Sunday, January 26, 2014

Let's you and him fight, Part 2

This is a direct continuation of my previous post, "Let's you and him fight," which I strongly recommend reading before this one if you haven't. 

The subject at hand is the strange argument often seen, mostly but not exclusively on the political Left, that a military draft is desirable because it would encourage a less bellicose American foreign policy. I talked about some reasons to believe that this is wrong last time, but such arguments are unavoidably speculative. 

So let's get more empirical. Proponents of the idea that conscription will strengthen antiwar opinion and encourage peace frequently claim to have the evidence of history on their side, comparing the relatively flaccid antiwar movement of conscriptionless present-day America to larger antiwar movements of the past. History does not allow controlled experiments. It does, however, provide us with a series of wars the United States has fought with conscript troops over the past century and a half.  Let's have a look, shall we?

Vietnam War 
Duration of Direct American Military Involvement: 8 yearsInvolvement in hostilities ended with: Withdrawal and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to turn responsibility for the war over to local allyAmerican Deaths: 58,220

Korean War
Duration of Direct American Military Involvement: 3 yearsInvolvement in hostilities ended with: Successful prevention of communist takeover of South Korea and expulsion of invading North Korean forces, establishment of permanent US military presence.American Deaths: 33, 686

Second World War
Duration of Direct American Military Involvement: 3 years, 8 monthsInvolvement in hostilities ended with:  Total victory, unconditional surrender of Japan, conquest of Germany and complete destruction of German state. (Fun fact: The war between the United States and Germany did not legally end until 1951, since there was no one left in Germany with the recognized authority to surrender.)American Deaths: 405, 000 (Does not include merchant marine)

First World War
Duration of Direct American Military Involvement: 1 year, 7 monthsInvolvement in hostilities ended with: Total victory, unconditional surrender of hostile powersAmerican Deaths: 116,000

The Civil War
Duration of Direct American Military Involvement: 4 yearsInvolvement in hostilities ended with: Total Union victory, dissolution of Confederate government, forcible reincorporation of all Confederate territory into United StatesAmerican Deaths: 620,000; 360,000 Union, 260,000 Confederate (possibly underestimates)
(Due to the much smaller population of the era, these casualties represent over two percent of the entire combined Union and Confederate population at the time, equivalent to the death of over six million Americans today.)

Of five wars fought with conscripts, US involvement ended for reasons other than the successful filament of the war's objectives in only one of them, Vietnam. The only other example of an American government with a conscript army giving up the fight was the Confederate States of America, which resorted to conscription sooner and much more extensively than the Union but only capitulated after its economic infrastructure had been systematically wrecked by invading armies, its territories overrun, and over 10% of its male citizens- not “military-age,”, 10% of all of them- killed. Comparing the losses of other countries in detail is beyond our scope here, so I will merely point out that each the four wars above fought against foreign states also had higher total non-American deaths than even the most extreme excess mortality estimates for Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

So, as one can clearly once one remembers that American history did not begin during the Kennedy administration, the idea that the country loses its stomach for war when conscription is in effect is not merely unsupported by the evidence, it is overwhelmingly contradicted by it. The usual result when America fields conscripted soldiers is that the war continues until the original objective is fully achieved, even if it requires hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.

The supposed value of the draft as a means of encouraging peace becomes even weaker when one considers something the idea's supporters invariably leave out when they compare Vietnam to post-draft conflicts: Scale. At the time I write this, about 7,000 Americans have been killed in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks out of a population of (as of the 2010 Census) over 308,000,000 people. Over 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam- out of a population that was smaller by about 100,000,000.

So the fact that Vietnam eventually spawned a much more vigorous antiwar movement than the War on Terror is hardly surprising or noteworthy. Even if the beliefs of conscription advocates about conscription's effects weren't historical nonsense, claiming that the absence of conscription is the explanation for the relative lack of an antiwar movement now is highly dubious simply because it presupposes that some further explanation is actually needed in the first place. It's like looking for some deep, subconscious reason rooted in my relationship with my mother to explain why being punched in the stomach would bother me less than being doused with molten steel. If you can do basic arithmetic, you already have a quite solid explanation of why the antiwar movement of the 21st century has fallen short of the Vietnam era.

If anything, the discrepancy calling for explanation is how strong antiwar sentiment been at times in this century, when American casualties have been a small fraction of what they were in Vietnam and the justification offered for today's wars is so much more viscerally appealing. The Vietnam-era antiwar movement also benefited from the fact that a not-insignificant portion of the American intelligentsia was to at least some degree sympathetic to the Vietnamese Communists, or Communism more generally, while the number of Americans who feel any affinity for Ba'athism or the Taliban- even in a vague “They're noble ideals that haven't worked in practice” sort of way- is effectively nil. If we're going to leap wildly from correlation to causation, it would be more reasonable to conclude that the draft makes the country more supportive of war, not less.

Nevertheless, let us briefly imagine that conscription really does have the pacifying effects some of its advocates claim for it, taking Vietnam as our model. Granting all that there's still no reason to believe that a draft would have made any difference to American foreign policy as of yet.

As previously mentioned, around 7,000 American troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to date. The 7,000th American soldier killed in action in Vietnam died sometime in 1966; the American military presence in Vietnam would grow for several years thereafter, peaking at over half a million troops. More Americans soldiers were killed in Vietnam in 1967 alone than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 12 years. In 1968, American deaths were more than twice those of the entire War on Terror. American deaths in 1969 were also higher in a single year than they've been in the entire past 12. By 1970, the American military presence in Vietnam was diminishing (though still larger than in 1966), and “only” 6,000 Americans were killed in a single year. In 1971, with Vietnamization of the war effort well under way, there were still over 2,000 American deaths, far more than any single year in the War on Terror. The US was still involved enough for the number of Americans killed to reach triple digits in 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1975, when American involvement was finally forced to a complete halt by the lack of a South Vietnam to continue defending.

If we're to take Vietnam as our model, as conscription advocates suggest, the draft still needs another 51,000 American corpses to fully work it's peacemaking magic. And that's assuming we're being generous and not adjusting for population growth.

So again, the mystery: Why does the idea that the draft would have prevented or more rapidly hastened the end of American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or prevent American military intervention in Syria (which the American public opposed by a substantial margin, the fact that the risks would be borne by volunteers notwithstanding) have such currency?

It's not just baseless. It's stupidly, embarrassingly, obviously baseless. Basic historical facts demonstrate that it's nonsense. It doesn't even have the thin superficial plausibility that most widely believed nonsense has. The idea that you can help the poor by making it illegal to pay low wages or minimize the harm caused by cocaine by making it illegal makes sense if you don't think beyond the most obvious, immediate effects, whereas “politicians will fight fewer wars if they're guaranteed an unlimited supply of the young men needed to fight them whether those men are willing or not” doesn't even rise to that level.

More to come.

Stumble Upon Toolbar