The End of America's Armies

By Alexander Cockburn

July 13, 2012 5 min read

Retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, bounced out of his job for revels in Paris as witnessed by Rolling Stone, has recycled a perennial chestnut: Bring back the draft — i.e., a conscripted military, not the volunteer military of today.

These days, McChrystal teaches at Yale University with what must be a protection unique in the annals of academic freedom. Everything he tells his students is, by contractual agreement, off the record. But he made his proposal about the draft in a public venue, at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival. McChrystal said: "I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn't be solely represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population. I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game."

It's certainly true that the volunteer military is a mess. The Associated Press reported recently that suicides are surging among the troops. According to the AP, "the 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan." The volunteer military struggles with increased sexual assaults, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

Liberals like the idea of a military draft because they think it would curb any president's eagerness to go to war. There are indeed sound arguments for a draft. They were put eloquently not so long ago by Bill Broyles, a Vietnam vet: "In spite of the president's insistence that our very civilization is at stake, the privileged aren't flocking to the flag. The war is being fought by Other People's Children. The war is impersonal for the very people to whom it should be most personal. If the children of the nation's elites were facing enemy fire without body armor, riding through gantlets of bombs in unarmored Humvees, fighting desperately in an increasingly hostile environment because of arrogant and incompetent civilian leadership, then those problems might well find faster solutions."

The truth is that despite all those fine words, a draft never is going to happen. The military-industrial complex needs the money; it's why the number of troops is being cut back right now. When President Barack Obama introduced "the new strategy" last year, he emphasized that the Pentagon will be getting more money, not less. In the past five years, the U.S. has spent $2.59 trillion on defense. The new plans call for an allocation of $2.73 trillion between 2013 and 2017. So much for any peace dividend when the troops come home from Afghanistan.

As Andrew Cockburn recently predicted, the budget will grow, but the military will shrink. There will be no more "nation building," with its long and expensive occupations. Overall, troop levels will be cut by about 100,000 soldiers and Marines. Fewer new planes will be built. America no longer will be equipped to fight two full-scale wars at the same time — an official requirement for decades.

Such was the military-cultural context for calls for the draft: huge ground forces stocked with draftees. What we have now are precisely the opposite — robot/drone wars — no need for suicidal soldiers or politically awkward draftee casualties. The money all goes to Lockheed Martin and the other big aerospace companies. Remember that there's a good reason the conscript military was abolished. It mutinied in Vietnam and, thus, was a prime factor in America's defeat.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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