Manpower Meltdown
August 24, 2005

CBS News
This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.


Cindy Sheehan's protest outside the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, raises many questions, but perhaps none so fundamental as the issue of whether anyone can, in good faith, argue to today's young people that volunteering for a form of military service is a good idea. Judging by the members of the stay-the-course school of thought I know -- overwhelmingly liberals and critics of the Bush administration to one degree or another -- the answer is no.

The war party's elite -- a group including administration officials, think tankers, members of Congress and senators, congressional staff, pundits, Democrats, and Republicans -- is composed of "chicken hawks," those who think that continuing the war is an excellent idea but that fighting it personally (or having their own children fight it, or those of their friends and colleagues) isn't so bright. The simple cry of, "If you like the war so much, why don't you fight it?" has become as disreputable among the pundit class as it is popular in the liberal blogosphere.

"One of the most common (and strongest) liberal indictments of the Iraq war," wrote Jonathan Chait in Friday's Los Angeles Times, "is that it diverted troops that could have been deployed against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Are liberals who make that case, yet failed to enlist themselves, chicken hawks too?"

Chait has me nailed. As a matter of logic, the chicken-hawk argument is weak. It's weak because it's a species of hypocrisy charge, a tempting rhetorical ploy that in practice proves almost nothing. I know a guy who maintains that it was a bad idea to drive drunk. Yet from time to time he is known to get drunk and then drive his car. He is, in other words, a hypocrite. But this hardly shows that he is wrong about drunk driving. The problem is that he is right and that he fails to take his own good advice. That in the struggle over how long to continue the war those who urge an open-ended military commitment to Iraq's burgeoning ayatollah-cracy refuse to put their money where their mouth is proves absolutely nothing.

Letís take a look at the Afghan war. If I'd enlisted for service in Central Asia, it might have bolstered my bona fides as an al-Qaeda hawk, but in military terms it would have made no difference. The Army only takes so many recruits at a time, and at that time it had plenty. Today things look different. In a recent report to Congress following a fact-finding mission, retired General Barry McCaffrey concluded that despite missteps already made, "We can achieve our objectives of creating a law-based Iraqi state which will be an influencing example on the entire region." This, he said, could be done "in the coming two to five years." Earlier in the report he listed as one major Central Command vulnerability the "progressive deterioration of Army and Marine manpower," citing "in particular, the expected meltdown of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve in the coming 36 months."

Thirty-six months at twelve months per year is three years, and according to McCaffrey, victory will likely require at least two years (and probably more). His ostensibly optimistic report, in other words, concluded that our mission will probably fall victim to its chief vulnerability before our objectives are achieved. Despite his superficial optimism, then, McCaffrey thinks we will lose.

So the problem, it seems, are the chicken hawks. At times, countries lose wars due to manpower problems because they simply lack the requisite population to maintain an appropriately sized military. But America has plenty of people. It even has plenty of people who support the war. It just doesn't have enough who want to fight in it.

In a recent surprisingly pro-Sheehan comment, Chait's editor at The New Republic noted parenthetically that bringing the troops home "would be a disaster for national security and a betrayal of our responsibility to Iraq." I disagree. But even if one were inclined to think this way, surely beating a hasty retreat three years from now after the "meltdown" of the Guard and Reserves would be an even bigger disaster for national security. There are two ways to avoid that outcome: One would be to bring the troops home before true disaster strikes; the other would be for the chicken hawks to step up. Uncle Sam doesn't need anyone in particular, but he certainly needs someone, and it certainly isn't going to be me.

"Your American ambassador is giving an Islamist character to the state," a Kurdish constitutional negotiator recently observed to Dexter Filkins. "You spent all this money and all this blood to bring an Islamic republic here." The Kurd refers to a recent agreement "to relegate marriage and family matters to adjudication by clerics" and "prohibit the passing of any legislation that contradicted Islam's 'fixed principles.'"

As far as I'm concerned, putting your life on the line for the fixed principles of Islam isn't the best idea in the world. Indeed, recent scholarship indicates that the thing about the virgins of paradise is a mistranslation. Martyrs arenít going to find virgins in paradise after theyíve completed their fatal missions. Instead, they will be find grapes. Grapes are tasty, but they're not worth getting killed over. The American people seem to agree with me. So those who think the war's great as long as they don't need to fight it personally have to cope with the reality that nobody else wants to fight it, either. A little hypocrisy's not the worst thing in the world as long as someone will do your dirty work for you. But when you start running out of cannon fodder, it's time to do some serious thinking.