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The Danger of Launching An Unpopular War

One of the circumstances that could theoretically result in massive disobedience and potentially bring the United States Government to its knees is the imposition of a military draft in support of a widely unpopular war.

The United States has seen ample evidence of this. Both North and South resorted to conscription during our own Civil War, and the system failed to work effectively for either side. Then, in 1917, Woodrow Wilson decided to rely primarily on conscription, rather than voluntary enlistment, to raise military manpower for World War I. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was carefully designed to avoid the pitfalls of the Civil War system and—by allowing exemptions for dependency, essential occupations, and so on. In 1917 and 1918 about 24 million men were registered and nearly 3 million inducted into the military services, with little of the resistance that characterized the Civil War. However, World War 1 was not an unpopular war; it enjoyed the support of most Americans. Similarly, In 1940 Congress passed the first peacetime draft legislation, led by Grenville Clark. It was renewed (by one vote) in summer 1941. That device provided the mechanism for required American forces to support our actions in WW 2. The mechanism survived WW 2, and supported America’s efforts in the Korean War as well. The Korean War called up men aged 18 1/2 to 35, but exempted World War II veterans. It was so unpopular that the President elected to refer to it as a “police action”; The US was weary after WW 1, and many weren’t buying the “Domino Theory” of Communist aggression. In this case, though, the impact of the draft was mitigated somewhat by the fact that many active US Forces remained enrolled after WW 2. With the exception of the Civil War, the clearest example of an application of the Selective Service draft in an unpopular American war was Viet Nam. Protests, riots, draft-evaders fleeing to Canada, and a plethora of other similar activity were clear evidence that something had to be done, and President Nixon brought that bloody war to an end before it ripped our nation apart at the seems. The combination of compulsory service and an extremely unpopular war represents a real threat to the stability and continuity of our government.

On the other hand, a great deal of the world outside the United States employs conscription as their primary device for induction of military recruits. One factor that must be considered in light of this situation is our ability as a nation to defend ourselves.

Today, our Selective Service System in the United States provides a contingency for conflicts that place personnel demands on our military that we cannot meet with our current all-volunteer forces. Today, young men aged 18–26 are required to register so that a draft can be more readily resumed; however, young women do not have to register. In 2004 as well as during the 1991 Gulf War, consistent with their enlistment contracts because of a clause that permits retention based on the needs of the military, some military personnel were held in the military longer than they anticipated. In 2003, legislation to reintroduce general conscription was defeated in Congress. After it met with widespread disapproval among lawmakers and the public. Congressman Charles B. Rangel introduced similar legislation on July 15, 2010 entitled H.R. 5741, which would require all persons in the United States between the ages of 18 and 42 to perform either military or civilian national service in support of national defense and homeland security. Personally, I support this concept if not the specific legislation, and it’s not often that I find myself on the same side of an issue with Mr. Rangel.

As I have mentioned in a separate article at there is much anecdotal evidence of the value of conscription. At least 30 of the 79 currently recognized countries maintain active conscription programs including Russia, China, Israel, North Korea, South Korea, and Iran. Among the most widely regarded conscription based national service programs is the Israeli military. In a 2009 book published by the Council on Foreign relations entitled “Start-Up Nation”, Dan Senor and Saul Singer explain Israel’s entrepreneurial successes as products of Israeli national character attributable largely to conscription. The book relates many accounts of how Israeli entrepreneurs leverage personal contacts made as conscripts in Israel’s army, navy and intelligence services. Top telecommunications service and equipment vendors emerged from Israel’s elite intelligence services, and the book describes the experience and training provided by Israel’s armed services as “much better than college.” Start-Up Nation closes by recommending that the United States implement its own conscript-based national service in order to replicate the camaraderie, social networks, and national sense of purpose that propel Israel’s innovative, entrepreneurial society. However, in spite of this evidence, no one likes to be told that – whether they want to or not – they are going into battle at risk of their life. And when the war is unpopular enough, it is devastating.

Therefore, even when one accepts that conscription for purposes of national service and enhanced national security is a good thing (as I do), the question that remains is whether a war will be launched by the United States that is so unpopular it is capable of inciting riots and widespread civil disobedience. The answer is that it is entirely possible, and not even very unlikely. Many US Presidents from both parties have simply ignored the limitations on their authority to launch military action through the War Powers Act since WW 2. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 (50 U.S.C. 1541-1548) is a federal law that was written to constrain the power of the President in committing the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress. It was adopted as a United States Congress joint resolution which provides that the President can send U.S. armed forces into action abroad only by authorization of Congress or in case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” (For a discussion about what constitutes a “national emergency”, please refer to my article entitled “The Threat of Suspension of the Bill of Rights” also at The War Powers Act requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without a congressional authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war. In spite of the clarity of the language in the War Powers Act, many Presidents have ignored it, including President Obama – in particular, with regard to US intervention in Libya.

I believe our actions in Libya will be an instructive test case in the event that a significant deployment of “boots on the ground” in Libya occurs. In an article called Why Are We Going to War with Libya? By Massimo Calabresi of Time Magazine, the author points out: “With air strikes apparently imminent against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, America faces a simple question: why is the U.S. going to war in Libya? There may be good reasons, even compelling ones. But so far the answers from the Obama administration are shockingly opaque, contradictory and incomplete. Obama explained his decision in an East Room statement this afternoon. He said Gaddafi was suppressing his people and that “left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddhafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered.”

Even since the inception of the United States of America, many millions have been murdered and dozens of genocides have been perpetrated on humanity. The United States has intervened in almost none of them militarily – the major exception, of course, being WWII. If the United States did not intervene when up to 78 million Chinese were murdered, or when 23 million Russians were murdered, or when 8 million Belgians were murdered, or when 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered, or when 1.6 million North Koreans were murdered….. well, I think you see my point. The United States has not historically thrown itself like a local sheriff into the internal actions of other sovereign nations, applying military force to prevent despotic leaders from doing bad things. The United States should not decide that it will do so at some times and not do so at others, with no policy-based guidelines for channeling those decisions. The entire population of Libya as of 2009 is listed at 6, 419,925 people. Even if despotic leader Muumar Gaddafi were successful in killing half of the population it would pale in comparison to most of the really massive murders committed by Mao Ze-Dong, Stalin, Hitler, Tojo, Pol Pot, and so many others. So why intervene in Libya? And more importantly, if this conflict were to scale up to an all-out war, would it be unpopular enough to result in insurrection in the United States?

When the United States entered the Libya fray militarily, our country began to tread on dangerous ground. We departed from our nation’s traditional policies and began to act as a policeman in the internal governance of sovereign nations. What happens the next time there is a Russian invasion of Georgia, or another Tiananmen Square massacre; will we launch cruise missiles at Moscow or Beijing? Or will the United States only defend the helpless population of countries when those countries are too small to defend themselves against our intervention?

The US is committed already to a long-standing conflict in Afghanistan, and weary from our efforts in Iraq. Our resources are not limitless. In this case, we still have a large enough standing military – when combined with our allies who seem to want this conflict even more than we do – to take care of Libya without the invocation of a selective service draft. That will probably prevent this test of wills between the Federal Government and the citizens of the United States from reaching the arena of potential governmental meltdown. For that reason alone, I would rank the risk of insurrection and widespread rebellion stemming from the Libyan conflict to be low. However, I perceive that the propensity for US Presidents to act in an irresponsible manner, ignoring the clear constraints of the US Constitution and legislation such as the War Powers Act, make this a “medium” risk in the longer term. Libya and Syria are among several potential hotbeds of conflict that could ignite the fuse of American unrest.

What do you think?

One Response to “The Danger of Launching An Unpopular War”

  1. Marie Luft says:

    I agree with your analysis. I have lived thru the conscription period and both popular/unpopular wars; I have no quarrel with conscription. I don’t think it’s right to expect that our National Guard people serve several terms at a stretch overseas as has happened in the last 10 years; there could have been fresh troops every couple of years. However, hindsight is always good.

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