Diverging Views on Military Force Structure Illustrate the Difference Between Sanders and Clinton...Or They Ought To

During the Wednesday night Democratic Town Hall hosted by CNN, Secretary Hillary Clinton decided to underscore her reluctance to require women to register for the draft by adding something of a non sequitur: "the All Volunteer military," Clinton said, using a formal phrase to refer the United States' professional army, "has worked, and we should not do anything that undermines it."

Clinton's remarks, which reflect upon a broad but not universal Washington DC consensus in favor of the All Volunteer Force (AVF), were not unprompted. The Secretary was responding to a suggestion made earlier by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that "all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft," a stunning departure from the practice of imposing the previous obligation to serve, and today's obligation only to register, exclusively on men.

For the moment, let's leave aside the important question of whether opening up combat positions to qualified females in the Armed Forces necessarily entails draft registration for all women, as Milley suggested before the Senate Committee, as well as the equally important question of what reforms within the military (particularly on sexual assault complaints) women will want to insist on as a precondition to their potential service. Here I simply want to note that, despite Secretary Clinton's warning, there is nothing about the obligation to register for the draft that disturbs the current Volunteer Force structure at all. We have a universal male obligation to register right now, yet the AVF remains intact, untouched, and for the most part unnoticed.

I join others in condemning the general neglect of the AVF as more than just a shame; it's a source of grievous harm to both the country and the military. In my opinion, it is fair to conclude that, contrary to her assurance that AVF has "worked well," Clinton harbors misgivings about the AVF as well. Why else would she characterize female registration for the draft as disruptive to the AVF when it is really only a dramatic opportunity to discuss it? The requirement that eligible women register would not make a draft force more imminent (one would think it would do the opposite, actually), but it would invite scrutiny of a system that has languished without it for too long.

If seen as a tangential remark, Clinton's endorsement of the AVF becomes more interesting, not less. This kind of "move along, nothing to see here" answer betrays a kind of defensiveness over an approach to service that the Secretary has nevertheless gone out of her way to anoint as successful. Any real success can survive closer inspection. Perhaps Clinton's desire to close off rather than open discussion indicates that her commitment to the AVF, though obviously quite real, has to do with interest rather than intellect, and politics rather than policy.

For me, Clinton's remarks on the AVF echoed and emblematized the fundamental differences that have divided Clinton from Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary contest. Or more accurately, they should have--except the fact that Sanders offers no systemic critique of the military's current force structure, unlike his insistence on "one big idea," no matter how unsettling, when it comes health care, banks, or campaign finance reform.

But for the absence of any rejoinder from Sanders, the issue of military force structure aligns quite well with others contrasts drawn during the primary contest. For her part, Clinton can point to a slew of military experts who dismiss the service of citizen-soldiers as "amateurs," underscoring the long and specialized training needed to equip soldiers in technical warfare. As in other areas, Clinton's endorsement of AVF enjoys the blessing of the so-called "establishment," and all other associated benefits of an entrenched status quo (like campaign contributions).

Any given status quo has its defenders, and its detractors as well. In American politics, dissent is often consigned to the margins--so much so that even when mainstream figures like Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank express reservations regarding the injustice and dangers of the AVF, these views are received as an odd eccentricity, an errant misfire, rather than as a completely reasonable reaction to the inadequacy of the All Volunteer Force. Rather than respond to the indictment, the reigning powers in the political system depict their critics as idiosyncratic.

Viewed in this context, the comparison between Clinton's support for AVF and the argument in favor of universal service (broadly defined to include social service) is particularly instructive. Clinton's arguments in favor of AVF are most persuasive if one takes the status quo as a given--a constant and not a variable--and further accepts that the only valid comparison is that of the combat soldier drafted into service versus the professional soldier. Under these constraints, and based upon this analysis, obviously the AVF is superior.

But this is not the only lens through which to view this issue. Another equally appropriate framework would be American political tradition and the country's foundational documents. As is clear from the Constitutional convention and their voluminous writings, the country's Founding Fathers viewed a professional army as anathema, something that was deeply antagonistic to a democratic republic. Guided by historical admonitions, or more modern day sensibilities of fairness, if one shifts from "what is" to "what ought to be," the AVF becomes less defensible.

Likewise the unit of analysis ought to be open to debate. A level of comparison aggregated above just the individual soldier yields a different result. Even the most gifted and experienced combat soldiers cannot turn the tide of an unjust discretionary war in Iraq, for example. Given that draft service entails a more equitable burden on society, its principal benefit lies in a more restrained exercise of military power. It seems plausible to suggest that this singular accomplishment of universal service in favor of better military strategy compensates for the numerous tactical disadvantages highlighted by supporters of AVF.

As in other instances, if one is well cared for in the current system, then one is more apt to support Hillary Clinton. But if one is unduly burdened, estranged, or profoundly ill at ease with the status quo, then Bernie Sanders' quest to fundamentally restructure our way of doing business not only makes sense, it becomes necessary, even urgent. The "one big idea" vindicates its attendant disruptions with its righteousness and, more subtly, by its very assertion of what is yet achievable. When Clinton uses the term "possible" she is referring to present limitations; when Sanders invokes it, he is organizing for change. Both approaches have elements of the pragmatic in them, and both could rightly be accused of setting their respective followers up for disappointment. I view the most meaningful difference between them as whether one wants to be accountable to current power, or future progress.

Yet this primary contest, in so many ways an improvised audit on the health of our political system, lacks precisely this kind of dramatic contrast on one its most vital issues and seminal departure points: the US military. This is a genuine loss. Naturally I am unable to divine the motivations of the Sanders campaign in the face of its silence on the appropriate force structure for the US military. Suffice it to say, as I have lamented before, silence on the subject of military force structure is a dismaying and all too common feature of progressive politics.

Today registered Independents and a group called "nonvoters" comprise the majority of Americans, a stinging (and thoroughly ignored) rebuke of both political parties. One wonders how many current and former service members--and their families--number among those whose struggles remain unseen, and whose wisdom goes unheard, by the party organizations that are supposed to serve as conduit for a dialogue between the people and government power. For the moment, the Democratic Party appears on track to sustain this failure to engage, and on the question of the military at least, Secretary Clinton's unnerving and seemingly casual approval of a force structure riven with class and race inequities will stand in as policy for all Democrats.