Monday, May 26, 2008

Professional Soldiering (Memorial Day Special pt. 2)

Yesterday, I made a rather bold claim on this blog. The claim? War is back to the 17th century, and the era of mass citizen-soldier armies is over. Here's the quick sequence leading up to that claim:

Part I:
  1. No current Presidential candidate wants new nukes
  2. Even Bush gave up his plans for small nukes used in conventional war
  3. Therefore, Nukes will remain a deterrent to war between nuclear nations
  4. Modern War will be limited in the choice of weaponry
Part II:
  1. McCain, and the Pentagon, oppose a bill that would provide scholarship for service personal who have only served for three years
  2. The Pentagon doesn't want soldiers who return to civilian life; this is why there's been no draft, and why they'd rather expand the army and marines than continue to rely on part-time soldiers like reservists
  3. The Pentagon wants to have soldiers free of the constraints the re-entering civilian life entail
  4. The Pentagon wants the military to be a full-time professional force.
So, what does it mean, then, to have the task of soldiering removed from the standard obligations of citizenry? In effect, this removes the military from a principal constituency - at present, the military serves at the behest of the nations' leaders with some degree of consent from the public. But with a full-time professional army, the military only has to answer to the leaders, and there are no needs for plebiscites or much public approval. The military will be less of a public institution, and while I don't predict the Blackwater-contracted-army extreme, I imagine there will be more of a disconnect between the public and the people serving in the military.

The advantages of this approach are many. The military can go ahead and be a military, fight the limited wars that politicians want it to fight, and do so without being subject to widespread demoralizing coverage. Primarily, though, the professional army is free to operate without a groundswell of resistance from a public motivated by moral objections and mortal fear to stop the war. Professional armies will do what they are asked to do, and they'll do it without public debate, without calling into question the whole existence of the military, and career soldiers mean that investments of training and conditioning will get the maximum yield. The professional army is almost, but not quiet, the political leadership's plaything, and while that is justifiably terrifying, it makes the military a very effective policy tool.

The downsides are many, and the key one to emphasize on this memorial day is that the appeal of citizen-soldier is lost. And the disconnect between citizenry and soldiers is painful - in the article that inspired this, McCain remarked that Obama "did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform." It's a cheap shot, but the sentiment that motivates it is one where the civilians not only have no experience wit which to talk about the military, but because of that, they have no right. This weakens the principle of civilian control of the military, and is the basis for the attitude the inspires coups. But military independence from civilian leadership is a secondary problem with the professional army.

The main problem is that the professional army is expensive. Really, really expensive. Going into the military is not a career choice people make lightly, and that makes perfect sense - it involves killing and the risk of death, after all. Appeals to patriotism and citizens' duty can make up for it, but that helps with new recruits, and not with retaining people who have been burnt out. A military that uses drafted soldiers and that rotates soldiers back into civilian life can more reliably keep (relatively) low-cost infantrymen in steady supply - the draft helps a lot because it not only means there are more soldiers, but it means they have few alternatives and so might as well serve. But the professional army doesn't have that luxury - the soldiers are to serve for life, in high numbers, and with frequent deployment. The benefits for these soldiers have to be good, the healthcare superb, and the pay especially has to be high. Blackwater gets volunteers to be soldiers in Iraq by paying four or five times what the Army pays soldiers required to be in Iraq. The costs for a standing, professional army at the size the Pentagon wants to maintain would be astronomical. For a test as to weather the public would agree to these costs, we can look at the Third Amendment, which was put into place specifically after Americans didn't like the burdens associated with housing a professional army responsible to their government.

Building upon this, large, professional standing armies are a huge sunk cost. They are expensive to maintain, and so it makes sense to try and get the most benefit out of that already paid cost. Professional soldiers cost almost as much kept at home as they do used in wars abroad, and one of those things has political yield. It has risk, too, but we can look to the histories of colonial militaries to see how a professional army can be used for gain by an industrialized nation's military at a minimum of cost.

Of course, the death of the citizen-soldier army, with part-time service, is not inevitable. It requires political approval, and the whole crux of the scholarship debate is the difference in opinion between Obama and McCain. Obama advocates scholarships after three years of service, indicating that part-time military service and citizen-soldiering is the way he sees the future of the US military. And the election has not yet happened, so a full-time professional US military is not yet a certainty. But it is the direction the Pentagon would like for the military, and their voice carries serious weight.

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