Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

You can go strangle yourself with that yellow ribbon, or, here is what I want you to do instead of shaking my hand

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on December 8, 2010. Tom R.: Today I am offering a guest column by a young vet I know who was one ...

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on December 8, 2010.

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on December 8, 2010.

Tom R.: Today I am offering a guest column by a young vet I know who was one of the most observant Marines I witnessed in Iraq, where he served four tours. He is still sorting through his experiences there, and his thoughts about coming back home.

There is a lot here. It works best if you read the whole thing before posting comments.

By "A. Scout-Sniper"
Best Defense national service columnist

The military is ultimately a reflection of our culture or what we would like to believe about our culture. We would like to believe that our military is an all-volunteer force filled with young and old people who represent the diversity (class, sex, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, non-religion, talent, skills or politics) of our country. We would like to believe compulsory national service has failed to win wars in the past, that a draft is the penultimate form of a dictatorship and that today’s military is better than any in our history. But is it really voluntary? Is compulsory national service as threatening as some libertarians would view it? Is the all-volunteer military the "best" our country has ever produced?

As an OIF vet and Jarhead, and above all someone trying to find a healthy balance as a civilian once more, I’ve watched the military from within and without and the truest observation I can make is that we fight with a conscripted force in all but name.

For those who cannot listen to an argument without attacking someone’s personality or politics, here is my background up front. I am a white male. I’m a middle class kid who grew up working on my grandfather’s potato farm in Southern Idaho and lived in suburbia while attending badly run and academically useless public schools K-12. I’m a Generation Y, ivy-league educated, FDR liberal, environmentalist, atheist vegan. I graduated with a BA in English and History in 2002 from a private college I busted my ass to get into on an academic scholarship. I enlisted as a private in United States Marine Corps after 9/11 but I wanted to be a jarhead before that for these reasons: 1) I could not afford graduate school without the GI Bill; 2) I wanted to repay the government and country that gave my grandfather free farmland and an education after his war in Korea; and 3) I wanted to be there for my friends. I was a grunt and a scout sniper. I served four voluntary tours in Iraq. On the last two tours, I burned into my inactive reserve time and took someone else’s place so they wouldn’t have to go. I’m currently using the New Deal-GI Bill to pursue my graduate studies and I am a small business owner. But guess what? I’m average. This was just a job and a means to an end just like most the guys I served with. Despite the physical injuries I sustained and the PTSD I will live with forever, the lies I was told by military and civilians alike, I do not regret being there for my Marines and my Iraqis.

I do regret, until now, not responding to the snap judgments made about compulsory national service and the assumptions about an all-volunteer military. Most of the comments or observations made about free choice and diversity of an all-volunteer military are inconsistent with what I experienced. Please suspend your judgment and see things in my world for a few minutes.

1. Elitism and Snobbery
I am distressed by the elitist feelings military personnel have about themselves and the elitism showered by us, civilians, on them. This is a starting point that fits into the observations that follow. In some sense, we have transformed the military from just a regular part of government service into a special interest group that believes in its own entitlement. My view is pretty much my grandfather’s view: the four year Marine Sergeant or the 24 year Army General are both citizen soldiers working for the country and are no better than their local USPS Delivery man, the Fish and Wildlife Ranger at Yosemite, a librarian, a Senator, the EPA clerk or the President.

This has to be one of the very unhealthy and unintended effects of the 1974 policy that made our current military. Typically we use the high-society term "professional" to describe our military. Its overuse, by those inside and outside, sounds suspicious as if Americans in other periods were unskilled simpletons with mediocre public schooling and industrial skills who made average soldiers at best. This sets up a dangerous perception that the military is "better" than the government and, in turn, the society it serves. Part of this I-Am-Special mentality comes from the idea that we are all volunteers and thus better humans because we willingly and knowingly gave up our lives in both blood and time and joined a very small club. We don’t honor our local EMTs, AmeriCorps students, Policemen, City Water Sewage personnel, teachers, and VA doctors, for instance, who give up just as much and sometimes more.

While I would like to believe that everyone volunteers 100% for only one pure reason, this is another extremist view of life. Not everyone who serves has the financial and intellectual luxuries of a Pat Tillman. That is a semi-mythical belief all of us as civilians and military tell ourselves to avoid thinking about those we consciously and unconsciously target as recruits and then send half way around the globe while we shirk or exonerate ourselves of any responsibility. USMC, we often say to sleep easy at night: U Signed the Mother-Fucking Contract.

2. Impoverished Young People
Many Marines I served with, I’m talking Sergeants and down, enlisted to escape poverty and get a college education. Most young people do not know how relatively low military pay is, especially enlisted versus officer, but it’s there, every hour for four or twenty years. It also comes with signing bonuses, the GI Bill, health care, or promises of a VA house or business loan after enlistment. Prior to signing up, most of my friends asked themselves how they could pay for college growing up in the poorest class. What if you are not a great student or a superb athlete? You probably won’t get that education through McDonald’s and you definitely won’t get it from the school or your minimum wages of your dual working parents. As we all know, it is almost impossible to get a job now without a good-looking diploma from a decently named school. And how do you get healthcare without a decent paying job? This is just part of our society and our idea of success. Occasionally, a degreeless Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, with their own hidden set of leg’s up, shows up but these outliers are exceptions to the rule.

I spent 30 days, after my first tour, as an assistant recruiter in Salt Lake City, UT and this only reinforced what I heard from my friends in boot camp, SOI, and in OIF 1. My recruiting NCOs and I only canvassed the poorest areas and crappiest high schools in our AO. We never visited universities or colleges, let alone middle or upper class neighborhoods. When I was ordered to cold-call various high school kids, the names on the list fit a profile: lower class, conservative families and 60% Latino immigrant or first generation Americans. All the stations in SLC are nowhere near middle or upper class areas and I suspect that this is the same in every major city. We told kids what they wanted to hear: buy your own car, never pay rent, live in base housing, no utility bills, and combat pay. It’s the kind of golden ticket almost no one we recruited could refuse.

3. Other Kinds of Escapism
I can’t speak for every Marine, but I can speak about the platoons and companies I lived in. More than three quarters of the men I served with didn’t have any choices if they stuck around their hometowns. I am trying to make you remember what life was like at 17 or 18 and you didn’t think there was a way out of the situation you were born into. Here is what I saw and was told: Some young men fled gang life in poor areas like Chicago, Redlands, Compton, San Bernardino, Watts or Portland (crimes they committed or crimes to be committed on them); some wanted US citizenship after having arrived from Latin America, Europe, or Africa; some fled religious and sexual persecution (yes there are gay marines and some are from Texas); some got off the isolated encampments known as Reservations; I had Marines escaping child abuse; some guys hated the farm life; and the mediocre athletes knew they didn’t have the NFL talent now required to play at even the lowest junior university. So this word "choice," that people who never served or never served at the bottom use, smells like bullshit.

My point isn’t to argue that these are bad reasons for joining up and it would also be a gross generalization to say these hardships only occur in poor areas. I am telling you the decision making process is already distorted long before the recruit walks into a station. The Marines I know didn’t have the luxury of thinking hard about other choices like Pat Tillman. In retrospect, most said they had no other choices.

4. Meeting Quotas/Volunteers Can Be Shit-Birds Too
Even during the shittiest period of Iraq, shittiest to the American viewpoint, the Corps and the Army still met its voluntary quotas even after several months of slipping. How did they do this? Clearly, the recruiters worked hard but we also know that certain branches just dropped the standards and hustled with better and bigger deals. The Army bonus went from 8k to 10k, scholarships from 50k to 70k, no GED = no problem, and commercials aimed at parents showed up. The Marines, having no cash to toss at first termers, changed some standards but also raised re-enlistment bonuses in a way my senior NCOs never saw in their lifetime. To preserve an all-volunteer military, the spending went up and the standards went down, not drastically but just enough, to keep quotas up.

Once again, based on my experience, we started to receive the fruits of lowered standards during my third workup in summer 2005. At the time, the 2 tour Iraq vets and the really old Master Sergeants were singing the same tune. I heard similar concerns from other jarheads at 5th Marines, 7th Marines, and my friends serving as instructors at SOI and MCRD-San Diego. We had kids totally unqualified to be in the Corps, let alone a line battalion, but the pressure came from above.

By then I was the platoon sergeant at E-5 and this is what I saw in the Service Record Books of the hundred or so new-joins to my unit: lower ASVAB scores or ASVAB waivers on a test that is already too easy and measures no real sense of competence; physically weaker recruits on waivers with injuries MEPS should have disqualified them for; drug records that included documented mental disorders and criminal charges for drug dealing and small scale possession; a higher percentage of English as a 2nd language speakers which didn’t bother me until trying to communicate via radio or with Iraqi translators; waivers for psychological problems such as severe ADHD/Bipolarism/Child Abuse/Sexual Abuse. One of my relatives, for instance, enlisted in the December 2005, got in trouble and pulled 45 days in San Bernardino County jail for a weapon’s possession charge, C Class Misdemeanor. The recruiter tore up the contract but then resigned him six months later on a simple waiver.

Beggars couldn’t be choosers and we grabbed who we could and suffered the results on deployment in 2006. Marines get in fights, make trouble and get STDs but in 2006 I saw a higher level of indiscipline amongst the new-joins than I had in the previous two tours. A few were fantastic gunfighters but at least half seemed un-ready for the Fleet. Withholding judgment, I asked other grunts in my unit if they had the same problems in their platoons and there was an overwhelming consensus that the gatekeepers at the recruiting stations had dropped ball.

Using my authority and tact, I brought the hammer down on these Marines as well as their NCOs. While I might have wanted to take a few Marines out back, lance-corporals and boot lieutenants included, in 2005 the Marine Corps came down blisteringly hard on what it called "Hazing." Everyone in the Corps has a kind of understanding about where the line has to be drawn with physical intimidation and it already existed prior to this mandate. It was a large part of making me a tougher jarhead as a new join. At the time and in retrospect, this policy change was wedded to the shortage of bodies for Iraq. Overnight, the Corps became a place where you had to be careful what you said and how you acted even if you didn’t plan on making a career out of it. It made my job, as a platoon sergeant and chief scout to 34 Marines, insanely difficult. My job description was simple: train those Marines to the highest standard of combat sniping I had experienced and make the training as close to the real thing as possible. Pain (physical, psychological and academic) was an important tool to my training program. Our train the way you fight mentality turned into train the way that will not get you in trouble or lose Marines for the roster.

Let me give you a few examples of changes made that risked our combat effectiveness. My Battalion Commander forbade me to run marines in gas masks or to simulate stress under fire by dumping flour or water on them while playing Egyptian pop music while doing immediate action drills with smoke bombs and fire crackers. Typically, I made every Marine run everywhere with a battle buddy around my camp. I demanded the same sub-lot of ammunition for our sniper rifles so we could have consistent data on those guns. This is a .25-cent request. At every training shoot, I was given a different sub-lot of ammo and often machine gun ammo. To you these are simple things. To me this is life or death and is intimately connected with the concept of an all-volunteer military. I was ordered to mellow out the training because we could not get replacements for Marines I washed out.

Worst of all, because of our back-to-back-to-back deployments drumming any Marine out became impossible. Most of the platoons in my Battalion were filled with voluntary shitbirds that none of the combat vets would take to combat. Even some of my best combat vets from the Cemetery in An Najaf, began having severe PTSD symptoms and behavioral problems during the workup. This included alcohol abuse, spouse abuse, depression, wrist banging, mental fogginess, and a condition that couldn’t be cured through any motivation. I tried, through the Medical Officer, the Chaplin, and my chain-of-command to get them out of the unit and back to Regiment and therapy but these attempts were denied every time. We needed the bodies. Eventually, I conceded that it would be better for some of these Marines to never go in country at all because of the risk they posed to the unit. At that point, yes, I would have loved a draft. It would have let me pick stronger candidates for our mission and bench those Marines not fit for combat.

5. Fears of a Draft
A-Draftees Make Bad Fighting Men

Many libertarians and military personnel have argued that draftees are weaker compared to volunteers. Our ancestor’s military repeatedly wrecks that concept. There are plenty of draftees who had their heart in the game. I have ten relatives who were all drafted in WW2 and they learned to be damn solid "professionals" while defeating two toxic empires. "They came as liberators, not conquers. Only a tiny percentage of them wanted to be there, but only a small percentage of these men failed to do their duty" (Citizen Soldiers, Ambrose 14). What about draftees in later wars? I have my grandfather in Korea working as P-51 mechanic that kept birds flying and in turned saved many a young grunt’s life. Want some stellar examples from Vietnam? Check out PFC Ronald Leroy Coker, MOH, who was drafted in 1968. What about another draftee, Spec 5 Dwight H. Johnson, MOH 1968? Oddly enough, the military still had standards for draftees and could remove recruits who were not fit for duty.

Another component of this fallacy is that draftees don’t have enough time to become "professional" modern day fighters? Really? Under time constraints of a six month work up and as Chief Scout, I made shake n’ bake scouts out of fifteen new joins who could shoot long range, clear houses, call for fire, direct CAS, observe and gather info, practice first aid, and brief a one star general on a sniping mission. Many NCOs have done this in the last ten years. And what about all the welfare baggage a long-term professional soldier brings over the single, two-year draftee? How can you avoid the costs of emotional and financial baggage such as a spouse, kids, base housing, base roads, base facilities, and family dental and health care?

B-Draftees Bring Liberal Politics into a Non-Political Military
First off, wake up: we already have a politicized military and it is one-sided. In data collected by Adrian R. Lewis, "Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 8 to 1" in uniform and Tom has done a bit of fact finding in this department in Making the Corps. I can confirm this mainly through my own experience. I can only think of one or two men and women, way above my pay grade, who had any liberal leanings and they joined up before the 1980. I hid my politics out of a fear of retribution and because I thought the military was not supposed to be political. It is not conservativism that bothered me but the contempt for anything that would interrupt how the military should work and be used within that belief system. During boot camp, I was taught to hold civilians as nasty, sub-human liberals, which only distanced Marines from their own society. I had several First Sergeants and Officers question my motives about being in the Corps year after year once the origin of my degree was located. When my Marines asked me who I was voting for in 2004 I told them I wasn’t voting because I didn’t think it was okay to be engaged in politics whatsoever while in uniform. I said there was no pressure to vote or not vote and to make their own decision. A platoon commander overheard this, and instantly struck down my position and told them to re-elect the president or face the consequences of a lost war. It seemed unprofessional to me then and now.

This is a pretty new development in our history and one that should trouble anyone who is trying to fight a war. Typically we want an apolitical military with lots of talented people because they can use those talents in the fight and because we don’t want military coups. The first component is what keeps the balance. Talented people come from all walks of political life and whether we like it or not, a lot of the talent we need in this kind of war (historians, linguists, cultural anthropologists, union leaders, Islamic scholars, grass roots organizers, student teachers and agriculture specialists to name a few) are generally not all conservatives but that shouldn’t matter. Why not have feminists, soccer moms, gay dads, retired generals, Islamic privates, psychologists, businessmen, and so forth talking about issues in the military in forums like this unlike the current situation: a small group of "professionals" or ex-military who are typically right of center and generally white men.

The loss of political variety within our military has helped create the holy cow of defense spending. We seem to write blank checks for corporations that making things for the military and blank checks for the military itself while we hack apart the entitlement programs from WW2 such as the VA, DOT, Social Security, Education, and Medicare. No one wants to be seen not "supporting the troops," that elitist problem surfacing again, by voting against something wasteful or voting against something they don’t have the military education to comprehend.

C-Drafts Create Protests
This is an uncomfortable fact that we must admit: a government that wants an indefinite, badly managed war placed on a credit card without the complete consent of its citizens could only do it with an all-volunteer military. The biggest closet fear some might have and one I have heard several times, is that a draft would end the current war on terror. This fear probably carries over from the lost war in Vietnam. As we know, President Nixon promised to end the war but the draft was not entirely abolished until the war was nearly at its end in 1973. This fear of an anti-war movement has now solidified into an untouchable program but it brilliantly decreased the number of people who would protest, let alone be interested in, the actions of their own military. Aside from Cindy Sheehan, there aren’t many anti-war volunteers out there marching or enduring hunger strikes and that’s because they have no skin in the game either. Regardless of our political leanings or beliefs about the war, this should trouble us. It means that people who oppose the war know their efforts are useless, that only their kids are the ones fighting and dying or for the indifferent populace, they think people in the military "did it to themselves" and this is disingenuous.

My response to this fear this a call out: If we are fighting a just war with clearly stated objectives and fighting this with a firm moral compass, then we have nothing to fear with re-instating a draft because nearly everyone will support the effort and those who cannot fight or will not fight can sit in jail with Thoreau, go into exile, or help build our country here.

Perception vs. Reality
I envy the black and white world of libertarianism but it’s not reality. When you start digging behind the free-market or all-volunteer argument you find conscription-like inconsistencies. This is not a self-made government conspiracy but a natural growth of political policies, cultural narcissism and a culture of anti-government and anti-service since our departure from Vietnam. We have many inconsistencies to draw on. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter ordered every 18-year-old male to register with the Selective Service in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Despite the end of the Cold War, this system still exists and we require young people to register by law. This ignored fact collides with libertarian view that recruiting stations, monthly quota numbers, TV commercials, sales pitches, contract deals and standards are randomly placed and haphazardly created. Libertarians argue that recruits are free radicals with strong critical thinking skills, no emotional or financial duress, and an endless supply of time and opportunities. In this view, the fact that 37,000 non-Americans of Latino descent served in Iraq is just a random coincidence. In this view, public education teaches American kids to think critically so they make an informed decision before signing a contract with the government.

We have gone from one extreme to the next. The burden of fighting and sharing a war has shrunk to the point where 1% of our citizens and their families endure the permanent life-changing consequences of warfare. A similar kind of extremism and elitism exists in the rest of our government with various parties lining up on the sides. In both cases, regardless of your political persuasion, it just looks like years of short-term self-interest have produced two broken systems. If our military is supposed to be a reflection of our culture, then what I’ve described should not be surprising but it should be disturbing. How can we continue to fight a war and not be asked or forced to sacrifice anything save a couple hundred dollars here and there in taxes, adding a bumper sticker we let fade to our rear window and two holidays? How can we burden such a small percentage of our people and have them return to a health care system we neglect and now want to privatize?

We have not heard enough about why compulsory service is one of the best ways to open up these divides:

  • We need to find a balance that allows people to pick up a government-sponsored set of skills that can be used after service for a better society and economy. "They had learned to work together in the armed services…They built the Interstate Highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the suburbs…they had learned the army virtues of a solid organization and teamwork, and the value of initiative, inventiveness, and responsibility" (Citizen Soldiers, Ambrose 472).
  • Bring balance into all sections of our government, both civil and military, and our lives. For the war effort, bring in other kinds of talent (welding, languages, soil specialists, sociologists, biologists, historians, businessmen, Islamic scholars).
  • It’s easier to storm a with machine gun nest or pilot a drone than it is to make Awakening deals with tribal sheikhs, run and collect biometric data, conduct census patrols, train police, monitor elections, build armies and protect and run water purification plants. Our recruiting standards should reflect that need.
  • One of the great side effects of national service would be easing the trauma of homecoming and PTSD for vets. It would help veterans lay down their arms and learn to trust if they didn’t come home to neighborhoods and schools filled with people who cannot identify with them and have no clue what they fought for. This would save us save money at the VA and put less stress on an already overloaded system. Perhaps, as has happened with my own physical injuries, civilian doctors and health practitioners through government incentives would give vets free treatment.
    Without a different structure, the future offers much of the same. The soft interventionist attempts — ROTC programs, sending military personnel to non-military colleges, speeches, bonuses, bad movies, bad books and yellow ribbons — haven’t changed the imbalances found within or outside the military. The same applies to our government. Here is a sneak preview of things to come:
  • As the inability of anyone in our government to explain succinctly what our purpose at war is, then expect more Americans to turn eyes away from the conflict and be less inclined to encourage their children to enlist unless their economic situation is dire. Other kinds of talent will not serve. In consequence of these reactions, the military would cut standards and raise bonuses, which would contribute to higher amounts of spending and weaker recruits flushed into the system. Remember to add their dependents and the welfare net that has to be built to support them.
  • Expect more aimless, inarticulate plans from our governmental leaders about the way forward. This inability to present a cogent plan and stick with it will make us put the burden on certain intellectual-generals when we need tough minded civilian leadership with a robust civilian effort.
  • Use volunteers, active/reserve/inactive reserve, over and over and over again until they are physically broken or mentally destroyed. Eat the decades long cost of caring for them at the VA or, much worse, if they become homeless or criminals. A service person with too much PTSD will more than likely have a break down in the field with any number of all negative consequences happening: civilian shootings and maltreatment, drug addiction-from prescription PTSD meds or recreational drugs, loss of situational awareness and general disciplinary problems.
  • Supplement the lack of military with mercenaries/contractors/bloated support services like KBR and eat that cost too. At some point, they will ask for care from the VA and we have to calculate that cost. Then consider the alienation most indigenous people rightly feel about freewheeling hired guns or imported workers from Malaysia, India, or Mongolia working at the DFAC. Consider the alienation of military personnel who earn just above minimum wage standing at a Snatch VCP while the mercenary drives by at $500.00 a day. Perception is reality: this distrust can only spill over into a general distrust of all Americans as it has for Iraqis, Afghanis and our world allies.

The uneducated decisions made and various untruths told after 9/11 by leaders we picked, have brought us to this impasse. Like it or not, regardless of who you voted for or what party you belong to, we cannot go back. We have a moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. We have irrevocably changed their lives by haphazardly invading their sovereign lands, toppling their governments, and upending their socio-economic lives. We have to show them our values are not imperialism, coercion, exploitation, torture, and abandonment. We will accept the consequences of our actions, correct our mistakes, commit more of our blood and treasure, and help them build the kind of countries they want over the next 90 years. If not, we face repeat consequences of terrorist attacks from the countries we abandon, justified suspicion of our motives by the rest of the world, and more half-cocked interventionist measures. At the same time, our consumption of imported fossil fuels literally kills us and this is wedded to our own undeniable self-made economic disparity and environmental disasters. As my senior drill instructor said the morning of graduation, "Ladies and Gents, it’s time to sac up and eat the shit sandwich."

We are going to have to make hard decisions that will not look anything like the irresponsible, childish partisan bickering of proceeding three decades. We are going to have to do what Americans do best in crises: SACRIFICE AND COMPROMISE. A natural solution, the invisible hand, a technological solution or a repeat of the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike or the Boston Tea Party are not things we can wait for.

As a young person who served in a war you made, I don’t want your handshake, your pity, your daughter’s phone number, or your faded bumper sticker. I did my frigging job so now do yours. Baby Boomers and Generation X: I want your leadership. Rather than cower behind a set of fragmented ideals you don’t even live up to, I am asking you to exercise your adulthood and feel some pain. As we say in the grunts: lead from the front. An open and vigorous discussion of compulsory national service, for all classes, and what sacrifices you will make need to be part of the way forward.

Ed Schipul/eschipul/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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