On an August morning in 2011, I sat in a procession of cars at Arlington National Cemetery with my friend, whom we’ll call Joe, a veteran special operator with more combat deployments than I can count on both hands. We’d gathered that day to bury another friend, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jonathan ‘Giff’ Gifford, who’d been killed the week before in Afghanistan. While Joe and I waited for Giff’s coffin to be loaded onto a caisson taking it to Section 60, the resting place for the war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan, we stared out from behind our sunglasses across the Potomac, toward Washington DC, where morning commuters clogged the Memorial Bridge.
“How much longer do you think we’ll be coming to funerals here?” asked Joe, not expecting an answer. Then he looked at the traffic. “Not a single one of them knows Giff died last week. People need to feel this. I tell you, man, I’m for a draft.”
This caught me by surprise. Joe was the consummate professional, a mentor of mine who’d dedicated his life to soldiering. We’d both started as Marine infantry officers, but Joe had gone onto serve in some of the most elite special operations units. “You can’t be serious,” I said. “Can you imagine how bad we would’ve performed with a platoon full of conscripts?”
Joe pushed his sunglasses up his head, looking back at me as serious as I’d ever seen him. “I’m not sure we need to be as good at this as we are.”
Each war the United States has fought has had its own construct: the national mobilization of the Second World War; the 1.7 million draftees of the Vietnam War; and, over the last 14 years, the post-9/11 Wars have been fought with an all-volunteer force at a cost approaching $6 trillion, primarily financed through deficit spending, with no significant taxes levied on the populace. This construct has come with a price: in its wake we’ve been left with the most significant civil-military divide in our history.
In the past, waging war has been torturous for Americans, and rightfully so. The Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam were all grueling experiences, endeavors felt both economically and socially, as hundreds of thousands of lives were interrupted, or cut short, in order to fight. Even the “good wars”—like the Civil War and World War II—became difficult to sustain politically at such a cost of blood and treasure.
Today’s wars, fought in the name of a largely disengaged citizenry, place our nation in a position of moral hazard. This dynamic was recently brought home to me when a friend and former Marine officer lamented how he’s been asked with surprising frequency if he had killed anyone in Iraq. Having been asked the same question a half-dozen times, his response resonated with me: “If I did, you paid me to do it.”
So how do we structure things so that wars waged on behalf of all Americans aren’t experienced by the slimmest segment of the population? We could reinstate the draft, but this is overly simplistic. Vietnam taught us that unless the country is engaged in total war, a national draft is a failed model. With student deferments and various loopholes most often exclusively leveraged by the well-off, or influential, the brunt of that conflict fell to America’s poorest, most marginalized citizens, creating a toxic social rift. Also, the effectiveness of our all-volunteer force should not be compromised. So what construct exists where America maintains an effective fighting force while our citizenry becomes more conscious of its wars, steering us clear of future fourteen-year conflicts?
What I propose is a partial draft—five percent of the 1.4 million service members on active duty, approximately 70,000 troops, to be conscripted for a half enlistment of two years through a lottery system pooled exclusively from sons and daughters of households falling within the highest tax bracket. Keeping the percentage of conscripts low will maintain the efficacy of the all-volunteer force, and limiting the draft to the children of the wealthiest and most influential Americans will stymie a tolerance for perpetual war on the part of critical decision makers. I would propose that draftees be assigned exclusively within the fields of combat arms: infantry, tanks, artillery, engineers, career paths which by and large have been opened up recently to women, and would ensure that no undue influence could be leveraged to secure work in areas far from actual fighting. Lower and middle class Americans will continue to join the military for educational opportunities, but with well-to-do citizens serving in greater numbers we would create an all-volunteer force which more accurately represents America.
I don’t expect this modest proposal to come about any time soon. But I keep returning to that August day when only the slimmest slice of America was aware of Giff’s funeral. Gathering around his coffin, the Chaplain offered a few remarks, and although I stood near by, I couldn’t hear his prayers. As anyone who has buried a friend in Section 60 knows, the shuttles arriving from New York and Boston fly their final approaches right over the graves, their engines drowning out all other noise. Perhaps if this proposal were in place that day, things would’ve been different. Perhaps the head of the FAA or some senior executive at one of the airlines would’ve had a son or daughter also serving and so, hearing of Giff’s death, he or she could have thought of a way to change the flight patterns. Inconvenient as it would’ve been, it would have allowed us, just for that moment, to together say our prayers in peace.
Elliot Ackerman served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the recipient of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. His novel of the Afghan War, Green on Blue, was published in February by Scribner.