This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Here's how Colonel Robert Heinl, Jr., began a June 1971 article in Armed Forces Journal bluntly headlined "The Collapse of the Armed Forces":
"The morale, discipline, and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous. Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious."
Consider that grim list and the churning antiwar activism in the Vietnam-era military that Heinl went on to describe as a reminder of why President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, and the U.S. military high command opted on January 27, 1973, to end the draft. They launched instead the "all-volunteer" force we know 45 years later, the one that, with nary a peep of protest, criticism, or complaint, continues to fight a set of still spreading wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa almost 17 years after the 9/11 attacks.
What Nixon, in particular, took away from the endless disaster of Vietnam (before the disaster of Watergate felled his presidency) was that a draft army -- that is, a literal people's army -- taken from a reasonable cross section of a still-democratic society increasingly opposed to a quagmire war, was a disaster in its own right. In his urge to ditch the draft and so dampen the still-churning antiwar movement at home, Nixon created a new kind of American force. For all the adulation it now gets here, it's perhaps closer to a foreign legion (as retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore long ago suggested at TomDispatch) geared to fighting never-ending wars thousands of miles from what, post-9/11, came to be known as "the homeland."
As for those draft-less armed forces and the draft-less society that went with them, Nixon couldn't have been cannier or more on target. The resulting military and its commanders, who could be thought of as Nixon's children, are now impermeable to criticism, even though they ensure, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, makes clear in striking fashion today, that wars without end and a military system incapable of ending anything it begins are facts of our present lives. Tom
What Happens When a Few Volunteer and the Rest Just Watch
The American Military System Dissected
By Andrew J. Bacevich- Advertisement -
The purpose of all wars, is peace. So observed St. Augustine early in the first millennium A.D. Far be it from me to disagree with the esteemed Bishop of Hippo, but his crisply formulated aphorism just might require a bit of updating.
I'm not a saint or even a bishop, merely an interested observer of this nation's ongoing military misadventures early in the third millennium A.D. From my vantage point, I might suggest the following amendment to Augustine's dictum: Any war failing to yield peace is purposeless and, if purposeless, both wrong and stupid.
War is evil. Large-scale, state-sanctioned violence is justified only when all other means of achieving genuinely essential objectives have been exhausted or are otherwise unavailable. A nation should go to war only when it has to -- and even then, ending the conflict as expeditiously as possible should be an imperative.
Some might take issue with these propositions, President Trump's latest national security adviser doubtless among them. Yet most observers -- even, I'm guessing, most high-ranking U.S. military officers -- would endorse them. How is it then that peace has essentially vanished as a U.S. policy objective? Why has war joined death and taxes in that select category of things that Americans have come to accept as unavoidable?
The United States has taken Thucydides's famed Melian Dialogue and turned it inside out. Centuries before Augustine, the great Athenian historian wrote, "The strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must." Strength confers choice; weakness restricts it. That's the way the world works, so at least Thucydides believed. Yet the inverted Melian Dialogue that prevails in present-day Washington seemingly goes like this: strength imposes obligations and limits choice. In other words, we gotta keep doing what we've been doing, no matter what.
Making such a situation all the more puzzling is the might and majesty of America's armed forces. By common consent, the United States today has the world's best military. By some estimates, it may be the best in recorded history. It's certainly the most expensive and hardest working on the planet.- Advertisement -
Yet in the post-Cold War era when the relative strength of U.S. forces reached its zenith, our well-endowed, well-trained, well-equipped, and highly disciplined troops have proven unable to accomplish any of the core tasks to which they've been assigned. This has been especially true since 9/11.
We send the troops off to war, but they don't achieve peace. Instead, America's wars and skirmishes simply drag on, seemingly without end. We just keep doing what we've been doing, a circumstance that both Augustine and Thucydides would undoubtedly have found baffling.
Prosecuting War, Averting Peace