Some things should be difficult — like sending your sons and daughters to war. The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, separated the commander in chief of the force from the war-making authority; it was designed to keep the president — who is not the king or the emperor — from seeing America’s troops as his troops and deciding to send them off to do his bidding. On the other hand, while Congress can determine that the time has come to defend the country, its allies, or its interests, once that decision is made, the troops can serve only one commander in chief.
Clever system…but hold that thought.
There is temptation these days to compare our posture in Afghanistan with that of the U.S. in the waning days of Vietnam. There we took over a long guerrilla war from the French. Our goals were unclear — what did we ever want from the Vietnamese? Our enemies wanted unity under communist rule, and they were willing to fight in their homeland until they won. We were willing to fight only until we weren’t — which was obvious even to our South Vietnamese allies. We negotiated our withdrawal with people who understood that we wanted “out” more than we wanted anything else.
You can see what of this applies to Afghanistan.
But there is a difference. Presidents Johnson and Nixon were operating under a constraint unknown to President Obama — the impact on the government and the public of a draft army. Every mother’s son was vulnerable — OK, not every mother’s son, but enough sons that when the public began to sour on Vietnam, there were waves of citizens in the streets demanding “out.” They shut down college campuses, took over city centers, and forced Lyndon Johnson to abandon his quest for a second full term. Newspapers and magazines carried their message. Draft-dodgers went to Canada — fewer than you might think, but magnified by the media. Anti-war protest was far beyond anything the Occupy Wall Street movement has been able to create, much less sustain.
Congress had to pay attention.
The message was that if the government used its army in a war of which the people disapproved, the people would make life difficult for the government. The All Volunteer Force (AVF) was, in part, a response. Now almost 40 years old, the AVF is perhaps the finest military force ever produced — coming at a time when technology required smart soldiers willing to spend longer periods in service to learn the systems and use them effectively, when potato-peeling could be outsourced, when soldiers could get college degrees in exchange for more years — not only making the military smarter, but sending people back into the civilian workforce better-educated and technologically competent.
The brilliant show of the First Gulf War, the quick march on Baghdad in 2003, and the iconic Special Operator on a horse using a GPS to call in air strikes in Afghanistan were the result. So was the dedicated band that produced the surge in Iraq, offering the Iraqi people an opportunity for consensual government, and the group that redeemed President Bush’s promise to Osama bin Laden that “you can run, but you can’t hide.”
But there is another side to the AVF. Our military today is separate from the society that sends it to war. It is not “every mother’s son.” It is the sons and daughters of only a few families, and the rest have no fear that their children will be called on to fight.
And since the soldiers volunteered, there is less concern in the public about what they have volunteered for. There was a minor anti-war movement over Iraq, but it was largely an anti-President Bush movement, and it had little in the way of popular support. For most of the country, it was, Things going badly in Faluja? Well, yes, too bad, but they volunteered. IEDs? Tragic, but they volunteered. Killed in Afghanistan? Sad, but they volunteered. Forces dispatched to Libya without debate in Congress? Odd, but they volunteered, and no one got killed. And Secretary Panetta tells a Senate Committee that U.S. military action in Syria will be a function of a U.N. mandate, Arab League approval, and NATO — and specifically declines to agree that Congress should be part of the decision-making process? Well, the soldiers volunteered, right?
No. It is time to right the relationship among the president, Congress, the military, and the American people.
The American public has no less at stake now than it did when the military was a draft force. If the soldiers are not your own children, they are still America’s children. They did not volunteer to be the army of the president and the secretary of defense. Congress is supposed to stand in the way of presidential overreach — and this is presidential overreach.
The relationship between the Afghans and the American forces is deteriorating rapidly — because of what Afghans did (it was Afghan Muslims who desecrated the Korans that were burned and Afghans who murdered their American partners) and because of what an American did (the killing of civilians by an American soldier). But the specifics of the two incidents pale in comparison to the growing understanding that American soldiers are in Afghanistan on a mission that has no clear definition or clear markers for success, and in which the Afghan view and the American view of the ultimate outcome is rapidly diverging.
In this case — as in any future use of American forces under U.N. or NATO or Arab League consent — the Congress has to exercise its constitutional role as the body that ensures that the president cannot function as king or emperor, sending his army to war at his pleasure. And the American public has to remember that the government ultimately has to be accountable to each of us — whether our own sons or our own daughters serve in uniform or not.
Congress and the public should be taking a hard look at Afghanistan, and they should bring this folly to an end.