SALT LAKE CITY, September 8, 2011—When 9/11 plunged America into war, commentators of all ideological stripes began to speculate about the ability of our military to respond effectively.
Much of the talk was based on the concept of “war-footing” and our preparedness to fight a new kind of war. The conventional wisdom about our military needs was shattered, along with our sense of domestic security, that September 11. Analysts and journalists opined that we needed to increase the size of our forces to respond adequately to the obvious threats.
Stanley Kurtz hinted in National Review that to defeat our terrorist enemies, we’d have to seriously engage the problem of too few troops, to the point of considering a draft. He wasn’t alone.
Talk of reinstating conscription as the primary method for manning our military didn’t get very far in the halls of power, though it did prompt Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) to submit no fewer than three proposals to reinstate the draft. It also prompted a Congressional Budget Office study of the feasibility and costs of conscription.
It all seems sort of ridiculous now, but that’s only because our nation’s volunteer military has risen to the challenge so marvelously.
In fact, since we got back on our war footing a decade ago, the All-Volunteer Force has outperformed every expectation. Since President Nixon ended conscription in 1973, our total active duty personnel strength had declined from just over two million to about a million and a half by 9/11. It was our peacetime dividend.
Overnight, the United States Armed Forces assumed an offensive posture. The early engagements would test the ability of U.S. troops and weaponry more than it’s endurance and resilience. Afghanistan was seen as another Desert Storm: Superior air power would knock our enemies off balance and send them running for the hills.
Even in the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the rapid and enormous mobilization of U.S. forces validated our belief that efficient logistics, precise tactics, and advanced weaponry would be enough to ensure victory.
But when we began to bog down in Iraq, the naysayers spoke up. Could we prosecute a prolonged war engagement with an all-volunteer force?
The force structure posed a concern as big as the numbers. The National Guard was doubted as an effective combat component. Could “weekend warriors” fight successfully in large numbers and sustain long deployments?
Ten years later, the answer to both questions is a resounding “yes.”
While our two Commanders-in-Chief during the Global War on Terror have adopted surge strategies, the forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan have still been relatively small. At their peak in Iraq, troop levels never exceeded 200,000; in Afghanistan they went to just over 110,000.
While critics of the military point to recruitment difficulties as evidence of bad policy, all components of the Armed Forces have been staffed near authorization levels. In recent months, most have been over strength.
For all the caterwauling about stretching the National Guard too thin, units have met the most demanding challenges. In Iraq, they composed nearly a quarter of the fighting force, often taking the most difficult missions. Since 9/11, there have been nearly 400,000 National Guard deployments. Citizen Soldiers have gone overseas to fight, while also meeting their responsibilities at home: Hurricane Katrina, floods in North Dakota, U.S.–Mexico border missions, and annual wildfires.
It is hard to overstate. The All-Volunteer Force has proven to be the most dominating military force the world has ever known.
The military is us. Contrary to disgusting myth, the Armed Forces of the United States today are more racially representative of our nation than they were during conscription, they are slightly more affluent than the general population, and more educated. They are not quite as geographically representative, and no study has been done of their ideological makeup.
Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines are surprisingly reflective of our nation’s culture. The reduction in numbers has forced, or allowed, the military to develop more efficient systems - weapons and otherwise. The technological advancements play well to American creativity and ambition.
It is not surprising that men and women perform better when they have made the choice to serve. Volunteerism is a powerful force behind our service members’ sense of duty, and it is a powerful message that they take to the battlefield, where they are just as much ambassadors as they are warriors.
National Guardsmen and Reservists bring an added dimension to our military capability. They are plucked out of civilian life—as police officers, teachers, firefighters, plumbers, construction workers, accountants, doctors, and myriad other jobs—and sent to the battlefield. They take their civilian skills with them. The cooperation between active forces and activated reservists yields a potency in problem solving and productivity. Our military fights, but it must also solve problems.
Victory has allowed us to forget, to some degree, the struggles we’ve had in Iraq, though we often worry about what the future holds in Afghanistan. In dozens of other places around the globe, our military is in place and in action. Every single soldier, Airman, Sailor, and Marine—315,000 total—serving overseas has taken an oath to serve by his or her own freewill.
Since 9/11 they are undefeated, and vindicated.
Learn more about the author at Rich-Stowell.com.
Rich is a teacher and a soldier. He is the author of Nine Weeks: A Teacher’s Education in Army Basic Training; Tunnel Club; and Not Another Boring Textbook: A High School Students’ Guide to their Inner Conservative, which you can follow on Facebook.
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