Nostalgia Makes Bad Military Policy

You can’t help liking Major General (Res.) Emanuel Sakal–even when you think his vision of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is totally skewed. At this week’s conference on The Decline of Citizen Armies in Democratic States (see my post on Wednesday), he offered a list of reasons why an all-volunteer army would be the end of the IDF. Some of the reasons were good, many were laughable, and none of them were backed up by facts.

Sakal, with his sun-wrinkled face and sharp gaze, is a paragon of Israeli republican virtue–he’s a man who devoted his life to his country’s defense and now, in his old age, gives his people the benefit of his experience and wisdom from his perch as a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

The problem is that he acquired his wisdom decades ago and hasn’t bothered to update it. Sakal’s still caught in the “trust me” attitude all too common in the IDF, in which rank and battle scars are taken to be better indicators of reliability than empirical evidence.

The most valid point that Sakal made was that IDF manpower needs could almost certainly not be met by an all-volunteer policy. He simply declared this as a fact; other speakers at the conference backed it up with some data and comparative evidence from other countries. While, in conventional war, the IDF’s high-tech weapons enable it to fight with fewer troops than it once needed, most wars we are likely to fight in the coming decades will be unconventional ones. Furthermore, the Second Lebanon War of two summers ago disabused many top officers of the illusion that Israel’s borders could be defended largely from the air. In the end ground troops had to be sent in in large numbers to capture and hold territory.

But Sakal presented arguments against an all-volunteer force that were odd, to say the least. Presenting himself as an advocate of broader combat service for women, he maintained that few women would be motivated to serve in a volunteer force. He offered no evidence other than his own hunch on the matter. But Mady Wechsler Segal of the University of Maryland presented a comprehensive study of women in Western armies that showed that quite the opposite is true–in the U.S. and in European countries that have made the transition to volunteer forces, women serve in larger numbers and in increasingly serious and essential roles.

Another off-the-wall statement of Sakal’s was that the IDF’s elite units would not be able to fill their ranks if there were not draft. But these units are already manned by volunteers, and far more young men and women want to serve in them than the units can accept.

Sakal is nostalgic for the good old days when Israelis were ready to give their all and no one dared evade or squirm out of military service. I can get wistful about that, too–I’m hardly happy that a quarter of today’s young people don’t serve their country. But it’s crazy to pretend that we can change today’s culture by stricter enforcement of universal conscription against kids who would cause the IDF more trouble in uniform than out. While the IDF needs more soldiers than a volunteer system could provide, it doesn’t need nearly as many as strict enforcement would offer.

I can offer another reason for not abolishing the draft. Had I not been compelled to serve in the IDF, I’m sure I would have opted out–I was hardly eager to be a soldier. Under a draft, many kids go willingly, or with only a bit of a grumble, to the army. They understand that military service is a civic duty, but are not out to be heroes. This group would not sign up for a volunteer force. Ironically, a democracy needs just these kinds of soldiers–those who are not gung-ho, and who do not idealize the army as an institution.

Another speaker, Avi Kober, hit the nail on the head–the correct policy is selective mandatory conscription. In other words, a draft that allows a measure of leeway for those who firmly don’t want to be soldiers to opt out, and for the IDF to turn down those it does not want or need. The problem of fair distribution of the burdens and obligations of citizenship is not the army’s portfolio. That’s a social and political problem and there are  a variety of social and political policies that can address it. One of the most obvious ones would be a beefed-up system of non-military alternative service for those who don’t become soldiers. The politicians, not the generals, need to decide.

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