Guest Commentary

Danny Sjursen: A dangerous gap — soldiers, civilians and the path to war

With no draft or national service obligations, all presidents have the ability to keep the nation in a state of endless war, writes guest columnist Maj. Danny Sjursen.
With no draft or national service obligations, all presidents have the ability to keep the nation in a state of endless war, writes guest columnist Maj. Danny Sjursen. The Associated Press

Consider the contrast. On May 9, 1970, 100,000 people marched on Washington, D.C., to protest America’s Cambodian incursion and the recent shootings at Kent State. Later, as North Vietnamese tanks approached Saigon, a small congressional delegation visited President Gerald Ford at the White House to dissuade him from any further attempts to intervene. Now, fast forward 30 years. On Feb. 12, 2003, as the U.S. inched ever closer to a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, our longest-serving senator, Robert Byrd, gazed over an empty chamber and bemoaned the lack of serious deliberation. Byrd lamented:

“This chamber is, for the most part, silent — ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing. We stand passively mute in the United States Senate.”

Even after President George W. Bush escalated the conflict, anti-war protesting never reached Vietnam-era levels.

This highlights an ever widening gap between citizens and soldiers. This disconnect — despite the post- 9/11  craze of yellow ribbons and “thank you for your service” proclamations — is partly responsible for today’s dearth of congressional debate and negligible anti-war movement.

Because of the draft, 1960s-era young men stared down the very real prospect of wartime service. Parents had to seriously consider that their sons might perish. Congressmen were beholden to the passionate concerns of their constituents. Today’s presidents, be they Bush, Barack Obama or Donald Trump, face few such restrictions. Consider the limited public outcry when Bush ordered the Iraq surge, or when Obama tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan.

Presidents wage wars as they please because the U.S. lacks a system of national service and exacts no financial obligations on its citizens — even amid 15 years of unending war.

George Washington once espoused that “every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it.” The citizen-soldier was once paramount, and conscripts provided the manpower to win America’s major wars. Today, with less than 0.5 percent of Americans on active duty and fewer still in combat units, volunteers repeatedly deploy and suffer an array of physical and mental wounds. All this occurs (physically and emotionally) distant from our nation’s largest metro areas.

This disconnect is tragic, and it is dangerous. The quagmire that is Afghanistan (15 years), Iraq (13 years) and Syria (?) could have been avoided or restrained if only the American people and their elected officials stood to lose something. Reinstating the draft is an enticing remedy. No doubt, this would change the nature of civic responsibility. Unfortunately, conscription is probably unaffordable, unpopular and perhaps politically impossible.

Americans need to bear some responsibility, some burden, for national security policy. Without a draft or “pay-as-you-go” tax increase, the all-volunteer military will remain “an extension of the imperial presidency,” and presidents will be free to conduct military adventures, extrajudicial killings and other serious (and secretive) acts in our name — with little to no oversight. It’s time to be citizens and question this dangerous dogma — before it’s too late.

Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and student at the Command and General Staff Officers Course in Fort Leavenworth. The views here do not necessarily reflect the official views of the Department of Defense or the United States Army.