National Security

A New Moral Compact

A military draft that could actually work.

As our nation enters its second decade of armed conflict overseas, it is appropriate to reflect on the moral compact between our government, our people, and our soldiers. Eleven years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with the prospect for open-ended global warfare against terrorists, has blurred the lines between peace and war, perhaps forever. It has also effectively lowered our national threshold for decisions to conduct military operations or go to war. The reasons have as much to do with our declining personal stake in these conflicts as with the dangerous state of the world.  

I recently attended an event honoring former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge for his public service. Ridge came from a working class family, won a scholarship to Harvard, and went on to law school. Upon completing his first year, he unexpectedly received his draft notice from Uncle Sam.

Tom Ridge did not seek to dodge his unwelcome summons. In his family, when you were called, you dropped whatever you were doing in your life and you went, as his father did in World War II. But as a Harvard grad and law student, he clearly had other options.

The Army decided to make Tom Ridge an infantryman. He soon became a sergeant and shipped out to Vietnam, where he joined the 101st Airborne for a year in combat from 1969-1970. None of the handful of young men he led in his small infantry rifle squad was a graduate of Harvard or any other college, but they were draftees from all social strata across the United States. Ridge observed: "The military is a great leveler. Nobody cares who you are, where you went to school, who your parents were. None of that mattered."

The only reason Ridge was in the Army and ultimately fought for a year in Vietnam was the draft lottery system. The Selective Service system randomly assigned numbers to each draft age male by birth date in an annual "lottery"; depending on the needs of the war that year, if your number came up, you were called. Theoretically, your chances of being drafted as a college grad under the lottery system were equal to those of a high school drop-out born on the same date. In the real world, however, both college deferments (see: Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton) and clever manipulation of the system allowed many of the well-off and well-educated to avoid service altogether. And for each of those that side-stepped the call, some other, less fortunate young man was called up to take his place. Some of whom, of course, never came back -- a sharp point little noted in discussions about the complex national legacy of the Vietnam War.

In the Vietnam era, draftees were called up for a maximum of two years of service, with one of those almost inevitably spent in Vietnam. And unlike in today's "all-volunteer" military, no draftee was ever sent back to Vietnam for another tour unless he volunteered -- probably with a voluntary re-enlistment for longer service. With draftees serving only two years in uniform, it would have been nearly impossible to send a soldier for a second 12-month combat tour within the scope of his two-year service obligation. It simply wasn't done. If you were unfortunate enough to be drafted, you at least knew that the nation drew the line at one year of combat.

Contrast Tom Ridge's world of 1969 with that of America's combat soldiers today. In 2012, there is no draft, and our all-volunteer force has spent the last eleven years in prolonged, bloody ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army of this era fields about 560,000 troops on active duty, in comparison to 1.2 million at the height of the Vietnam war. Nearly 3 million Americans are veterans of the post-9/11 wars, with large numbers having served multiple combat tours. It seems obvious that some of the stress on the force -- manifested by unprecedented rates of suicide and creeping indiscipline -- has come from these widespread repeat deployments, the likes of which no soldier of the Vietnam era ever involuntarily faced. In fact, even career officers and sergeants in the Vietnam-era force -- distinct from the two-year draftees -- rarely served more than two one-year tours in Vietnam over the entire course of that ten-year war.

In today's military, it is not uncommon to see Army lieutenant colonels and senior sergeants deployed three or four times for 12- to 15-month combat tours over the past decade -- a back-breaking, family-stressing commitment the likes of which we have never before asked of our men and women in uniform. Even in World War II, only a small fraction of our nearly 16 million uniformed men and women served more than three years in a combat zone, and the entire war was finished for the United States in 45 months. Our war in Afghanistan has lasted 134 months. It now has eclipsed the American Revolution and Vietnam as the longest war in U.S. history. Stunningly, sizable numbers of the very the same sergeants and officers fighting the war today are the men and women that led the way into the earliest campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. If you are a career officer or NCO in today's Army and Marines, by and large you either continue to deploy -- or you leave the service. There are few other options. Across our volunteer force, over 6,500 have been killed and more than 50,000 wounded since 2001. Consider the burden of that stark reality upon career military families.

Both of my sons have served one-year combat tours in Afghanistan. When our youngest son, an Army pilot, was called to go back after completing his first tour, I was suddenly angry. Not an anger that derived from misunderstanding our rotation system, nor from seeing the war as somehow unjust. My anger was visceral, unbidden, reflexive. And as I examined my unexpected reaction, it came down to this: my son was going back, yet 99 percent of his military age contemporaries were not -- and never would, no matter how long the war lasted. Neither his civilian peers, their parents, nor their spouses or siblings would ever be exposed in any way to the gut-wrenching dangers of being in the middle of a lethal national enterprise. It simply wasn't important enough for our nation to insist that all of us shared the sacrifice of unlimited liability that war demands from those who fight it. Having a cadre of admirably willing volunteers simply has made it too easy for us to go to war.

For we Americans as a people, that's just wrong. There must be some limit to what we will ask of our men and women in uniform before the rest of us feel some moral obligation to step in. Tom Ridge -- representing all of the people of the United States in 1969 -- got the telegram, put his life on hold, stepped forward and served in combat alongside a broad cross-section of America's youth. Today, we call on no one to make this kind of sacrifice. We have even made that a matter of some pride, a nation that has moved beyond the dark days of "conscription."

Yet at what point are we morally compelled to in some way expose every American family to our fights abroad, to invest some moral equity as a nation and a society into fighting our wars? Absent any prospect whatsoever for our current or future wars to touch any of us personally, where is the moral hazard -- the personal "equity stake" -- that shapes our collective judgment, giving us pause when we decide to send our remarkable volunteer military off to war? They are fully prepared to go -- but they trust the rest of us to place sufficient weight and seriousness into that decision to ensure that their inevitable sacrifices of life and limb will be for a worthy and essential cause.

Throughout our history, American decisions on going to war have been closely connected to our people because they remain matters of life and death. And they were always seen as matters of deep import to the nation as a whole, since all could be called upon to fight. Today such profound decisions are all but free of consequences for the Americans people. When the lives and the deaths of our soldiers no longer personally impact the population at large, have we compromised our moral authority on war? How can our elites and our broader populace make wartime decisions in good conscience when those paying the price are someone else's kids -- but assuredly never their own?

The past ten years suggest that relying on a professional military comprised only of willing volunteers has eroded the core societal seriousness that we have always accorded to national decisions of war and peace. One wonders if we would have entered our recent conflicts as quickly -- or let them drag on so long -- if our Army was filled with draftees, drawn from a random swath of families across all segments of America.

One policy to better connect our wars to our people might be to determine that every use of military force over 60 days would automatically trigger an annual draft lottery to call up 10,000 men and women. They would serve in every branch of service for the duration of the conflict, replaced by future draft tranches in limited, like-sized numbers. Ten thousand draftees would comprise only about 5 percent of the number of new recruits the military takes in each year, but they would signify a symbolic commitment of the entire nation. Every family in the country would now be exposed to the potential consequences of our wars and come to recognize in a personal way that they had a stake in the outcome. The national calculus on go-to-war decisions subtly changes when all families can be called upon to answer the call to arms.

In the last decade, war has become something done by "the 1 percent" -- our rightly acclaimed force of volunteers -- with 99 percent of America uninvolved, and sometimes seemingly uninterested. But with war becoming this easy, our historic caution in committing our troops abroad has frayed dramatically. Partly as a result, "America at war" is slowly becoming a permanent condition. We have gradually, almost imperceptibly, eroded the bonds of responsibility linking our soldiers, our people and our government. It's time to re-establish that moral compact between our people and our wars.

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National Security

Brace Yourself

The U.S. may well go off the fiscal cliff. Is that so bad?

The United States should get ready to go off the fiscal cliff.

Without congressional action, broad tax increases and spending cuts will automatically take effect on January 2. The Bush-era tax cuts, the Alternative Minimum Tax patch, and the temporary payroll tax reduction will expire. The extension of unemployment benefits will lapse, and payments to physicians under Medicare will be reduced. And, of course, the sequestration mechanism contained in last year's Budget Control Act will cut planned defense and domestic discretionary spending by about $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

The combined effect of deep spending cuts and substantial tax increases would remove more than $600 billion from the economy in 2013 and send the United States back into recession. The Tax Policy Center estimates that taxes on the average middle-income household would increase by nearly $2,000. And the Congressional Budget Office projects that, if we go off the fiscal cliff, U.S. gross domestic product would shrink by 0.5 percent (instead of growing by 1.7 percent) and unemployment would reach 9.1 percent (instead of 8 percent).

The national security establishment has focused primarily on the potential cuts to the Pentagon, which would total some $500 billion over the next decade. In their third debate, Mitt Romney warned Barack Obama that such cuts would devastate the military, leading the president to promise: "It will not happen." But the likelihood of cuts to defense spending cannot be considered in isolation from all the other elements of the fiscal cliff, and with the election behind us, it's time to admit there is a strong possibility that sequestration will take effect -- because both the president and Congress could benefit politically.

Just consider the likelihood of these three scenarios:

Scenario 1: Congress and the president agree to a grand bargain.

Although structural factors seem to favor a deal, the 112th Congress's political gridlock -- it has passed the fewest laws of any session since World War II -- as well as the extremely short time available to forge a large, complicated piece of legislation almost certainly means that Congress and the president will not strike a grand bargain before January 2.

At first glance, the prospects for such a deal seem higher than at any point during the past two years. President Obama's bargaining power has increased now that he has received a clear mandate for the next four years. Additionally, allowing tax breaks to expire means that taxes will increase, which many Republicans oppose. For their part, Democrats want to prevent large cuts to domestic discretionary spending, and they have an incentive to cut a big deal before the nation hits the debt ceiling again, likely early in 2013. Leaders from both parties oppose the sequestration defense cuts. And, of course, neither side wants the country to plunge back into recession.

The fundamental problem is that most Republicans do not support any tax increases and most Democrats do not support significant cuts to government services. What's more, even if Congress were inclined to compromise, the logistics of passing a grand bargain are daunting. There are only seven weeks until this congressional session ends. Some time will be taken up preparing for the 113th Congress, and many departing members will focus on making arrangements for their post-Congress lives rather than legislating. In that context, Congress would have to draft legislation; debate and pass it in committees; debate and pass it in both houses; come up with a compromise agreement between the two chambers; redraft the compromise; and then pass the conference report. Then the president would have to sign that bill into law.

Barring an unforeseen change, the cumulative effect of partisan gridlock and a lack of time should squelch expectations for a grand bargain in the lame duck.

Scenario 2: Congress and the president agree to delay all or parts of the fiscal cliff, possibly including the sequester.

If Congress and the president fail to strike a comprehensive deal, they will face substantial pressure to delay some or all of the fiscal cliff provisions, including sequestration, before they take effect on January 2. A delay would have many of the same short-term positive effects for the economy as a grand bargain. It would also defer deep cuts to defense and domestic programs.

The bargaining over a possible delay could resemble a scaled-down version of trying to reach a grand bargain. The lack of comity between the two parties on the Hill suggests that even a scaled-down agreement would face a difficult and contentious, if not impossible, path. Any deal to delay some or all of the fiscal cliff issues would occur only at the last minute, after lesser agreements had failed, and in a "clean" bill stripped of any other legislative measures.

However, the effects of a delay would differ from those of a grand bargain in one significant regard: the potential market reaction. Financial markets may react poorly if the deficit reduction measures enacted in the Budget Control Act of 2011 are delayed without having reached a bigger deal, because it would signal that Washington lacks the political will to solve its fiscal problems. Both Fitch Ratings and Moody's Investor Services have warned of a credit downgrade if Congress and the president do not reach an agreement that prevents the country from going off the fiscal cliff, increases the U.S. debt ceiling, and creates a plan for reducing the budget deficit and stabilizing the federal debt. As former Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici wrote in October, "Absent more constructive action, simply postponing when we go over the cliff could hurt business confidence, worry investors and lead to another disruptive debate over raising the debt ceiling."

Republicans have strong incentives to press for a delay, since that would avoid substantial tax increases and cuts to defense spending in the short term. In early 2013, Republicans will also gain new leverage as the nation once again reaches its debt ceiling, which will require Congress to authorize additional government borrowing. This is an immensely powerful bargaining chip, as was amply demonstrated in the summer of 2011 when Republican deficit hawks withheld their support for raising the debt ceiling until they received concessions on deficit reduction. They may use those hardball tactics again in 2013, possibly in the midst of negotiations to reach a larger bargain on spending and revenues. Delaying sequestration for several months could thus hand congressional deficit hawks yet another source of negotiating leverage.

Conversely, the president and many congressional Democrats would lose a lot of bargaining power by agreeing to a delay. Unless Democrats concluded that the public would blame them -- and them alone -- for going off the fiscal cliff, there is little incentive for them to postpone the day of reckoning.

Scenario 3: Congress and the president fail to reach any agreement, and the nation goes off the fiscal cliff.

Continued gridlock during the lame duck session remains a high probability, and budget talks will likely involve a significant amount of brinksmanship among negotiators trying to maximize their own gains -- brinksmanship that could well end in failure, preventing a deal and driving the nation off the fiscal cliff.

As noted above, the tight legislative calendar in the lame duck session and the large number of weighty issues on the docket makes it very likely negotiations on any sizable deal will continue until the last possible moment. If talks break down at that point, the time left to agree to a delay would be very short. Efforts to broker a delay agreement would probably have to be moving at the same time as efforts to agree on a grand bargain. But lawmakers looking for a deal would likely shun simultaneous efforts, lest the possibility of delay remove the time pressure needed to reach a bargain.

Although President Obama has strongly opposed sequestration as a way to reduce the deficit, it remains unclear whether he would support legislation to undo it without an agreement on new sources of revenue. In August, he told a Virginia newspaper, "If the choice is between sequester going through or tax cuts continuing for millionaires and billionaires, I think it's pretty clear what the American people would choose." But the president also clearly stated during the final presidential debate that sequestration "will not happen." Although his spokesmen walked back that language the following day, it remains unclear to what degree Obama sees sequestration as an unacceptable outcome. Republicans leaders, on the other hand, have demonstrated their equally strong opposition to new taxes.

Some legislators from both parties might see advantage in letting the nation go off the fiscal cliff and allowing the sequester cuts to take effect. According to press reports, some Republicans have promised to slow down the legislative process to ensure that there is no deal to delay the cuts. For Republicans deficit hawks, ensuring that Congress reduces government spending, whatever the consequences, is the highest priority. Grover Norquist, the influential head of Americans for Tax Reform, recently stated, "Sequestration is not the worst thing"; and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, has said, "The only thing worse than cutting national defense is not having any scheduled cuts at all take place." For Democrats, going off the fiscal cliff would improve their bargaining position with Republicans -- taxes would rise significantly and defense spending would be cut.

In a perverse twist of logic, both parties might benefit from the new baselines created by going off the fiscal cliff. Allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire would automatically raise taxes on the majority of Americans to pre-2001 levels, which would reduce the deficit by $3.7 trillion over the next decade. With sequestration in force, spending would be cut by about $1 trillion over 10 years, carved equally out of defense and non-defense discretionary accounts. Ironically, these new baselines might actually break the partisan deadlock because Republican lawmakers could then vote in favor of a tax "cut," and as revenues increase, more Democratic lawmakers may be willing to vote to "increase" spending on defense programs.

Of course, this would be high-stakes game of chicken for both the White House and Congress. It would seriously disrupt planning throughout the Department of Defense and defense industry, shake market confidence in the United States, and slow U.S. economic growth. But recent reports have indicated that the effects of defense sequestration, tax hikes and spending cuts would be slower and less damaging in the short term than the rhetoric would suggest -- leaving room to go off the cliff and cut a deal early in the 113th Congress without causing lasting damage to the economy, national security, or domestic programs. Lawmakers from both parties might therefore see going off the cliff as a practical way of reaching a broader consensus in 2013 about balancing the nation's revenues and expenditures.


If we do go off the fiscal cliff, all is not lost for the Pentagon. The exact effects of allowing sequestration to take effect still remain unclear, but they are likely to occur more gradually than generally understood. Sequestration mandates a $52.3 billion reduction of DOD spending in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, which amounts to a 9.4 percent cut of budget authority from nonexempt accounts during the nine remaining months of FY 2013.

Focusing on the $52.3 billion cut to defense budget authority distorts how sequestration would affect defense spending for the rest of the fiscal year. Budget authority is often spread across multiple years and therefore is an improper metric for examining the immediate impacts of cuts in economic terms. Instead, outlays -- money actually spent -- provide a better measure.

Some of the key ways that sequestration could affect defense during the rest of FY 2013 include:

  • The DOD civilian workforce. As spending on civilian personnel is largely consumed in the first outlay year, the civilian workforce potentially faces significant layoffs or furloughs. Unlike uniformed personnel, civilian personnel are not exempt from sequestration. Expert analysts have estimated that if sequestration goes into effect, DOD would need to reduce its civilian workforce by as much as 13.7 percent during the remainder of the fiscal year.
  • Military health care. Military health care services are subject to sequestration since they are primarily funded through nonexempt operations and maintenance accounts. This could result in delayed payments to providers and possible denial of services.
  • Program cancellations. Despite widespread concern, most procurement programs will not be affected right away. Sequestration does not affect prior-year funding obligations, so already authorized and planned purchases will go ahead as scheduled. Sequestration allows already planned programs to continue, but over time it would reduce quantities bought, delay deliveries, and increase unit prices.
  • Military end strength. Since President Obama exercised his authority to shield military personnel accounts from sequestration, pay and benefits would remain intact and end strength would not be cut beyond already-planned levels for FY 2013.

The Pentagon would likely try to mitigate some of these effects by asking Congress for liberal reprogramming authority, in order to shift money from one account to another. If Congress grants this authority, DOD would be able to allocate any defense cuts strategically rather than being forced to cut each plan, program and activity would equally during FY 2013. It would likely shift funds away from lower-priority base budget operations and maintenance accounts to fund higher priorities, such as the Overseas Contingency Operations budget that supports deployed troops.

The Defense Department might also mitigate these effects by deferring any cuts until the fourth quarter of FY 2013. Under such a plan, the department would continue operating at planned FY 2013 spending levels as specified in the continuing resolution until a decision is made by Congress and signed by the president to undo the cuts. This would allow the Pentagon to continue resourcing ongoing operations and maintain readiness at existing levels for the near term. Of course, this would be a very high-stakes gamble: if Congress did not reverse sequestration or increase the DOD budget for the fourth quarter, the effects would be devastating. Going off the fiscal cliff might not be as bad as many analysts have warned -- and it might even have some political benefits -- but that doesn't mean the risks aren't significant.

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