in a meaningful and legal way. Through voting, hopefully. Vietnam saw a huge antiwar movement, citizen soldiers, and a serious loss of the respect of the US military among citizens. The military has adapted, and expanded into a permanent professional force. We've had no drafts since Vietnam, and if possible, the military will keep it that way. We've used Reservists in Iraq in an unprecedented way, but even that transition is one aimed at utilizing semi-professional soldiers, instead of citizens. This is a huge distinction.

The military does not want to rely on citizen soldiers.

Soldiers may be citizens, but military service already curtails rights, and leads to a different set of interests than those held by the man who goes back to dentistry after spending a couple of years in a battle zone. McCain, as representative of the military (volunteered, proud veteran), is opposed to the scholarship bill because it entails a higher turnover of part-time soldiers back into citizens. This is bad for the military, making the investment in part time soldiers disproportionately costly, and it helps encourage a semi-professional nature of military service.

Obama, on the other hand, is advocating the military as a reasonable part of civic duty, but for a large segment of servicemen, he intends that it be part time. The military as a stepping stone towards social advancement is a fine and noble tradition, and part time service allowing for a career after the military helps make that goal more realistic for the citizen.

So how does this spell the death of "the conventional war fought by citizen soldier armies"? And how do scholarships do that in a way nuclear weapons didn't already? The military wants to move from mostly to primarily exclusive professional service. They want servicemen who are citizens, and not the priorities the other way around. And they will do anything to avoid the draft, the usage of part-time soldiers. The political costs are too high, and the military exists that the whim of political costs. Nuclear weapons put a cap on the kind of conflict that can happen - equally-equipped nuclear nations will not fight conventional wars against each other. The move away from ever having to rely on the draft means that a nation cannot pour its citizenry into an asymmetric war, and that conflict on the part of the United States will be left to the professionals. In the final analysis, what does this mean?

War is back to the 17th century.


John Fleck said...

To what extend is a part of this the fact that World Wars I and II were so god-awful awful that no one wants to have another one?

Kelsey Atherton said...

John - good question. The pattern of acceleration of awfulness of war can really be traced back to Napoleon, when things escalated awfully quickly. Before that, war was rough, and had been getting rougher, but the nature of professional armies made it so that war was confined to where these small, expensive forces could fight. War post napoleon, and especially WWI and WWII, covered vast areas and were as god awful as humans can create. Since the atomic bomb, casualties from war per year have remained relatively constant, and total war has been rather capped off. No one wants another one; even Kim Jong Il, the worlds leading crazy dictator, wants only a modest war.

However, nations still have armies, and want to resolve disputes by force of arms. That's where professional armies, fighting small quaint wars away from home, come back into play.