As we reflect on Trump’s renewed commitment to the war in Afghanistan, it’s worth remembering that in many ways it’s not only America’s longest conflict, it’s also our most democratic war. We launched it at a time of historic national consensus, Congress explicitly and overwhelmingly authorized the use of force, it’s now been pursued through parts of three presidential administrations – two Republican and one Democrat – and each and every step of the way it’s been fought with an all-volunteer force.
That last point is, I think, significantly under-appreciated. In a post lamenting Trump’s decision to reinforce Afghanistan, my friend Rod Dreher refers back to the failed effort in Vietnam and the disappointments of the Iraq War, and says this:
We have lived through Vietnam. We have lived through the debacle of Iraq. And yet — and yet! — we will allow Washington to send thousands more American soldiers to fight and die in a war we cannot win.
This isn’t quite right. When a person enlists in a time of war, yes they’re “sent” to the conflict, but they also choose to go. In fact, many soldiers in the most dangerous jobs are often double or triple volunteers. They volunteer to join the military, they then volunteer for combat arms, and then some even take the additional step of volunteering to be at the very tip of the spear (for example, to join special forces).
There is thus a significant moral difference between our all-volunteer force and a conscript army. This isn’t an example of the state commandeering citizens and making them fight in a hopeless war, but rather of citizens freely joining and willingly laying their lives on the line even though they’re fully aware that the fight has been long and frustrating. Some would say that the volunteer military — and the lack of shared sacrifice — makes it “easier” to fight a war. I disagree. When war depends on willingness to serve, it places and additional check on political foolishness. People can vote with their feet to leave or to join, and millions of American have voted since 9/11 — they’ve voted to join, they’ve voted to fight, and many of them have voted to fight time and again
Of course the presence of willing recruits doesn’t remove the need for wise decision-making. A foolish war is still a foolish war even if young men and women are willing to fight, but this conflict is substantially less divisive and far more sustainable in large part because no one is being forced to die in a foreign land. .