Building an Army of 125,000 Spartans, Part II

Responding to the Critics

By J. Furman Daniel, III

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.”

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J. Furman Daniel, III is a Visiting Assistant Professor of International Affairs in the George Washington University Security Policy Studies Program.

J. Furman Daniel, III
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