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Wednesday, April 21, 2021


 David Palmeter observes that America paid a price for going to an all volunteer army, and he is quite right. Recall that the transition from the draft was in the first instance a consequence of the disaster of the Vietnam War which almost destroyed the discipline and effectiveness of the draft Army. The Defense Department ended the draft, improved the pay for the ranks, offered career opportunities to those who enlisted, and in that way enabled America finally to create the one thing it was missing on its way to becoming a full-scale imperial power: a professional army. America was now free to deploy troops endlessly for extended periods of time around the world without triggering the kind of social unrest and political turmoil that characterized the Vietnam era. With the adoption of that smarmy phrase, "thank you for your service," Americans could go about their business untroubled by the threat of actually having to serve in the military if they chose not to.  

If Americans want to impose their will on the world, they should have to belly up to the bar, put on the uniform, and take the risks themselves. I am sure it will strike most readers of this blog as odd that I am in favor of a conscript army but I really do not see any other way to get America to retreat from its imperial ambitions.

As tthey used to say in the part of Queens where I grew up, tuchas auf tisch.


Michael Llenos said...

"I really do not see any other way to get America to retreat from its imperial ambitions"

There is one other possible way. The expansion of the mercenary service. That's how the Goths eventually ruined Rome and the Greeks eventually ruined Persia. However, I am not in favor of ruining the Imperial Ambitions of the USA. Because that means the ruin of the USA. But why mention it then? Because it looks like the USA is headed down that road automatically. Politicians need to stop it. But no one has the foresight to do it anyway. Just as I believe it was wrong for the government to take out silver & copper from our coinage. I think that took place in the 1970s. Erasmus was against this in Chapter 4 of The Education of a Christian Prince. But no one listened to him either.

Keith said...

Glad I'm not alone, about "thank you for your service".

When at peace, a smaller professional, lower budget force seems right. If undertaking warlike adventures, then bring back the draft. (Noted, I fooled the draft board and joined the Marines for 3 years in 1967).

aaall said...

There really isn't a structural fix. However the military is set up, after 9/11 (and the quickie Gulf War) we would have gone into the Middle East/SW Asia and gotten bogged down. We had Vietnam then because of ridiculous fears of dominoes and Communism and the current wars because of Islamic Terrorism.

Remember the whole "who lost China" thing? I recently re-read Eisenhower's letter to J. Edgar Hoover in which he pointed out how he had saved Iran from Communism (he might also have mentioned how he saved Guatemala from Communism). Eisenhower also stated his belief in the domino theory in SE Asia to Kennedy after his election in 1960. Had Johnson not gone into Vietnam, it would have been China all over again and the Republicans would have made bank.

As long as there are shiny ideologies to obsess over we will get bogged down in stupid wars regardless of how we structure the military.

James Wilson said...

I agree with aaall. However the US miltar--or any other military for that matter--is organised, it can be exploited to carry out the policies of those who rule.

Wrt Vietnam, while eventually the drafted army became a source of anti-war feeling, (a) I wonder how widespread that feeling was, and (b) more important from my point of view, it never prompted horror at what was actually done to the Vietnamese--that was a concern of the earlier anti-war movement.

Wrt Michael's comment that "I am not in favor of ruining the Imperial ambitions of the USA. Because that means the ruin of the USA." The US can only exist as an imperial power? If so, then I'm on the side of its victims. But maybe it can survive and its people can prosper without dominating and exploiting others?

JW said...

PS. The following seems to be somewhat relevant:

Michael Llenos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Llenos said...

James Wilson,

You wrote:

"The US can only exist as an imperial power? If so, then I'm on the side of its victims. But maybe it can survive and its people can prosper without dominating and exploiting others?"

I think the USA can exist without being an Imperial Power. And I believe it's people can prosper without being an Imperial Power--just not as well as other Imperial Powers. I conceive that it's not inconceivable that the more people advise a nation to follow those policies which ruin it's influence and power the worse off that country may become. Hence I believe a nation can become ruined in the context of it being made much worse off politically. If the USA becomes more & more dependent on mercenaries (& mercenary corporations) it will weaken the overall effectiveness of it's military forces and foreign influence world-wide. Machiavelli himself wrote of a nation's eventual political downfall because of more and more reliance on mercenary forces. I defer to his The Prince, chapters 12 & 13.

LFC said...

@James Wilson

People opposed the U.S. role in Vietnam for a variety of reasons, and the intensity and character of the opposition varied depending on one's personal situation and political views and tendencies. All that said, I think it is wrong to suggest that "horror" at aspects of the way the U.S. conducted the war was limited to a very small group or an "earlier" (earlier than what?) antiwar movement.

Btw, in glancing at the obits for the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who died recently, I see he's credited w launching or helping to launch the idea of the antiwar "teach-in" in c. 1965.

Ridiculousicculus said...

Chris Hedges just published a decent article on this subject here:

America will not of its own accord retreat from imperial ambitions. America's imperial ambitions will implode America.

James Wilson said...

Yes, I think you’re right, LFC, that there was always a great deal of diversity to the opposition to the invasion of Vietnam. But my own experience—I attended one of the earliest SDS demonstrations in DC, I attended one of the earliest teach-ins (at Columbia) as well as the national teach-in in DC, and attended so many demonstrations down to the very end, down to the withdrawal of the US from Vietnam—led me, long before that end, to conclude that the tenor of the opposition was changing in, to me, troubling ways. I used to put it like this: during the earlier demonstrations I felt that if I’d fallen down people would have picked me up; on later demonstrations, such as the massive one in San Francisco in whenever it was—1970?—I felt that if I’d fallen down a great many of my fellow demonstrators would have simply walked over me. It went from being a movement with a sense of camaraderie and an other-regarding focus, despite the many political divisions within it, to being a mass movement, "mass" now to be understood in its not so positive sense, as in "mass society." (A parallel to the former might be the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which harbored a great diversity of groups?) Sure, the mass movement was in many respects welcome since it made the US government’s Vietnam policies more and more difficult to maintain and eventually helped end them. But it came at a cost.

Michael’s “I am not in favor of ruining the imperial ambitions of the USA” in a way captures the major division I’m trying to point to. And the Hedges essay Ridiculousicculus referenced is similarly useful. A significant part of the earlier anti-war movement was concerned to correctly “name the system” in order to end it. To put it perhaps too crudely, in my estimation, by the time of the mass mobilizations the majority of those expressing opposition to the US in Vietnam were more focussed on saving the system. Paul Potter spoke of how “the war and the system it represents will be stopped . . . because the movement has become strong enough to exact change in the society.” But that’s not quite what happened.

All of which is an awfully long way of trying to say that I still think I’m right: that the early anti-war movement was more organised around the horror at what ‘we’ were doing to people half a world away and what sort of "we' were we in order to be able to do that sort of thing, whereas the later movement had become more organised around how 'we' might get out from the predicament we'd become trapped in. For me it’s still epitomised in the way so many think, if they think at all, about Vietnam in terms of the tens of thousands of American dead, while for some of the rest of us it’s still all about the millions of Vietnamese dead.

Of course, I’m pretty sure there are others who come to this site with their own memories and evaluations of those times. I imagine not all of them will agree with me.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm 75 now and got into leftwing politics in 1963, first in the civil rights movement. The anti-Vietnam war movement was just beginning, it sort of blended into the "ban the bomb" movement. I recall doubting the truth of the official story about the Bay of Tonkin incident in the summer of 1964. At that time I had no idea that the war in Viet Nam would escalate as it did or that it would still be going on 4 years later when I finished college and my student deferment would end.

I'd say, to be honest, that my opposition to the war at that point neither stemmed from fear of the draft or concern about the fate of the Vietnamese people, but rather from my general dislike and distrust of official U.S. policies, of the "system," of the "establishment".

I had my draft physical when I graduated from college in 1968 and got a 1-Y deferment. I've told the story before in this space and will not repeat it. Anyway, I continued my opposition to the war and to participate in demonstrations against it even after being able to avoid military service, so I'd say that fear of being sent to Viet Nam as a draftee as not my only motive to oppose the war. I'd also say that being a bit more mature in 1968 and after than I was in 1964, I had begun to be genuinely concerned about the sufferings of the Vietnamese.

LFC said...

James Wilson,

Thank you for the response. I'm younger than you and am not really in a position to contest, from personal experience, your picture of the trajectory of the antiwar movement. I would agree at least on the point that as it became more of a mass movement it embraced more and more middle-class liberals (in the U.S. sense of that word) or even "moderates" who were not radical and did not want to "end the system." (They cd still have been concerned, e.g., about atrocities committed by some U.S. soldiers, the My Lai massacre being the canonical example. Knowledge of some of that conduct didn't emerge until later, of course. See Nick Turse's book on this subject[*], which I haven't read.)

I attended at least one of the mass moratorium demonstrations in D.C., either in '70 or '71, I forget, when I would have been 13 or 14 (depending on the exact timing). There was some violence or at least 'direct action' associated w these (I think w the so-called May Day event), but it was confined to a smallish group as I recall (obvs. I am not pausing to do any research here). My recollection at this remove is *very* vague, but I did not have the sense that people wd have walked over me had I fallen. But then I was a kid and was not there alone but in the company of adults. I regret that the memory of my early and middle teen-age years is patchy, so that while I remember some things clearly and in some detail, such as my involvement as a volunteer in the McGovern campaign, other things, such as the moratorium demonstration, I barely remember at all.

P.s. You use British spelling so I assume you're British or from some other country that uses British spelling (e.g. Australia) even though you were in the U.S. at the time.

LFC said...

P.s. Turse's book is called Kill Anything That Moves.

fg Boston said...

Another important aspect to this is the fact that we don't actually "declare" war anymore except in the most figurative and meaningless sense like "The War on Drugs"etc. The constitution actually makes it somewhat hard to declare war - but if the country must go to war - say to have a "War on Terror" - it should declare it, declare an enemy, get everyone on board, get everyone to sacrifice, pull together and get it over with as expediently as possible. If we cannot muster the sufficient unity to make such a declaration and all the sacrifices it entails...we shouldn't be fighting.

Anonymous said...

On my eighteenth birthday, I walked down to the post office and registered for the draft. At the University (prestigious) I got an A in my Marxism class mainly by understanding the content and offering original perspectives. And while capitalism exploits the workers and has greed as an engine, its fair to say marxism runs on the exploitation of lower intelligence people and nurtures laziness. Most people in higher education are in denial to the achievement of "the piece of the pie" and sit back and enjoy their existence. And a segment of the population is inherently lazy blaming their problems on social conditions. A liberal "have" is intelligent, a liberal "have not is a lazy blamer". A Trumper "have" is greedy and living a high life and a Trumper "have not" is a hard worker that chooses to bring down everyone because the lazy people are not stepping up. This topic on the draft is mental masturbation of the intelligent people who 'have". Yes, humans kill each other for gain. Democracy steps aside for gain (Zaire, 1963). Socialism is inherently evil too. Let's all just eat our cake.

marcel proust said...

Off topic, but I think an open thread dedicated to discussion of and questions about the recent posts on Marx, mystification and the labor theory of value would be helpful.

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff, I merely wish to thank you for your sincere expression of your thoughts and sincere engagement with reasons. Your blog has always been a beacon of reason, of preenting what you thought most reasonable and your willingness to listen to argument. I am a younger person who often reads your posts in admiration of your temperance and balance. When I look at the future, within academia and beyond, I seriously worry about the gusto of people to be certain. I love reading this blog because you always present your thoughts with the expectation that there is a better argument out there. Of course Marx is right on the moral foundations, but I want to hear a good reason why he isn't without pointing to history.

(By the way, your kant book illuminated the first critique for me as a third-year undergrad. It's a wild book but your presentation of arguments in standard form was incredibly helpful.)

LFC said...

There's an enormous literature from every conceivable angle on "American empire," but in cleaning up some scattered papers this afternoon I ran across a review of this book -- just thought I'd pass on the title in case someone might be interested:

Richard H. Immerman, Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz (Princeton U.P., 2010).

More recent and different in focus (though by an author w/ a sort of similar last name) is: Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, which has been the subject of a fair amount of discussion pro and con.

(I've read reviews etc. of both of these, but not the books themselves.)

Michael Llenos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Llenos said...

I previously wrote:

"Machiavelli himself wrote of a nation's eventual political downfall because of more and more reliance on mercenary forces. I defer to his The Prince, chapters 12 & 13."

Now there seems to be quite a bit of people in favor of Mercenary Corporations upholding U.S. interests these days. I don't have a finger on it yet as to why. I mean if you are an American you can just as easily lose your life the same way in the Mercenary business as in the Armed Forces. Is it because those in Mercenary Service are older and are post-military? Or is it because the Press does not typically record the casualties of those in the Mercenary Service? Is it because the leaders of the Armed Forces are responsible to their service members' parents but that does not apply to Mercenaries? Mercenaries, pirates, and privateers have existed since the time of the Ancient Greeks, and even beforehand, but what is the lure of having Mercenaries in your service as opposed to national-based armed troops? Machiavelli doesn't seem to care that Mercenaries have a Press advantage over a citizen militia, etc. Even Bill O'Reilly thought it was a good idea to have more and more Mercenaries occupying a post-Iraq with less and less U.S. Troops. Machiavelli seems to be one of the few people that think Mercenaries are totally worthless. I defer to him since he was such a great statesman. Although, it is not an absolute deduction, he should still know (in all probability) what he is talking about. You could also say that Jesus himself shares in this belief sort-of as well when he speaks here:

"I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep."--John 10:11-13 KJV

Of course, the hireling flees because he works for money and doesn't care about those whose interests he must protect. The same could be said about Mercenaries. Although that statement I just made sounds like an absolute statement--and almost all absolute statements have counter examples--in fact, I believe there could possibly be many American Mercenaries that love the USA and want to do their part to help the foreign policy of the USA and want to help fight the War on Terror.

American Mercenaries may not be totally worthless, though, and may have their advantages. And I don't see them being replaced until we've got robots like the mass-deployed droids who made their first appearance in that underrated movie called Episode 1.

LFC said...

@ Michael Llenos

There's a difference between contractors and mercenaries. The Pentagon makes use of the former, not the latter. You might still oppose the use of contractors, but the difference is probably worth noting.

There's also a difference between/among: (1) a citizen army (which is basically what Machiavelli favored), (2) a professional "all-volunteer" army (which is what the U.S. has now), (3) contractors, who are usually U.S. citizens, are paid by the U.S. military but are not members of the military, and (4) mercenaries, who are often of various nationalities and are usually employed by governments that, unlike the U.S., lack adequately trained armed forces or else are employed by groups seeking to overthrow governments.

p.s. You can say if you like that Machiavelli was a great political philosopher/writer but "great statesman" is a lot more dubious. He served the Florentine republic from 1498 to 1512, which is not an especially long career as a statesman. He was dismissed from his post in 1512 and subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and exiled to his home in the country south of Florence. (source: Chronology in the edition of The Prince trans and ed. H. Mansfield, U. Chicago Press, second edition, 1998).

LFC said...

P.s. On contractors, I said "usually U.S. citizens" but that's possibly an overstatement. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, the U.S. military had translators under contract who were/are Iraqis and Afghans (and perhaps other nationalities as well).

Michael Llenos said...


I think 1 & 2 and 3 & 4 are the same according to Machiavelli. Specifically there is some difference but generally they fall under the same categories. A draft Army and an all volunteer Army may be different in how the Army gets it's soldiers from the civilian pool, but their training and employment are the same. #3 or contractors (like from Blackwater or Academi) may be U.S. citizens but they are basically U.S. citizen mercenaries. Some writers on the web call Blackwater troops mercenaries, like at this website:

When you join the U.S. military, you take an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution from its enemies foreign and domestic. When you join Blackwater or serve as a mercenary in Central America I doubt you take such an oath. Michael Lee Lanning's book Mercenaries gives the impression that there is little difference between mercenaries and contractors. The back cover of his book reads: "Privateers, contract killers, corporate warriors, Contract soldiers go by many names, but they all have one thing in common: They fight for money and plunder rather than liberty, God, or country." I believe fighting for just money and plunder is what Machiavelli meant by the general idea of mercenaries. That's not to say that soldiers don't initially join the Army for a wage. It's just that mercenaries join the mercenary organization solely for money.
Blackwater troops probably make more money on average than U.S. troops. Hence John the Baptist says:

“And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” --Luke 3:14 KJV

Unknown said...

Good god, could you refrain from using quotations from the King James Bible!?

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