Why We Need a Draft: A Marine's Lament

"Maybe we would have only lost those three instead of 13," I thought to myself on a dusty Friday in Fallujah in early November 2005. I was picking up the pieces of a truck that hours before had been blown apart by an IED, wondering why our equipment wasn't better and why three more Marines were dead. Ramadan had just ended, the period in which a suicide bomber gets double and triple the virgins for killing himself in the name of jihad, and my weapons company, Second Battalion Second Marines, had lost 13 men in the last two weeks—not from firefights but from roadside bombs likely being imported from Iran. The insurgents were ramping up their technology, and here we were in the same old trucks. At least these didn't have cloth doors like the ones last year. But seriously, was this the best technology we have?
Just then I noticed a big vehicle driving by, one owned by a private contracting company. This thing made our truck look like a Pinto in a Ferrari showroom. It was huge, heavy, ominous, indestructible. I wanted to commandeer it. I wanted to live in it. If only we were in one of those, I would definitely come home, and a lot of the guys who won't would too. As it passed I stared at what I would later learn was called the MRAP vehicle (Mine Resistant Ambush Protective Vehicle). I never thought I would see something in Iraq that enticing, but there it was, rumbling past in all its glory.

I looked at my platoon sergeant. "Staff sergeant?"

"Yes, Finelli?"

"Why are the private companies driving around in these things and not the Marine Corps?" He looked at me and gave the universal sign for money, rubbing together his thumb and forefinger. And suddenly, I understood. It became clear on that November Friday in Fallujah that America's greatest strength, economics, was not in play. A sad realization.

According to the Pentagon, no service personnel have died in an MRAP. So why isn't every Marine or soldier in Iraq riding in one? Simple economics. An MRAP costs five times more than even the most up-armored Humvee. People need a personal, vested, blood-or-money interest to maximize potential. That is why capitalism has trumped communism time and again, but it is also why private contractors in Iraq have MRAPs while Marines don't. Because in actuality, America isn't practicing the basic tenet of capitalism on the battlefield with an all-volunteer military, and won't be until the reinstitution of the draft. Because until the wealthy have that vested interest, until it's the sons of senators and the wealthy upper classes sitting in those trucks—it takes more than the McCain boy or the son of Sen. Jim Webb—the best gear won't get paid for on an infantryman's timetable. Eighteen months after the Marines first asked for the MRAP, it's finally being delivered. Though not nearly at the rate that's needed. By the end of the year, only 1,500 will have been delivered, less than half the 3,900 the Pentagon had initially promised.

It's not hard to figure out who suffers. The 160,000 servicemen and women in Iraq are the latest generation of Americans to represent their country on the field of battle. And like their predecessors, they are abundantly unrepresented in the halls of power. As a result, they've adopted what I find to be a disturbing outlook on their situation: many don't want the draft because they believe it will ruin the military, which they consider their own blue-collar fraternity. They have heard the horror stories from their dads and granddads about "spoiled" rich officers. Have no doubt: there is a distinct disdain for networked America among the fighting class of this country. When a politician would come on TV in the Camp Fallujah chow hall talking about Iraq, the rank-and-file reaction was always something like, "Well, I am blue-collar cannon fodder to this wealthy bureaucrat who never got shot at and whose kids aren't here. But I know I am making America safer, so I'll do my job anyway." And they do, and have been for the last three and a half years, tragically underequipped but always willing to fight.

The real failure of this war, the mistake that has led to all the malaise of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was the failure to not reinstitute the draft on Sept. 12, 2001—something I certainly believed would happen after running down 61 flights of the South Tower, dodging the carnage as I made my way to the Hudson River [I worked at the World Trade Center as an investment adviser for Morgan Stanley at the time]. But President Bush was determined to keep the lives of nonuniformed America—the wealthiest Americans, like himself—uninterrupted by the war. Consequently, we have a severe talent  deficiency in the military, which the draft would remedy immediately. While America's bravest are in the military, America's brightest are not. Allow me to build a squad of the five brightest students from MIT and Caltech and promise them patrols on the highways connecting Baghdad and Fallujah, and I'll bet that in six months they could render IED's about as effective as a "Just Say No" campaign at a Grateful Dead show.

On a macro level, we are logistically weakened by the lack of a draft. It takes six to seven soldiers to support one infantryman in combat. So, you are basically asking 30,000 or so "grunts" to secure a nation of 26 million. I assure you, no matter who wins the 2008 election, we are staying in Iraq.  But with the Marine Corps and the Army severely stressed after 3.5 years of desert and urban combat in Iraq—equipment needs replacing, recruitment efforts are coming up short—you tell me how we're going to sustain the current force structure without the draft?  The president's new war czar, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, essentially said as much earlier this month, when he announced that considering the draft "makes sense."

Of course, the outcry was swift and predictable. America has rejected selective service before, though always in the guise of antiwar movements. But they should really be viewed as antidraft movements, and they existed, en masse, when the wealthy could buy their way out of serving—as Teddy Roosevelt's father and his ilk did during the Civil War, or as countless college kids did during the deferment-ridden Vietnam conflict. Not every draftee has to be a front-line Marine or soldier, but history shows us that most entrepreneurial young men, faced with a fair draft, almost always chose the front. A deferment draft, however, is a different story, and ultimately counterproductive because of the acrimony it breeds. By allowing the fortunate and, often, most talented to stay home, those who are drafted feel less important than what they are asked to die for. At the end of the day, it was this bitterness that helped fuel the massive antiwar movement that pushed Nixon to end the draft in '73.

I don't favor a Vietnam-style draft, where men like the current vice president could get five deferments. I am talking about a World War II draft, with the brothers and sons of future and former presidents answering the call (and, unfortunately, dying, as a Roosevelt and a Kennedy once did) on the front line. That is when the war effort is maximized. Quite simply, the military cannot be a faceless horde to those pulling the purse strings of our great economy.

The draft would even hasten a weaning away from foreign oil, I believe, if more Americans felt the nausea that I do every time I go to the pump and underwrite the people who have nearly killed me five times. This war on the jihadists needs to be more discomforting to the average American than just bad news on the tube. Democracies at war abroad cannot wage a protracted ground operation when the only people who are sacrificing are those who choose to go. This is the greatest lesson of my generation. Young Americans: you may not want to kill jihadists, but they are interested in killing you and your loved ones. Wake up.