Saturday, March 24 , 2018, 12:19 am | Fair 51º


Mark Shields: McChrystal Incident Proves Why U.S. Needs Draft

Infusing the worlds of military and civilian would be good for both of them, and the nation

Early in this decade, with the United States at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, four combat veterans in Congress made the public case for why the nation should reinstate the military draft.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Of the four, Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., who fought Adolf Hitler’s army in France and Germany, has retired; Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., wounded and decorated in Vietnam, chose to leave the Senate; and Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., a Marine combat veteran in Vietnam, died this year. Only Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., a Korean War Army veteran, is still in office.

The quartet’s arguments were straightforward.

“Why shouldn’t we ask all of our citizens to bear some responsibility, to pay some price?” Hagel asked his colleagues. Their argument, simply stated, came down to this: War is not a spectator sport. War demands equality of sacrifice. Moral logic tells us that when the country goes to war, it must be everybody’s war, everybody’s risk. The case for universal conscription was summed up this year, according to respected military writer Tom Ricks, by West Point historian Col. Matthew Moten, who observed that, with a draft, “American parents would have ‘skin in the game’ for this foreign policy.”

As war-tested and war-scarred veterans, Hagel, Hollings, Murtha and Rangel could not be publicly ignored by their nonserving colleagues when they reminded them and us that in proudly classless America, the nation’s uniformed defenders are overwhelmingly the children of America’s working families, whose fathers do not host big-ticket political fundraisers and whose mothers do not wear designer originals and who do not have trust funds waiting for them if they do make it safely home.

Just a little more than three decades ago, four out of five members of Congress were veterans of military service. Today, just 22 percent of the Congress has served. A minority of members of Congress who have no firsthand experience with the military can be chronically skeptical of, even hostile toward, the professional military. Much more frequently, the reaction toward the military brass of the politician lacking personal service experience is uncritical adoration, bordering on the man-crush. The same is often true of journalists with no personal military experience.

So the basic case for the draft is that civilian Americans ought to understand firsthand and share the sacrifices and the risks of their fellow Americans in the military, and that a more thoughtful, less arrogant, foreign and defense policy could be the product.

But the fall of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as documented in his own and his closest aides’ undenied quotations in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine, makes a separate and equally strong case for the draft. Just as civilian Americans need to understand how the military lives, so, too, obviously does the military need greater and more sustained exposure to the nation’s civilian values.

What Rolling Stone revealed was a military command living and operating within its own isolated bubble. How else to explain these professionals of high IQs and accomplishment being so obtusely oblivious as to how their juvenile locker-room insubordination would look in print?

One of the real bonuses of a universal draft, without exemptions, is the constant infusion of civilian experiences and values into the military. The cross-pollination between the two worlds — military and civilian — would be good for both of them and, more important, good for the nation.

In his classic work The Mud Soldiers, military scholar-reporter George Wilson quoted Army Col. Steve Siegfried, a combat veteran of Vietnam: “Armies don’t fight wars. Countries fight wars. ... A country fights a war. If it doesn’t, then we shouldn’t send an army.”


Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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