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A Military Draft to Confront Climate Change?

A critic of U.S. militarism nonetheless suggests we can force 'skin in the game' while tackling a coming global crisis.

World War 1. U.S. Marines recruiting poster showing marines in a landing party and described as 'Soldiers of the sea'. 1917-18 ( By Everett Historical /Shutterstock)

Because of climate change, “all hell is breaking loose,” and the only institution capable of handling it is …. the military?

Absolutely, says (Ret.) Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, professor of history, friend of TAC, and a familiar critic of U.S. militarism, at a talk sponsored by the All-Volunteer Force Forum Tuesday. Wilkerson has been quite vocal about the degradation of the forces from endless war, but here, in the context of addressing future crisis, he makes a not so modest proposal to in part, fix it.

Bring back the draft.

Melting glaciers, monster storms, droughts, famine and disease—all are having very real impacts on already very fragile regions in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and in the Arctic, not to mention our own hemisphere.  “A real threat to our national security,” he said.

“The planet, I suspect, does not even know we exist. It will cast us off just like it cast off numerous species before us. What I’m saying is, contrary to the idea that we can reduce the military…we’re probably going to have to have lots of troops to meet a crisis that is indeed existential—not to kill for the state or to foment war, but to provide military assistance in disaster relief,” said Wilkerson, who pointed to a brand new book, All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change,by Michael T. Klare, which bolsters Wilkerson’s point of view.

Wilkerson, who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002-2005, pointed to recent cataclysmic storms right here in the U.S. for which tens of thousands of National Guard troops were deployed to respond. What if they were more simultaneous, or had coincided with an attack on U.S. interests overseas? Add all that to the tsunamis and typhoons in East Asia, the rising waters in the Arctic (which already is shaping into a geopolitical security situation), the expanding desert in the Sahara, not to mention fires and flooding all over the Third World. All pose serious humanitarian, economic, and security implications for millions of people, including the United States.

“A crisis of unknown proportions is riding down the road on us and the risk is high enough to take insurance. You can’t get ready for this crisis without a whole lot of people to handle it.”

“As much as I may have a fear of the DoD becoming so instrumental in meeting what might be the worst crisis the world ever confronted, I still understand that they are the only ones with the capability,” he said, pointing to military ships, planes, logistics, and response expertise in past crises. “(The military) are the only ones with organization and discipline to handle this.”

Wilkerson is part of the Climate Security and Advisory Group, of which a number of retired military in Washington like himself, along with various experts in the security world, have been studying the effects of climate change on national security and enjoining what he says is a growing number of active duty and DoD staff. 

Wilkerson claims the services need to ramp up well beyond the current 1.5 million active duty and reserve ranks—perhaps even beyond the peak of 12 million by the end of World War Two—to face the challenges.  “You’re not going to do that with an all-volunteer military.”

So this is where the draft comes in, and according Wilkerson, it will not only help solve the problem of facing future crisis, but returning policy to the people. How many would have supported the Iraq War if there was a draft? Would we still be fighting Vietnam if there were an all-volunteer army then?

Wilkerson and his compadre on the panel, (Ret.) Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich, author ofSkin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots, say there are some four million men and women who turn 18 each year. Out of that pool, there are a little over one million who are qualified, but unwilling to serve. Ultimately, said Laich, there are 180,000 men and women who are both willing and able to serve. The forces need 150,000 enlistees a year to regenerate. The problem is, the incentives (bonuses) are targeting lower-income recruits who end up pulling all the weight and do all the fighting.

Furthermore, the circumstances of endless war have stretched that small percentile of service members and their families thin with repeated deployments, resulting in higher rates of suicide and domestic fragility. If you were college material, coming from a wealthy, upper-middle class background, what incentives are there for you to serve? Even if the institution was gradually shifted away from war and towards global crisis response?

“The question is, is the current system of manning our military fair and efficient, or does it continue to sustain the civilian-military gap and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy,” questioned Laich.

He proposes: a fair, lottery-based based draft with no exemptions, no deferments, for the Army and the Marine Corps. People would have three choices: active for two years after basic, reserves for six years after basic, or ROTC in college, after which you serve with a commission.

Both men know the idea would be wildly unpopular with many Americans (and the military certainly doesn’t want it) and fraught with issues like including women in the draft. But they insist that Americans would now have “skin in the game” and would be less likely to support senseless wars abroad. Instead they would be mobilizing for new threats and a new mission, said Wilkerson, “not to kill for the state by any means, but perhaps to save the state.”

These are two provocative ideas that would be sure to rile a number of factions—not only those who oppose the draft on principal, but those who would challenge what might be seen as institutionalizing climate change as a permanent national security mission and an expansion of the military industrial complex. You also run the risk of a future president declaring a domestic “emergency” and using that massive military to enforce martial law.

That kind of power must be kept in check, suggested William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. He was also on the panel today, and he cautioned against a ramp-up of forces, even if it seemed to be for a non-lethal, humanitarian causes.

“I think there needs to be more discussion over what the role of the military should be,” he said, suggesting the all too persistent problem of mission and budget creep. “I would not want the military to making policy on its own without the rest of us having input.”

Skin in the game and climate change. Most could get on board with finding ways to address both, but using one to resolve the other? That is going to be a harder sell here in Washington, and on Main Street. We’ll keep an eye on this one.

 

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about the author

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor, has been writing for TAC since 2007, focusing on national security, foreign policy, civil liberties and domestic politics. She served for 15 years as a Washington bureau reporter for FoxNews.com, and at WTOP News in Washington from 2013-2017 as a writer, digital editor and social media strategist. She has also worked as a beat reporter at Bridge News financial wire (now part of Reuters) and Homeland Security Today, and as a regular contributor at Antiwar.com. A native Nutmegger, she got her start in Connecticut newspapers, but now resides with her family in Arlington, Va.

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