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Monday, April 8, 2019


Having posed an exceedingly difficult question and elicited a range of thoughtful answers of many different sorts, I think I owe it to my readers to attempt some sort of answer of my own.  Since I do not see the matter at all clearly, let me begin by proposing a series of changes to current U. S. policies and institutional arrangements that I believe would take us in the right direction.

The first change I would make is a reversion to a citizen armed force supplied with soldiers, sailors, and marines by conscription, or what is usually called the draft.  Since there would not be a need for anything like as many military personnel as would be generated by a draft, one could create a variety of forms of service for those who numbers did not come up, but that is really a matter of cosmetics and public relations.  Why do I start with the draft?  Because a volunteer professional standing army that can be deployed at the will or whim of the Executive without concern for public opinion is the necessary precondition for a functioning imperial power.  So it was for Rome, for France, for Great Britain, and so it is now for the American empire.  Resistance to the Viet Nam War nearly tore this country apart and so damaged the citizen army that the military leaders successfully campaigned for an all-volunteer force.  The United States has been at war now or two decades with scarcely a peep out of the citizenry, which contents itself with yellow ribbon decorations and ritual repetitions of “thank you for your service.”  A draft not avoidable by enrolment in college would make it a great deal more difficult for Presidents to engage in military adventures.

The second change I would make is a reduction in and transformation of America’s nuclear arsenal and delivery systems so that their sole use would be a retaliatory second strike in response to a nuclear attack on American territory.  For example, a small force of submarine based missiles would be adequate.  There would be enormous institutional resistance in the military to this change, because it would involve getting rid of all land-based ICBMs in hardened silos, all intermediate range and battlefield nuclear weapons, and all weapons delivered by aircraft.  It would be best to attempt to negotiate a multi-lateral agreement reducing all nation’s nuclear arsenals to this status, but if that proved impossible, then a unilateral change would be rational and desirable.

These two changes, by themselves, would fundamentally change America’s military posture in the world.  Both would be very powerfully resisted both by the military and political establishment and, in the case of the draft, by the American people, but nothing less would have any significant impact on America’s imperial project.


Anonymous said...

If, per impossibile, I could ever support re-instituting a military draft in this country, I would do so only if females were included in it under the very same conditions and to exactly the same extent as males were subject to it. And all draftees would be equally subject to combat duty. In any case, I think the draft is a non-starter—unless we’re attacked by a powerful nation state (and there are two of them now that we have to be wary of). Also, how does an anarchist logically support a draft? That seems to me about as consistent, philosophically, as a libertarian calling for such a thing. I know that you have called for a draft before, so it’s clear to me that this is your long-held opinion on conscription. As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, horrible though they are, I tend to agree with John Mearshimer’s characterization of them as “weapons of peace.” It may be an oxymoron, and in any case the idea is utterly repugnant, but so far they seem to have scared us and the other two major imperialistic thugs from starting any world wars since the last time they were used. Ukraine gave them up (they had at one time the third largest trove of these hellish things), and lo and behold the Russians have been pushing Ukraine around at will. (I’m not sure whether Georgia (the country) had them and gave them up, but they don’t have any—and Russia attacked them.) I’m with Hobbes when it comes to international relations. I don’t like to say or believe any of this, but people being people—and men being wolves to men—it seems to me true and not likely to change anytime soon. I wouldn’t support any policy that would lead to Russia and China being less afraid of us. –Fritz Poebel

Jerry Fresia said...

For starters, brilliant!

s. wallerstein said...

Fine for starters, as Jerry says.

However, since one can easily imagine a Bush 2 type demagogue stirring up popular support for a Iraq-style invasion after another 9-11 type terrorist attack on U.S. territory, there should be a law forbidding the use of U.S. troops abroad unless there is a UN mandate or one from a fairly representative international body, for example, the European Union instead of one dominated by the U.S. like NATO or the Organization of American States.

We know that popular protests against a war have to do with U.S. casualties, not with the victims in the state which is attacked by the U.S., so if our imperialist demagogue uses mainly air power or missiles to attack a foreign country instead of sending masses of U.S. troops, there will be few protests against the aggression except from the usual suspects like yourself (Professor Wolff) and Chomsky. So the law which I propose above would come in handy.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

My only concern with your post relates to nuclear weapons. I haven't studied this in a long time, but my recollection is that in the 1950's several hundred warheads were believed to be necessary to deter a Soviet first strike. Given the expansion of the club I assume the need for warheads increases to deter multiple adversaries. Depressingly enough, there are several states considering joining the club and thus exacerbating the problem. The Trump presidency will undoubtedly hurry this process along.

Having three delivery systems is better than two and two is better than one. Land-based systems are the most vulnerable to a preemptive strike so dump them. Between air, submarine and destroyer-based systems would create deterrence.

Making Congress vote to declare war would be a good step in the direction of limiting Presidential abuse of war powers. Those conservative constitutional literalists would have to support it!

LFC said...

@s. wallerstein

I understand where you're coming from (to use an old expression), but I don't think there is a country in the world -- large, small, or midsize -- that would make the deployment of its armed forces abroad dependent, in the strict legislative sense you suggest, on a UN or similar mandate. The governments of European Union countries all retain, so far as I'm aware, the authority to use their national militaries as they see fit. It's considered a core attribute of sovereignty, and as long as the basic framework of the int'l system presupposes formally sovereign states, it will remain so, I think.

On nuclear weapons: the club of nuclear powers is small, and some countries that have nuclear arsenals of one size or another (e.g., France, Britain, India, Pakistan, Israel) are not even potential threats to the U.S. (The question of so-called loose nukes possibly falling into the hands of what are sometimes euphemistically called "non-state actors" is a separate issue.) What is clear is that the U.S.'s arsenal is far bigger than it needs to be for purposes of deterrence (the Obama admin, btw, began a process of spending hundreds of millions on modernizing and upgrading the nuclear arsenal, much of which would be unnecessary if the arsenal were a more rational size).

In Feb. 2016, PBS NewsHour reported that the Pentagon was planning to spend 1 trillion dollars over the next 30 years on modernizing the nuclear arsenal:

Completely unnecessary. The land-based leg of the nuclear triad should be scrapped, and the submarine and air-based legs reduced to a more reasonable size. I don't know whether this would have an effect on U.S. foreign policy, but it would save a *lot* of money and still retain a nuclear force fully adequate for deterrence purposes. (Would it cause some unemployment and economic hardship? Probably, but so does every budget decision in one way or another.) I'm also not a fan of tactical (a/k/a battlefield) nuclear weapons, a couple of hundred of which the U.S. still has, I think, in Europe. These are pointless except possibly in a scenario in which Putin were to threaten nuclear force vs a state in Russia's 'near abroad'; then, from the standpoint of deterrence-through-generation-of-uncertainty, they might have a certain utility. But basically I think tactical nukes are pointless and their possession and upgrading is a waste of money.

LFC said...

p.s. The Trump admin, having announced that it's withdrawing from the INF treaty b.c of (claimed) Russian cheating, is going in the opposite direction.

s. wallerstein said...


The United States has such a long criminal record of imperialistic military aggression abroad, generally with lofty, but false pretenses, that it has to face special restrictions in its use of troops and air power abroad that other nations do not face. The U.S. simply cannot be trusted to abide by the normal rules that most other nations do.

LFC said...

Well, a number of countries have records of imperialistic aggression, but I'll leave further discussion of this particular question (both whether the US's record is substantially worse, and whether it should therefore face "special restrictions" on a core aspect of sovereignty) to others.

Jerry Fresia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerry Fresia said...

The professor's question is an important one.

Given my talent at sounding sanctimonious, I will do my best to come across as disinterested:

Here's the thing: what the US does to people outside it's borders is for the most part, censored. What is going on in Yemen today, for example, and the US role in it, is probably known by less than 1% of the population. William Blum, a researcher I respected (who died recently), claimed that between 1945 and 2014 the US overthrew or attempted to overthrow 57 countries.

Now, I would have said that the number of people in foreign countries killed by the US military since WWII is about 10 million. So I googled the question, looking for Blum's data, and the site at the top of the page (Global Research) said 20 million.

I check each day and I would say that on average there is about 10 to 20 civilians killed by US forces each day somewhere in the world by the US military and as you would assume, the number of kids included in all this data is not insignificant.

Whenever I have had a personal exchange with someone who believes that the US military is fighting for our freedom, I ask them to watch "Hearts and Minds," an important film about Vietnam. It's on youtube. Never has anyone that I have asked watched the film. Personally, I think we are in "Good German" territory. I hope this isn't sanctimonious.

s. wallerstein said...


I never find you to be sanctimonious. Being sanctimonious means preaching from a supposed position of moral superiority and you don't do that. You are an excellent polemicist and you use your skills in what I would call a "good cause". You like to win arguments (I do too), I imagine, but that doesn't make you sanctimonious.

LFC said...


If what's going on in Yemen is known by 1 percent of the US pop, that's not because it's censored but because people choose not to pay attention. It's been covered extensively in the 'mainstream media' and elsewhere. Both houses of Congress, I believe, have voted to cut off US funding for Saudi operations in Yemen. The claim that it's been censored is absurd.

Jerry Fresia said...

LFC, you are right. The story has not been censored in the traditional sense. For example, a few days ago he NYTs published the following:

"The Senate on Wednesday again rebuked President Trump for his continued defense of Saudi Arabia after the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, voting for a second time to end American military assistance for the kingdom’s war in Yemen and to curtail presidential war powers.

"The 54-to-46 vote, condemning a nearly four-year conflict in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and inflicted a devastating famine, sets the foundation for what could become Mr. Trump’s first presidential veto, with the House expected to overwhelmingly pass the measure, possibly this month. The vote also might be the opening salvo in a week where Senate Republicans have the opportunity to hit back at the president’s aggressive use of executive power. On Thursday, the chamber will vote on a resolution that would overturn Mr. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to secure funding for his border wall."

But take a look from a different perspective:

Chomsky, speaking in 2015, said that under Obama "Yemen has been the main target of the global assassination campaign, the most extraordinary global terrorism campaign in history." This type of characterization or anything close to it that would suggest that the US is involved or responsible for a terror campaign, I would argued, has been censored.

Or a year ago, a leftwing site, Counterpunch, published the following:

“The situation in Yemen – today, right now, to the population of the country,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told Al Jazeera last month, “looks like the apocalypse.

"150,000 people are thought to have starved to death in Yemen last year, with one child dying of starvation or preventable diseases every ten minutes, and another falling into extreme malnutrition every two minutes. The country is undergoing the world’s biggest cholera epidemic since records began with over one million now having contracted the disease, and new a diptheria epidemic “is going to spread like wildfire” according to Lowcock. 'Unless the situation changes,' he concluded, 'we’re going to have the world’s worst humanitarian disaster for 50 years.'"

So I suppose it is up to each of us to decide on the nature of censorship and if the story of the US involvement in Yemen has been properly communicated to American citizens. I side, again, with Chomsky:

"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views."

LFC said...

I am in favor of widening the spectrum of what counts as acceptable opinion in the U.S. Unfortunately don't have time right now to comment further.