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A case for isolationism

America and its Western allies should either reinstate the military draft or put down their arms, because their way of going to war these days is too unjust, too inequitable to abide.   

Whenever I read or hear somebody say that America, the West, the world must intervene militarily in Syria, I think, very cynically, that if such an intervention were to get messy, as military interventions have been known to do, it’s not America, the West, or the world that will be risking its life – it will be Bill Jones of Omaha and Jane Smith of Denver and lots of other young people who’ve been ordered to Syria by their commander in chief (and lifelong non-combatant) Barack Obama.

So beyond whatever specific objections I have to a U.S. or Western military move in Syria, or in any other conflict where innocents are being killed en masse and where the world supposedly “cannot stand idly by,” I have a fundamental problem with all of these “humanitarian” uses of force, these “responsibility to protect” operations – because who am I, who is anybody with immunity to the danger and whose family is similarly immune, to urge other people, invariably young people, to do what we and our families have no intention of doing?

But that’s the way the West goes to war these days. That’s the situation in the United States, Britain, France and every other country whose leaders and opinion-makers are apt to consider it a matter of national responsibility to use force in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Bosnia or any other strategic spot (which leaves out Africa, ironically) where major crimes against humanity are taking place.

In the United States, less than a half of one percent of the population – fewer than one out of every 200 citizens – serve in the military, which has been all-volunteer since 1973. I imagine the figures are similar in Britain, France, Italy, Australia, Canada and other American-allied countries where military service is voluntary, and whose leaders and opinion-makers are expected to at least sound interested when a “coalition of the willing” is being gotten up to go fight somewhere.

And I imagine that like in the United States, the volunteer ranks of the armed forces of America’s Western allies are rather thin, shall we say, on the sons and daughters of politicians, government and think tank experts, prominent journalists and the other consensus-molders who are responsible for sending soldiers to war.

With the exception of the children of military veterans – who act out of a sense of duty that 99.5 percent of their countrymen don’t share – and the handful who go in for the adventure, America’s urban educated elite (from which the politicians, think tankers and top journalists are overwhelmingly drawn) don’t fight for their country. Not even in a small proportion since Vietnam, and not in large numbers since Korea. Neither do their children. Military service is for other people, not them. 

Yet these are the members of the political class, the decision-makers and “influentials” who cranked up the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who may yet crank one up in Syria. I don’t see how they allow themselves to do it. I don’t see where they get the gall. They warn against isolationism, but their own personal lives and those of their children, which very deliberately exclude military service, are a testament to isolationism.

And from the soldiers’ point of view, it’s even more unfair that they’re being urged to fight these “humanitarian” wars, these “never again” wars, rather than wars in defense of their own country. As far as I’m concerned, a government has the right to order citizens to risk their lives to defend their country, but it does not have the right to order them to risk their lives in a war of choice – and these U.S.-led wars in the Middle East, including the one that was being cooked up in Syria, are purely wars of choice.

For this reason, I think Israelis, even though they and their children do serve in the army, are likewise in no position to urge America to go to war in Syria (which Israel’s leaders were doing implicitly and which the Israel lobby in Washington was doing explicitly). What Israeli parent is ready to see his son or daughter dispatched to Syria or any other foreign war zone for the sake of protecting civilians there? No Israeli government would dream of doing such a thing. So if it’s out of the question to saddle Yossi Cohen of Rehovot with the “responsibility to protect” foreign civilians, what right does any Israeli have to urge that responsibility on Bill Jones of Omaha? Again, America doesn’t risk its life in war, Americans do. Or, rather, one out of every 200-odd Americans do.

So what am I saying – that the U.S. and its allies shouldn’t fight anywhere in the world as long as it’s only a minuscule percentage of volunteers who are doing the fighting? Yes, that’s what I’m saying. America, Britain, France and the rest of these potential members of some “coalition of the willing” should either reinstate the military draft or put down their arms, because the West’s way of going to war these days is too unjust, too inequitable to abide. The blood of the 99.5 percent who don’t fight is not thicker than the blood of the 0.5 percent who do. If a war isn’t important enough for everyone in the country to fight, it isn’t important enough for any of them to fight, and it should not be fought.

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    1. Mikesailor

      Larry is completely correct and I couldn’t agree with him more. Actually, every single human being is given one gift; the gift of life. Allowing someone else to decide how, when and where an individual should spend such gift should be anathema. Furthermore, allowing this other party to determine whether or not one should deprive another of this precious gift is a fictional concept absolving the individual of the responsibility such decision entails.
      Thus does war and the brutality involved begin and continue; by somehow diminishing this natural concept to allow violence supposedly “ordered” by another to take precedence over one’s own concept of morality and justice.

      Reply to Comment
      • Adolf Katz

        >Actually, every single human being is given one gift; the gift of life.

        Actually, every single being on this planet, including humans, dogs and tapeworms are given that one gift: the gift of life, which makes said gift rather cheap.

        The problem is that only minuscule percentage of these creatures are given the one truly worthy gift: the gift of mind.

        >Allowing someone else to decide how, when and where an individual should spend such gift should be anathema.

        On the same basis giving life to those who must have perished (for example, supplying medicine to undeveloped countries) should be anathema.

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    2. Richard

      This is ignorant nonsense. Politicians’ kids and the people who attended the same fancy schools as politicians kids DO serve in the military, and DO see combat. Its not all poor people. Have you forgotten that McCain himself has a son who went to the Naval Academy? Yes, the composition of the military does not mirror the socio-economic stratification of American society, but its simply untrue that the political class in America is not represented in the military by their children. It is. This whole piece is recycled “anti-war” gobbledy gook.

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    3. Kolumn9

      Your argument is that America and her allies should pretty much never go to war to influence the world in their preferred direction unless it is a direct and imminent threat to their respective homelands and then only the country under direct threat has a legitimate reason to defend itself. That would leave the countries that make up the democratic liberal countries on the sidelines while the less savory actors of the world will be left to intervene anywhere they choose in any way they choose in order to mold the world in their image. And do avoid trying to bring up the UN or some other international institution as a restraint on such actors since the words of such institutions in your logic have even less of a right to direct a democracy to go to war where its young people would be killed due to a decision made by a majority made up of foreigners.

      All this because in your opinion men and women who volunteer to fight in the military of a country widely known to repeatedly fight wars abroad are too stupid to have made a calculated decision to do so on the basis of the information readily available to them.

      The United States has by far the strongest military on the planet by far made up of men and women who volunteered to be a part of it. Each and every one of them knows that they may be ordered to deploy abroad by their commander and chief and may in the exercise of their duty sacrifice their life. Many do so because they see the US as a force for good in the world which deserves their service. Others do so because of the opportunities the military provides. All know that they are joining a military that fights abroad. The idea that they are mindless drones incapable of making rational decisions is despicable.

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      • You’re really off the rails – where did I say soldiers are robots, or stupid, or drones? I said they have a sense of duty their countrymen lack – do you find that despicable too? Why don’t you deal with what I wrote – which is that wars should be fought only by the population at large, by draft, and not by 0.5% of the people, because that is horribly unfair – whether they volunteer or not, and regardless of what reasons they have for volunteering. If I want to read you like you read me, I’d say you’re reducing America’s soldiers to cannon fodder.

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        • Kolumn9

          Volunteer armies are made up either of mercenaries or those that sufficiently believe in their own country’s decision-making processes for their service to have meaning to them. In either case the contract between them and those that send them to battle is entirely transparent.

          To put it bluntly, I am reducing all soldiers to cannon fodder because that is what all militaries are at the end of the day. Cannon fodder that is used to pursue the interests of the country that they serve. In the case of volunteer armies that cannon fodder is there as a result of a free choice because either they believe in what they are doing or they are compensated sufficiently for what they are doing. In either case they are there precisely so that politicians in Washington can decide to send them to war. You argue that what isn’t fair is that these people are being “used” by the politicians who themselves and their children don’t serve. What precisely in this situation isn’t ‘fair’? Volunteers are being used in precisely the way they volunteered to be used for. The only way your argument makes sense is if you argue that they are there not there of their own free will or that they are incapable of making rational decisions in the first place and so are being taken advantage of by the “decision-makers”.

          It is equally stupid to pretend that when the draft did take place that all served equally. A strong argument could easily be made that the children of the politicians, the rich and the powerful could usually find a way into less dangerous positions in the military. In that case it would be even easier to argue that the politicians are sending off those that have been drafted against their will to die in a war that they themselves would spare their own children. So what your argument really boils down to is that the West should never fight wars because in either case of a volunteer army or a drafted army your basic argument that the sacrifice is ‘unfair’ could be argued. Is it not then better for the Western governments to fight wars with armies where the contract between the soldier and the government is entirely transparent and voluntary? Or do you just generally argue for the West to never fight wars and leave the war fighting to those wonderfully perfect regimes that are not part of the West?

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          • It goes without saying I believe a draft should not allow the exemptions of, for instance, the Vietnam era. As for the rest, just because volunteer soldiers know what they’re getting into doesn’t mean the state should, yes, exploit their patriotism or economic need or whatever motivates them for such a grossly unjust system. What are you worried about – that if everyone and their children are up for grabs, it’ll be harder to send the “cannon fodder,” as you call them, to war?

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          • Kolumn9

            You are now forced to argue unfairness with the usual leftist complaint about a generic unfair ‘system’. It is indeed hard to argue against such a generic charge which is basically an axiom in leftist ideology – that there is an unfair system and the leaders are corrupt and the decisions serve a small minority and the majority isn’t being served by the system and so it is unfair blah blah blah. And you are back to arguing that the soldiers are being ‘exploited’ which is another way of saying that they are contract that they *voluntarily* enter into is somehow unfair. I have already pointed out the flaw with this argument and don’t need to do so again.

            I am not worried. Your argument is kind of illogical which makes it pretty much void. I really just wanted to point out that the flip side of your argument is that it is a general isolationist argument which leaves the playing field entirely in the hands of less scrupulous international actors. What is somewhat strange is that such an argument would be made by a leftist that at least theoretically is supposed to believe in a world moving towards a more fair and just direction, something that seems unlikely to happen with countries like Russia and China in the lead, and with dictators the world over using any and all means at their disposal to massacre their populations at will in order to maintain power. How can one be a leftist, believe in some sort of global justice and insist that every country whose governments might potentially share these ideas stay on the sidelines knowing full well that the countries that couldn’t care less about such ideas are the ones that would pick up the slack?

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          • Philos

            “Volunteer armies are made up either of mercenaries or those that sufficiently believe in their own country’s decision-making processes for their service to have meaning to them.”
            – I don’t know how you can say that about people the British Army recently admitted 40% of whom are functionally illiterate. If by mercenary you mean someone from an impoverished background with a roughly 1/3 in chance of being illliterate who joins the military because it’s the only alternative to either a life of crime or a life of grinding working poverty – then yes, the armies of the west are full of mercenaries.

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          • Kolumn9

            Indeed, there are many people that join the military because they perceive their alternative career paths as less financially (or socially) rewarding. They volunteer to be sent to war by the powers that be and to potentially die in a war in return for a salary. Mercenary works fantastically well here as a description. Many others are driven by ideological concerns or out of a sense of duty whereby they see their country as a force for good and trust their leaders to send them to war accordingly. They are not mercenaries but they too voluntarily sign up to be sent off to fight wars by the powers that be. In both cases the contractual relationship is transparent and voluntary all around. I still don’t understand how a contract voluntarily entered into by all sides can be ‘unfair’.

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        • Richard

          In a country of over 300 million people, you’re going to have an army thats a small fraction of the population, regardless of how its selected. So taking issue with 0.5%, as a figure, makes no sense. Most of the population pays taxes, and a fraction serve. There’s no other arrangement that makes having a military economically sustainable. Are you actually suggesting that a higher percentage of Americans join the army? That wouldn’t make any sense.

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          • Lottery draft.

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          • Kolumn9

            Like during the Vietnam war? You seem to be arguing that this axiomatically grossly unfair system can conduct a fair lottery and that would make sending people to die in wars fair. Or again, is this a general rant against the West ever participating in wars?

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          • There’s nothing axiomatic. Before Vietnam, it was generally understood in the West that everyone was responsible for fighting the wars. That’s my model, and there’s no good reason the West can’t go back to it. If, as you imagine, I was against wars under any circumstances, I’d say so.

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    4. sh

      Good arguments for changing the way we solve problems between countries once and for all.

      If there’s no longer a need for national conscription in any of the countries who threaten to go to war, perhaps some think tank somewhere’s working on it.

      “… (which leaves out Africa, ironically)”

      Libya’s in Africa.

      Reply to Comment
      • I meant sub-Saharan Africa, popularly known as “black Africa.”

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    5. Richard Witty

      The argument for military involvement in Syria (by Obama) was explicitly and exclusively for a limited strike,

      It is very possible, likely to an extent, that that limited strike would be responded to with terror (say hezbollah rocket-firing on Haifa, even where Israel would not be a party to the conflict).

      But, a limited strike is not “going to war”. It is fundamentally a communication, not a regime-change.

      Its good for the change of an Israeli telling America what its foreign-policy should be (I guess Larry is a dual citizen).

      The reason that the US “has to do it” is that there is no international body enforcing international law, simply.

      If the chemical weapons protocols are of any merit at all (they are), then there has to be enforcement mechanism, actual international law.

      The danger with selective unilateral enforcement (there are many other instances of violations of international law), is that, that it is selective. (All law enforcement is selective, or else law enforcement would be so intrusive as to violate fundamental civil rights.)

      It is a great irony to me, that there is near concensus on the “realist” position on the use of military force, which emphasizes American “interests”, but condemnation of the potential use of American military force for genuinely moral motivations.

      I think it was a good that the US protected the families of Bosnia and Kosovo, largely from Serb planned abuses. (Including the firing of rockets on military targets in Belgrade, with inevitable civilian targets.)

      It created the setting where Serb and others war criminals could be tried by the ICC, whereas that was utterly impossible prior.

      The US has ALWAYS been naturally isolationist. It is far from Europe and Asia, and most importantly ultimately doesn’t need Europe or Asia for any essential resources.

      The only connection to Europe and Asia is now in the norm of global relations, the norm by which Larry could easily migrate to another continent with only moderate culture-shock or actual physical travail.


      Thank God Roosevelt fought the isolationists in America to protect what remained of Europe. It was very feasible for the Lindberghian thesis of willing acceptance of Nazi Germany, so long as they didn’t harm US assets.

      My children wouldn’t be alive today if that vision of American policy prevailed.

      That is NOT the situation in either Bosnia, Syria, Rwanda, Somalia, Mali.

      We can say “let them kill themselves, they are only …..”. We can say “its ok for Russia to fund and arm tyrants. Its in their neighborhood, they have an “interest””.

      Or, we can articulate some other criteria for distinguishing light grey from dark gray, rather than regarding anything that is grey as too much of a gamble.

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    6. XYZ

      One of the tragic mistakes both Presidents Johnson and Bush Jr made was in putting the whole burden of shooting wars on the fighting men involved and leaving the civilian population at home out of the picture. John Conally repeatedly told LBJ regarding the War in Vietnam that it ws immoral to carry out a policy of “guns and butter” during a shooting war. During World War II the US gov’t went out of its way to constatly remind the home folks that everyone, not just the fighting men, had to make sacrifices. This was done by referring to Daylight Savings Time as “War Time” and by rationing fod and other products that were really not in short supply.

      Regarding American isolationism…it is inevitable since the US is now a declining power which no longer wants its role as defender of freedom and democracy. Obama himsself repeated the old mantra I heard during the days of Vietnam….”we can’t be the world’s policeman”. Well, I ask everyone: would you want to live in a town without policemen?
      This means that we are just going to have to get used to the fact that there is going to be more and more anarchy around the world, and the Europeans and Americans simply don’t care. I am sure Israelis will take note and draw the proper conclusions regarding possible “American security guarantees” in the case of dangerous Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

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      • No, XYZ, home rationing during WWII quite real. Most metal was directed to war construction, the US having lost its Pacific fleet, having to supply the bombing of Europe, then mechanized units upon ground invasion. As D-Day grew closer, food was also diverted; a preparing land army had to be fed, then too when on the ground. The US entered a fascist war economy. The State decided almost everything involving resources and industry on large scales, as well as food as the war lengthened. This economy raised the US from the Great Depression; full employment was State subsidized. After an initial upward blip, flat after I think 1936, there was no evidence of recovery until war.

        The US will supply no military guarantees for Israel on a Palestinian agreement, apart from the present offerings enjoyed for decades; this is not an episode of “The West Wing.” If the US has any sense it will try to establish autonomous economic aid in the WB with, crucially, a neutral form of dispute resolution, but I have little hope. All you have done here is hijack Syria to what I guess is the settlement of Greater Syria. But I don’t have God on my side, so don’t see it.

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        • Not “Greater Syria,” but “Greater Israel.” Sorry, it is late where I am.

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        • YZ

          I never said there weren’t real shortages of things during World War II in the US. I read an article about the rationing system during the war and that is where it stated that there were things not in short supply that were rationed anywat, for reasons of morale.

          The US “security guarantees” would never be worth anything. They would be given to make the Israeli public think that they weren’t taking any major risks in giving up strategic territory. Now, people would see that all of this is just one big bluff. There was even talk of making Israel a member of NATO, which is just one big joke because the countries that might go to war with Israel are possibly close friends of the other NATO members so why would they honor any guarantees to Israel?

          Reply to Comment
          • The US was in a State economy during WW II. There were all sorts of committees, often with government and corporate members–which is why I caused it Fascist. Committees are always going to find things to do. I’m certain some rationing was unneeded, although there would be less clarity back then. And morale is part of the game. Do you know of the steel penny? 1943, I think. Copper was needed for military production, so that year the penny was made of steel. As a boy, I actually encountered one still in circulation. A steel penny meant more back in 43 as the country was still on the precious metals standard.

            You need to get your protection story right. The only overtly occupied territory is the WB, and that is ostensibly over suicide bombing. Jordan is not much of a threat now, and I would happily sell cruise missiles to Israel to obviate such fear. The WB is never going to be autonomous; Jordan doesn’t want it, you have it. If Israel joined NATO, it would find itself hounded by its allies for violating European standards of decency. The only real talk is Israel will go it alone.

            Once again: an independent investment agency with a civil court system neutral to both Israelis and Palestinians on the Bank. Both groups need to break out of where they are.

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    7. I do not think American bombing will become ground intervention, which is how Larry begins this piece. In fact, the use of air as a retardant makes the draft less of a retardant for preventing aggression. Air is an elite enterprise; pilots are more likely careerists, or (non-draft) re-enlistments. Presuming drone technology to continue advance, even draftees may be set on war tasks with no jeopardy. A President might thus urge air assault, telling parents their draftees will thereby be less likely to be sacrificed, arguing worsening conditions w/o air. Political logic evolves with technology. What once might have deflected aggressive choice may become largely irrelevant. Indeed, parents might want air strikes to limit future risk to their children.

      This is distinct from the question of national security after the use of nerve gas in a distant theater. But Larry’s piece offers a generalized argument.

      I was resident in Bonn during the Kosovo campaign. There was little enthusiasm in my economics department, outright hostility outside the university. “Never again” meant never war in Europe again; let Kosovo sink. The CIA said satellite photos indicated mass graves in Kosovo; in this case they were right. I recall Elie Wiesel, speaking on the same platform as then President Clinton, turning toward him, saying “Mr. President, it is happening again. We must do something!” Rwanda seems to have steeled Clinton. He began preparation for a ground invasion, rendered unnecessary, interestingly, by the Russians, who told Serbia it was over.

      One final point on the constitutional nature of American war. Clinton went through NATO. By going through the North Atlantic Council, the NATO treaty was evoked; this treaty, ratified by the US, becomes the law of the land and allows a President to act without Congressional declaration of war or approval. The same would be true, I think, under an appropriated worded Security Council resolution, but that is not going to happen. So while the medium term electoral costs might be greater with a draft, Congress might not be able to use this forecast to prevent the act.

      Afghanistan and Iraq were both old fashioned wars that went well until prolonged occupation began. I think present American populism against intervention is directed to these, and Libya does not fit the fear (for American parents) presently being raised. Neutrally, I suspect this populism will subside into general approval for air, although not shortly.

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      • Thanks a lot, Greg, interesting as always. In this case, though, I think the implication of what you’re saying is that America’s ground forces are basically obselete, which nobody in Washington would agree with. Any U.S. air attack requires the readiness to follow up on the ground, otherwise the air attack is completely reckless – e.g. Syria.

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        • Not obsolete, sparingly used. To some extent, drone use in Afghanistan and Pakistan is implementing this logic.

          As to recklessness–I submit Iraq. In the case of Syria, loss of control over chemicals might result from bombing. I think this, coupled with fear of an insurgence platform, is why Russia decided to force Syria’s hand; it does remind me of Kosovo. Libya is a counter instance to a presumed ground/air correlation, although there must have been CIA types on the ground coordinating the Tripoli uprising.

          In any case, recklessness to save one’s child is not unthinkable; and in Africa, there would likely be proxy troops. My point was that a ground draft could actually enhance the salience of air over time.

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