War is in the air. These days it doesn't seem natural if America isn't involved in at least two conflicts at once. For President Barack Obama it is three, though U.S. involvement in combat in Iraq has largely run its course. Still, these days one almost yearns for the Cold War, when American personnel weren't being shot, bombed, and killed daily.
Yet the strongest proponents of today's wars usually are people who haven't served in the military, let alone in combat. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama fought in no conflicts but together started four wars. And that number would be more if expanding the mission in Somalia, undertaking military operations in Bosnia, and threatening to invade Haiti, all undertaken by Clinton, also counted. Moreover, President Obama has nearly two years left in just his first term. If he is reelected, he will have another four years to start additional conflicts.
At least President Bush served in the Reserves, though that was at a time when Reserve service was often used to avoid going to Vietnam. President Clinton engaged in a famous effort to get out of the draft while maintaining his "political viability," as he put it at the time. President Obama didn't face conscription and didn't volunteer.
Even more striking is how most of the avid pro-war policymakers under these presidents also avoided military service. There were exceptions -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had worn a uniform. However, the most avid architects of war, including members of the very large and extended neoconservative Greek Chorus, never served. The latter preferred to chant about the virtues of war rather than demonstrate them in practice.
All of this seems very natural, of course. After all, someone has to plan and propagandize the wars. Otherwise we might, horrors!, live in peace. And it's merely a matter of comparative advantage: some people naturally believe themselves to be better at sending other people off to war than at fighting and dying. Former Vice President Richard Cheney comes to mind, a man committed to bombing most any nation that gets in America's way but who explained the five deferments which kept him out of uniform during the Vietnam War: "I had other priorities."
In retrospect it seems almost tragic that Mr. Cheney was denied the experience that he now is committed to providing to so many other young men and women. After all, he said later that he "would have obviously been happy to serve had" he been called. But by then the military just wasn't interested in recruiting old guys past their prime.
It doesn't seem fair to him or the rest of us. Mr. Cheney should have had his chance to go to war.
My friend and colleague Ted Galen Carpenter suggests creating a system of conscription based on implied consent. Favor launching more than one war every five years and you get drafted into the armed services, proposes Ted. Since we are all living longer, he advocates raising the eligibility age to 50.
But the idea of a draft seems so, well, ugly. Service should be forced, since people, like Mr. Cheney, often don't recognize what is good for them in time, but it would be better to give the system an upbeat name, such as the Military Extended Service Opportunity. That sounds too bureaucratic, however. It is a noble enterprise, creating "second chance brigades" for those who found themselves too busy promoting wars to serve in them when they were young. Congress might want to name the program after a figure who inspires us all -- giving honor where honor is due, you might say -- and call them the Cheney Brigades.
Eligibility also should be as broad as possible. It is true that age no longer is such a stiff bar to service: up to 50 and you should go into the field. Up to 70 you could staff the headquarters, helping with paperwork, if nothing else.
But advocating a war every five years, as Ted Carpenter proposes, doesn't cover nearly enough warrior wannabes. Indeed, we should be able to meet all our military personnel needs and more through MESO. A person should be called up for service in a Cheney Brigade if he or she has not previously served in the armed forces and has:
• supported any war which manifestly had no possible, plausible, or conceivable relationship to American security, such as World War I, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Kosovo, or Libya;
• advocated going to war "for democracy," to "spread democracy," or to "make the world safe for democracy," as in World War I;
• urged intervening or extending intervention to reconstitute a central government, rebuild a nation, or remake a society, as in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan;
• promoted "mission creep" in a military operation originally sold as limited or not even a real war, such as Somalia and Libya;
• promised that invading another nation or overthrowing another regime would be a "cakewalk" or otherwise simple, short, easy, and quick, as in Iraq and Libya;
• pushed for a war using lurid but exaggerated or false atrocity stories, as in the Spanish-American War, World War I, Iraq War I, Kosovo, and Libya;
• advanced a militaristic and interventionist foreign policy with thoughtless bromides and clichés, such as "if America doesn't do it, who will," "what's the use of having this wonderful military if we don't use it," "we spent a larger share of the GDP on the military before," "we have vital interests there (and everywhere)," "we have the responsibility since we have the ability," "we must destroy the nation to save it," "all we have to do is cut entitlements," "it's a dangerous world," "defense is in the Constitution," and "kill them all and let God sort them out."
Anyone can make a mistake, so everyone should get one "do-over." But falling into two of the above categories would result in a standard year tour in a Cheney Brigade. Fulfilling three of the forgoing criteria would mean three years of service. And individuals meeting four or more of these factors would receive an extra special five year term -- with at least three years served where bullets are flying or bombs are exploding.
So many war enthusiasts, so many opportunities to go to war. MESO would nicely match individual justice with national needs.
Of course, an alternative approach would be to go to war less often. To do so only as a matter of necessity, not as a matter of choice. To carefully consider the costs and risks before acting. To weigh heavily the fate of those who will be killed, foreigners as well as Americans. To consider the financial price for a nation which can no longer pay its bills without massive borrowing. And to recognize the danger of hubris, even if America is the world's so-called unipower, with seemingly unbounded military capabilities.
In today's world the U.S. should be constantly at peace, not constantly at war. But if America is to be at war, we should at least make sure that those most enthused about the fighting actually are doing the fighting.
Simple fairness demands no less.