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Behind the #WWIII Hashtag

The Selective Service website crashed last week as the meme went viral---but what are fears of a military draft really about?

Recruits from the Virginia National Guard recruitment sustainment program. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti)

Immediately following President Trump’s decision to eliminate Qasem Soleimani in a risky drone strike at Baghdad’s airport, the Twitterverse exploded. 

Keyboard warriors of all political persuasions lined up to share their analyses. Traditionally anti-war Democrats who have been generally supportive of the national security state in order to oppose President Trump have started sounding like peaceniks again. Neoconservatives once thought six feet below the political landscape have been unironically calling the strike the “first step to regime change in Tehran.” Progressives who were as quiet as church mice during President Obama’s illegal drone wars are now feigning outrage over the lawlessness of the attack.

As for the president himself—he chose to fire up the “America can do no wrong” crowd up with a simple picture of the flag. That tweet currently has over 700,000 likes. Ok Boomers.

Another interesting trend has surfaced as well: rumors of World War III. The #WWIII hashtag shot to the top of social media as the world anxiously awaited the possibility of the United States and Iran slugging it out in a hot war. The question soon became: what happens if World War III starts? Will I be required to fight? 

It isn’t unreasonable to associate the term “World War” with nationwide mobilizations. And sure enough, the sudden interest in the draft found its way to the Selective Service’s website, which crashed on Friday. Blaming the “spread of misinformation,” the agency asked those inquiring about their status to be patient, and assured them that if a draft were required, Congress would have to authorize it first. Registering with the Selective Service is required by law for all men ages 18 to 25. 

Those panicking about becoming cannon fodder can rest assured that a draft is out of the question politically. Even after 18 years of war, it has never been seriously considered by either political party. Yet given the historic precedent of drafting the young, the lack of political will highlights how dangerously removed the conduct of war has become from the costs of war, to the detriment of the military and our civic culture. 

An admiral in the UK states that an invasion of Iran would require millions of American troops, akin to the occupation of Germany after World War II. But he’s off the mark: things have come a long way since 1945. In World War II, when we wanted to cripple a German ball bearing plant at Schweinfurt, we had to send 291 B-17 bombers, 77 of which never came home. This scale was due to the inaccuracy of the dumb bombs being used. Today, we have GPS and laser-guided bombs that can reliably land within a few meters of their targets. The accuracy of every weapon system, from tanks to planes to artillery, has jumped by many orders of magnitude, thus requiring fewer personnel and delivery systems to achieve the same destructive results. Iraq was defeated with about 225,000 coalition troops in 2003. Millions of soldiers would not be required to invade Iran.

Meanwhile, hawks assume that a war would be another dazzling display of “shock and awe” followed by a short ground fight. It wouldn’t. Iran has twice the population of Iraq and is over three times the size geographically. It’s also playing defense with a home field advantage. Their military is considered highly trained and motivated compared to others in the Middle East. And even assuming the neocons achieve their dream of a democratic, secular Iran, how many troops would be required to occupy the country and maintain stability? Considering that at the height of surge in 2007, there were around 166,000 troops in Iraq, it would be conservative to say a half million troops would be required to occupy Iran. And with current active duty troops numbering 1.2 million and reserves at 860,000, a long-term occupation would mean sending to Iran half of active duty troops deployed.

These decisions don’t occur in a vacuum. As TAC reported this week, thousands of troops are already headed to Kuwait. Such actions have costs. In an election year it would be political suicide to begin a war of this scale—surely Trump understands this. So there won’t be a draft, and a traditional war of bloody attrition and subsequent occupation ceases to be plausible once military scale and political costs are acknowledged. What is there to be alarmed about then?

The issue as it relates to the draft is a moral one. The tragedy of placing the draft in the dustbin of history has been that we’ve lost a political feedback mechanism to help steer and correct policy failures. Even more damaging, endless, unwinnable wars have understandably created doubt and distrust among young people, who might balk when they’re actually needed to fight for vital American interests. Are the youth worried about a draft because they don’t want to fight in an immoral war, or because service to their country is out of vogue? It may be that both explanations are plausible.

It’s harder to find a better example of the draft as a policy tool than Vietnam. Beginning in 1964 and continuing through 1973, some 2.2 million men were drafted. As the war dragged on and casualties mounted, the draft became a rallying symbol for a polarized nation. Both sides of the Vietnam debate rightly considered themselves patriots. On one side were those who said, “My country! Right or wrong”; they were opposed by those who claimed criticism as the highest form of love. As ugly as this debate became—with riots, the shooting at Kent State University, and contempt directed at GIs returning from their tours in Vietnam—it was also a sign of the system’s health. Those asked to fight in an endless war created a movement that then influenced the political system, and hence the prosecution of that war. President Nixon ended the draft and instituted the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973. American involvement in Vietnam ended shortly thereafter. 

This AVF is what went to war in 2001, and in many ways, it’s a better system. Those who serve are highly motivated and can respond almost instantaneously to a crisis. But as the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Eighteen years and trillions of dollars later, where are we? And more to the point, without a draft, what negative consequence is there to expending American lives in battle? In 2012, former Army general Stanley McChrystal recommended bringing back the draft if the United States went to war again. McChrystal argued that the United States had “never fought an extended war with an all-volunteer military” and admitted that “there would be some loss of professionalism, but for the nation it would be a better course.” 

Who can blame the youth for draft dodging in 2020? It’s easy for those who have never served and aren’t at risk of the draft to poke fun. Those of draft age, however, were born at the beginning of these wars, and many have seen friends and family members serve only to come home jaded, demoralized, and maimed. And for what? Our own government can’t even say anymore. So bravo to the young Americans who question their government’s motives. But there’s another side of the story, one that regards civic virtue more generally. Do people today no longer need to give up anything for their country?

Consider the mobilization surrounding World War II. Freedom to the World War II generation went hand in hand with obligation. Not only was sacrifice encouraged, it was required. It was part of “the deal” of being a citizen. Taxes were raised, bonds sold, gas and food rationed, and a draft passed. In the PBS series The War, which documents World War II, there is a famous shot of blue-collar union workers getting off a shift at a factory churning out war materials. As hundreds of them file home, behind them on a billboard is a single quote: “Your idea could shorten the war.” My 90-year-old grandmother recalls fondly the scrap drives the government held to fuel the war machine. People gave pots, pans, coins, and even gold jewelry. That isn’t required today: the legacy of the Cold War has been a permanent defense industry that supplies weapons as effortlessly as Samsung supplies smartphones (at a premium cost, mind you!). So the youth can rest assured that Uncle Sam will never ask for the precious rare earth metals in their iPhones to make guidance chips for Hellfire missiles. 

But for a generation that has become enamored with socialism and jaded with capitalism, it is worth noting that there was true socialism in America’s response to World War II. The nation, the collective idea of your country, was more important than you, the individual. Giving something up for the greater good of society doesn’t seem to be in the vocabulary of today’s youth. It has become all about rights: the right to education, the right to health care, the right to (fill in the blank). 

A military draft would stop the war machine in its tracks, and that’s why the state won’t even consider it. The youth can rest assured: America will never ask you to give up anything. And that’s a huge problem. This was a great country once, not because of what was provided for its citizens, but because of what was required of them. 

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.

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