Building an Army of 125,000 Spartans, Part II

Responding to the Critics
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Editor's note: This is a follow-up to the March 6 article, "Building an Army of 125,000 Spartans." 

One of the great things about making a provocative argument is that you get plenty of responses. Two weeks ago, I wrote a think piece about the advantages of creating a small, elite force that could serve either as a rapid response force for small scale operations or as the cadre for a rapidly expanded army in the event of a major power war. Since then, I have received a wide range of responses ranging from full-fledged agreement, to thoughtful engagement with my points, to openly hostile personal attacks on my education and character. My reaction to all of these comments has been the same−I must have struck a nerve!

My piece argued for a radical transformation of the Army, including a steep 75% cut to active-duty personnel to 125,000. To compensate for this downsizing, the Army should adopt a multifaceted-approach to increase the quality, flexibility, and combat power of the force. This approach would entail stricter recruiting and promotion selection standards, significantly higher pay, greater emphasis on education and training, lengthier enlistment terms, longer deployments, a no-tolerance policy for criminal and disciplinary infractions, an increased use of private contractors for non-combat roles, and a rethinking of our reliance on the National Guard and Reserve.

In what follows, I will attempt to briefly address some of the most common responses to my work; clarify some of my points; and reaffirm my claim that given the budgetary restrictions of the time, that a small elite force would be the best choice among a panoply of bad options.

1. I’m Glad I Got a Discussion Going

I firmly believe that U.S. grand strategy is at a crossroads. The choices we make today will have “long-tailed” impacts on the future and the consequences for guessing wrong could be catastrophic. One of the most difficult elements of crafting an effective long-term strategy is to carefully consider a wide range of options. To that end, I am extremely proud that I have gotten people to discuss the merits and faults of my argument. In short, I would strongly prefer to be heard and “wrong” than ignored and “right.” We must make difficult choices on our national defense, and I believe that there is no better way to arrive at the optimal strategy than an informed and rational debate. Mission accomplished.

2. Thinking in These Terms Is Useful, Even if You Ultimately Reject the Argument

When thinking about strategy, it is essential to understand both the risks and rewards of potential options. I have proposed a plan that would carry significant risks (increased reliance on contractors, less redundancy, greater pressure on the men and women in uniform, civil-military dynamics, etc.), but would also provide the potential for significant rewards (cost savings, greater combat proficiency, greater institutional knowledge, continuity, and professionalism, etc.).

Many of my critics have made excellent points in claiming that the risk exceeds the rewards. I believe that the value of thinking in these terms is that it provides both warriors and policy makers with the opportunity to reevaluate what is valuable and what is not about our current force structure. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that a larger force is preferable to the smaller force that I proposed, but I want my critics to carefully consider why their preferred option is better as well as the risk that their alternative entails.

3. Yes, I Know This Will Never Happen, But I Do Believe It Should

Many have claimed that I was not sincere in my argument or that I was hopelessly ignorant of the realities of defense bureaucracy. Not true on both accounts. Let me say for the record that I believe that, despite its risks, this is the best strategy given the budgetary and strategic realities of the time. As to the claim that such a plan would never happen given the deeply entrenched impediments to enacting such a bold plan, I concede that full implementation of such a radical transformation is extremely unlikely. I am not an idealist when it comes to politics.  As Bismarck said, “politics is the art of the possible,” not the ideal. However, despite the practical limits of implementation, I do believe current budgetary restrictions could serve as an unexpected opportunity to transform the Army into something better, and for that reason alone it is worth carefully considering my alternative.

4.  We Already Have a Civil-Military Problem

One of the most common and heartfelt criticisms of my work has been that it would create a problem in civil-military affairs. While I am sensitive to this critique, I do not believe that my alternative would necessarily be worse for two reasons. First, I believe that there already is a gap between civilians and their military and this gap appears to be growing. Second, this proposal has the potential to reverse or even invert the gap by bringing in a largely untapped group of elite members of society. By instituting a greater degree of social prestige and meritocracy, it is possible to more evenly distribute the burden of national defense across a more representative cross-section of American society. 

5. I Want to Keep the Best in the Force, Even If That’s Elitist

A related criticism is that my proposal is elitist. Perhaps it is, but I am not sure that this is a bad thing. Every American should want their military to recruit, develop, retain, and use its human capital to the fullest, regardless of the force size. Given our current end strength, I believe that we are doing an admirable job at this. But in my alternative we would need to do better. One way of mitigating the risks of my proposal would be to make an increased bet on the physical, moral, and intellectual strength of our people. If our military is to be the envy of the world, it is appropriate to expect our troops to be elite−even if that is easy to dismiss as “elitist.”

6. In a “Big War,” We’ll Need to Expand the Force Anyway

In the unlikely event of a war with another great power, U.S. policy makers will be presented with a series of bad options: 1) use nukes; 2) use the Air Force and Navy as a standoff force; or 3) vastly increase the size of the Army and Marines much above current levels and fight a protracted ground war. In the first two options, a small force may be ideal as a rapid strike force or as special operators in hostile territory. In the third contingency, the small, elite force would serve as the core leadership cadre to build around. Junior NCO’s would become platoon sergeants, senior NCO’s would become junior officers, and every level of the officer corps would be required to perform tasks well above their current grades. While this would be no easy task, it would be a small part of a much larger and disruptive national mobilization effort and our long-service veterans would provide an invaluable element of institutional knowledge and continuity around which to build a large conventional force.

7. Attrition is a Non-Starter

Many of my best informed critics have voiced fears of an excellent, but ultimately brittle force that would be unable to endure significant losses in the event of a major war. Despite my historical sympathies for the Battle of the Mons analogies and the decimation of the small professional British Expeditionary Force, this is largely a non-starter with me. Unless national survival is on the line, I do not see the American public accepting military adventurism or high losses in the foreseeable future, no matter what the force structure may be. Barring such a massive commitment to a war of great national interest, it would seem like a much better use of our limited resources to create a professional class of soldiers who are well trained for the more limited contingencies that they are likely to face.

8. National Defense Is the First Priority of Any Nation

Another well-meaning criticism of my work is that by seeking to elevate the role of warriors to the highest level of social prestige, I am placing too much emphasis on the role national defense in our modern society. I could not disagree more. While I do not wish to live in a garrison state, I do believe that national defense is the greatest good and highest calling. Without national defense, nothing else is possible. Rule of law, arts, sports, culture, politics, and all of the things I hold dear are bought and paid for by the dedication and courage of our warriors, it is right and just to recognize this fact and act accordingly.

9.  Troops Should Be Paid Better Than Doctors and Lawyers

I am not ignorant enough to believe that money can fix everything or that it is the primary reason why people are willing to risk their lives for their country. What I do believe is that if we seek to create social prestige, attract new people, retain our best, and ask even more from our men and women, we should properly compensate people for this difficult task. Money talks to people outside of the force and gives them more reasons to want to be a part of it. Duty, comradeship, loyalty, and longer service terms will keep them in the force once they are there. I want NCOs to be paid more than doctors and lawyers because they are doing a harder job, and the consequences for them screwing up is much higher. No, money will not fix everything but it is a good start.

10. I Actually Really Love the Army!

The only criticisms that I have taken personally is that I am hate the Army or am somehow against the troops. This is personally insulting and nothing could be farther from the truth. All I am proposing is to increase pay, benefits, standards, social status, provide job security for those in the force, and make them as skilled, educated, and combat proficient as possible. I wish somebody would “hate” me like that.

11. Yes, I Know the Sparta Analogy Is Imperfect

While I am not a classicist, I have read more than 50 books on ancient Greek warfare, visited the ruins of Sparta, and been to multiple ancient battlefields including Thermopylae. I fully appreciate that the analogy to Sparta is problematic on multiple levels including: the brittleness of the Spartan force, the civil-military troubles of the ancient city-state, the lack of an enduring cultural legacy, the reliance on slave labor, and the fact that the primacy of military considerations created an insular and suspicious Spartan national identity. While imperfect, I hoped that using this popular historical analogy would spark people’s imagination and be the starting point for a discussion of American strategic interests rather than an end to itself.

When writing this piece, I purposely chose to forgo what I believed to be a more apt and current analogy, that of the interwar German Reichswehr. I made this decision because I firmly believe that despite their military genius and efficiency, they were complicit to the rise of the Nazi regime and that their vile association with Adolf Hitler would be an even greater distraction from the positive points I was trying to make.  For an excellent primer on how the interwar German Army turned the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and the Great Depression into a strategic asset, I would recommend the excellent works of James Corum and Robert Citino (here and here).

Despite the flaws of both of these analogies, I believe that American defense planners should carefully consider the merits of a small professional force−even if they ultimately reject my analysis. The stakes in this debate are extremely high and I am glad to have contributed at least some small part to the discussion.

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