No. 38, December 2004
Resistance Ties down Superpower Army
When the United States attacked Iraq in March 2003, Pentagon planners were confident that the country could be invaded and its people subdued using no more than 140,000 US ground troops. Within six months, it was believed, troop strength could be reduced to a single division, comprising 30,000 soldiers — a number deemed sufficient to defend US bases and interests there in perpetuity. (New York Times, October 19, 2004)1 This rapid drawdown would leave the US in a position to pursue the next steps in an aggressive military program aimed at controlling all of West Asia (see Aspects No.s 33 & 34).
Nearly two years later, 138,000 US soldiers remain in Iraq. Though supplemented by 8,000 British soldiers, 20,000 highly-paid mercenaries contracted from security firms, and the purely token forces that comprise the so-called Coalition of the Willing, the occupiers are losing a grinding war of counterinsurgency that has stretched US military resources to breaking point. Soldiers are spread so thin on the ground that the US can no longer attempt to pacify a single city, Falluja, without temporarily ceding the rest of the Sunni Triangle to the resistance.2 This personnel shortage has left the US hamstrung throughout West Asia and ill-prepared to cope with any new threats to its tenuous global supremacy. As a result, Washington may soon be forced to reintroduce military conscription for the first time since the Vietnam War.
Events of the past two years suggest that the US's 1.4-million strong, all-volunteer military is simply inadequate to cope with large-scale imperial projects. In the words of military affairs analyst Col. Dan Smith, Iraq has become a "black hole," sucking troops and resources from all other missions. (Foreign Policy in Focus, September 3, 2003 <www.fpif.org>) With deaths and evacuated casualties surpassing 17,000 since March 2003 (Toronto Star, September 26, 2004), and enlistments in sharp decline (Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2004), the US has resorted to increasingly desperate maneuvers just to maintain a losing status quo.
In late 2003, the Army began to boost its percentage of deployable troops by reassigning large numbers of specialized personnel to combat roles (Saban Center Middle East Memo No. 3, June 4, 2004 <www.brookings.edu/views/op-ed/ohanlon/20040604.htm>) while the Pentagon issued a series of "stop-loss" orders that now apply to nearly 300,000 troops currently stationed in, or scheduled for rotation into, Iraq and Afghanistan. These soldiers can be compelled to remain in deployment indefinitely, even after their terms of enlistment have expired. (Washington Post, December 29, 2003)3 In October 2003, Washington began sending National Guard troops — part-time soldiers typically used in domestic emergencies like hurricanes — to West Asian combat zones; by June 2004, fully one-third of the troops serving in Iraq were National Guardsmen. Additionally, some 400,000 reserve soldiers have been activated since 9/11. (Washington Post, June 6, 2004) (Reservists— mostly students or working-class family heads who sign up for extra cash — train only one weekend a month and do not typically expect to see overseas deployment, let alone combat.) The extravagant use of reservists in overseas combat roles created a festering morale problem that came to a head in October, 2004, when a platoon from the Army Reserve's 343rd Quartermaster Company mutinied, refusing to deliver supplies in combat. (The Guardian, October 16, 2004)4 According to an officer from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, "the level of morale for most soldiers that I've seen has hit rock bottom." (Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2003)
As the Iraqi rebellion grew more powerful and widespread, the US attempted to squeeze more troops from increasingly reluctant allies. France, Germany, and Russia — denied a share of the spoils at the outset of the war — remained aloof, sensing that their greatest opportunities lay in waiting for a chance to pick up the pieces after a US humiliation in Iraq.5 In June 2003, the Bush Administration appealed for more troops from such countries as Poland, India, the Ukraine, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. (With its large and well-trained reserve force, India was a particularly attractive partner.) In effect, the US proposed to buy soldiers from its allies, offering $250 million in direct payments along with various concessions. (The Age, June 24, 2003). Already, however, the Coalition of the Willing was attempting extricate itself from the Iraq quagmire, and the March 2004 electoral defeat of Spain's pro-war Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar accelerated the process. In short order, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Costa Rica, and Honduras announced plans to withdraw their forces from Iraq, while Singapore, Thailand, and Norway radically downsized their already tiny contingent. (Times of India, July 16, 2004). By late 2004, Britain was the sole US ally willing to commit meaningful combat forces to Iraq, and even its 8000 soldiers had become a political albatross for Tony Blair.
Over and above the ceaseless demands of the Iraq War, the US has substantially increased its worldwide military presence since 9/11. Defending the puppet regime in Afghanistan alone requires 10,000 combat soldiers; all told, 176,000 troops are now deployed in military bases and "peacekeeping operations" overseas (Raleigh News & Observer, March 28, 2004). This global expansion, writes an analyst for the U.S. Naval Institute, has left troop rotations "in a shambles." (Proceedings, July, 2004) According to Jane's Intelligence Digest:
Officially, Washington still maintains that current force levels are adequate for all its actual and potential military purposes, or at worst could be made so with an additional 40,000 soldiers. 7 Privately, however, grim assessments of the military situation have been circulating among US elites. Some of this classified material was inadvertently disclosed in September 2004, when excerpts from a secret Pentagon report were introduced during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The report, by a highly influential Department of Defense advisory group called the Defense Science Board, concluded that the US military "will not be able to maintain its current peacekeeping commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan without a significant increase in the size of the armed forces or scaling back the objectives of the stabilisation missions" (Financial Times, September 26, 2004). As summarized by Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the report further stated: "If … we continue our current foreign policy of military expeditions every two years, we will begin two more stabilization operations without sufficient preparation or resources.'' (Bloomberg News Service, September 24, 2004; italics added) In other words, the report acknowledges that the very linchpin of US imperialism — viz., the direct and deterrent effects of its capacity for military intervention at will — is now jeopardized by a shortage of military manpower.
To judge the true extent of overall US personnel requirements would require expertise and information available to few, if any, civilians. But the number of troops required is clearly in the hundreds of thousands. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank, has stated that 500,000 fresh US and allied troops are needed simply to stabilize Iraq (Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 2004) — an estimate that matches Gen. Shinseki's pre-war projections, which were extrapolated from NATO's experience policing the Balkans. (see note 1) Additional tens of thousands would be needed to rebuild reserves, as well as for any additional imperial adventures. Numbers of this magnitude simply cannot be raised by recruitment, and mustering meaningful numbers of "allied" (i.e., European and Russian) troops now appears to be politically out of the question.
Thus the draft (ie, conscription), unpopular though it may be, is emerging as the only realistic option for US imperialism. Already the ruling class has begun the process of preparing public opinion, carrying the message to select audiences in the usual ways. Shortly after the April 2004 US debacle in Fallujah, Senators Biden and Hagel of the Armed Services Committee made a bipartisan appeal for a "national debate" on the draft. Subsequently, bellwether newspapers and journals of opinion began to carry op-eds endorsing conscription (see, e.g., "Why We Need the Draft Back," by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Noel Koch, Washington Post, July 1, 2004), while prominent Washington figures like former NATO general Wesley Clark quietly asserted the inevitability of the draft's return. (The Hill, July 29, 2004). Important liberal columnists like E.J. Dionne, meanwhile, suddenly discovered that the all-volunteer military is composed disproportionately of racial minorities and the poor, and proposed compulsory universal service as a "fair" alternative. (Wash. Post, July 5, 2004)8 More recently, with election season over, newspaper editorials are now warning of a "long, hard road" to victory in Iraq and demanding that President Bush prepare the American people for sacrifices to come. (See, e.g., "Fallujah not the decisive battle America must win," Arizona Daily Star, November 14, 2004)9
By reinstating the draft, it might be argued, the US would simply be reverting to historical norms: since Napoleon conquered Europe with conscripted troops, all nations with imperial ambitions have relied on draft armies.10 However, a vigorous tradition of draft resistance among Americans dates back at least to the American Civil War.11 Renewal of conscription could rekindle resistance and reinvigorate the anti-war movement on college campuses, potentially reproducing the kind of domestic turmoil that helped to modify US imperial goals during the Vietnam War. It is this possibility that recently led Iraq War veteran and anti-war activist Stan Goff to say, not entirely facetiously: "I hope they do bring back the draft. It's a vulnerability. We'll eat their asses alive with the draft. … They are not operating from a position of strength, but of incredible weakness."12
1. The plan catered, not only to Washington's imperial ambitions, but also to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's enthusiasm for a relatively small, highly mobile, technologically advanced military force, and contrasted starkly with the 1991 Gulf War, during which some 500,000 US soldiers were mobilized. Military brass were far less optimistic. Rumored grumbling went public in February 2003, when the Army's top general, Eric Shinseki, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "several hundred thousand" soldiers would be required to insure the success of the occupation. (New York Times, February 25, 2003) (back)
2. Only by siphoning troops from tenuously held positions across the country was the US was able to muster sufficient forces to stage its setpiece invasion of Fallujah in November 2004; Iraqi guerillas, well aware of the US predicament, immediately seized Ramadi, Mosul, and parts of Tikrit, Samarra, and Baghdad, in a show of coordinated strength that recalled the Tet Offensive. With no reserves at hand, the US first responded with airstrikes — which, by killing civilians and rubblizing urban battlegrounds, further strengthened the guerillas' position both politically and tactically — and then simply declared victory in Falluja so as to free enough soldiers to retake Mosul. (back)
3. Thus most US soldiers in Iraq are committed to "for the duration" — in contrast with the Vietnam War, in which a guaranteed maximum of 12 months in combat was thought necessary to preserve morale. (back)
4. By June 2004, the Army had reached so deeply into its active reserves that it was forced to call up almost 6000 members of the Individual Ready Reserve — retired and discharged veterans who have been out of uniform for as long as nine years. One-third of these failed to report for duty. (AP, Oct. 22, 2004) (back)
5. The Bush administration made some overtures to Europe, most publicly during the G8 summit in June 2004, but was rebuffed. Kofi Annan, meanwhile, prostrated himself in all directions in an unavailing attempt to restore the UN's relevance as a mediator among imperial rivals. (back)
6. Quoted in Stan Goff, "Will the U.S. Re-Open the Draft?", From the Wilderness, February 27, 2004 <www.fromthewilderness.com>. According to a more recent source, 21 of the Army's combat brigades are still deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kosovo. Of the 12 brigades remaining in the US, three are in modernization training, three are in reserve for possible war in the Korean peninsula, and two are in the pipeline for duty in Afghanistan. Only four brigades are readily available for relief. (World Socialist Web Site, July 21, 2003 <www.wsws.org/articles/2003/jul2003/iraq-j21.shtml>) As celebrity defense analyst Col. David Hackworth (ret.) recently observed: "You don’t have to be a Ph.D. in military personnel to conclude we need more boots on the ground." (DefenseWatch, October 4, 2004 <www.sftt.org/>) . (back)
7.The figure of 40,000 additional troops, proposed by John Kerry's campaign and duly endorsed by the centrist Brookings Institution, seems more arbitrary than rooted in serious analysis. See the superficially argued paper, "Rebuilding Iraq and Rebuilding the U.S. Army", by Brookings defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon (Saban Center Middle East Memo No. 3, June 4, 2004 <http://www.brookings.edu/views/op-ed/ohanlon/20040604.htm>), which may have been concocted for Kerry's benefit. (back)
8.This frank, semi-public exchange among elites was suspended for several weeks during the Presidential election campaign, when both major-party candidates were permitted to disavow any plans to reinstate the draft. (back)
9.In the event of a national emergency, whether actual or engineered, public opinion will of course be manipulated without this kind of subtlety. Under the Military Selective Service Act. 50 USC App. § 453 et seq., and accompanying regulations, the draft can be swiftly reauthorized by majority vote of Congress; the first draftees could be in uniform as quickly as two weeks later. (back)
10. With the obvious exception of Britain prior to World War I, which enjoyed the luxury of the Indian Army's enormous reserve forces. (back)
11. See generally Michael S. Foley, Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War (University of North Carolina 2003). (back)
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