Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots

Larry Wilkerson says Gen. Dennis Laich’s book – Skin in the Game – demonstrates that an all volunteer military force is no longer sustainable, morally nor fiscally

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is the Larry Wilkerson Report on the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Larry Wilkerson is a retired United States Army colonel and former chief of staff to the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Larry, thank you so much for joining us today.

LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

PERIES: Larry, you’ve been reading a very important book, Skin In the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots by Gen. Dennis Laich, where he makes a compelling case that the all-volunteer military force no longer works in a world defined by terrorism and high debt and widening class differences. Tell us more about the book and the case he makes in it.

WILKERSON: Gen. Laich, Dennis Laich, is a 30-plus year member of the United States Army Reserves. Obviously became a general officer, and now he’s written this book. And this book very vividly and very dramatically illustrates how what the Gates Commission created for Richard Nixon in 1972-73, the all-volunteer force, is no longer sustainable. It demonstrates it’s not sustainable physically, that is to say it’s not sustainable in dollar terms, and it probably is not sustainable in terms of the moral impact on the nation.

As we’ve seen throughout these last 14 years of war, we’ve had poor people, essentially, less than 1 percent of the nation, bleeding and dying and defending the other 99 percent. This is an ethical and moral position I think that’s unsustainable. The fiscal position, though, is such that if you just do a linear progression of the defense budget and the cost of people out to about 2025, 2030, you wind up spending almost the entire Army and Marine Corps budget on people. So it’s impossible to sustain this force. Another indicator is how we’ve gone from 2.7 percent women in the ranks to over 15 percent women in the ranks because we can’t find enough men. This is not the way to fill out your military. However equitable and egalitarian you may think it is, it’s not the way to fill out your military. And it’s not the way to build a military that is sustainable over the next few years.

We’ve come up with a solution, I think, and the solution’s rather unique. It’s drafting by lottery into the reserve components. Not into the active components. Therefore I think deflecting some of the political criticism and political opposition we’d get, though we don’t hesitate to say this is going to be a difficult task to achieve.

PERIES: And one of the other issues surrounding this question is the fact that the United States used to have a military, and military that is equipped to respond in a situation of war if needed. But now we seem to be in a perpetual state of war where we are constantly financing the military and arms and the military forces to be able to respond to all the time. What do you make of that?

WILKERSON: I think you’re onto a point that we see as part of this ethical, moral dimension of this all-volunteer force. It is clear to us after lots of conversations with military leaders, with civilian leaders and actual security experts and others, that part of the reason that the president of the United States feels no real strain or pressure about going to war and staying at war is the fact that no one has any skin in the game. When you’ve got people who are not capable, really, because of their intellectual capacity or more often their ability to pay, to be in college or to be in some other more productive employment than being in the military, then they have to be in the military.

And that’s how we’re creating our military these days. We’re taking the 1 percent that can’t get it anywhere else, by and large, and we’re putting them in the military. And we’re putting upon them the burden of defending this nation. Defending the other 320-some odd million people in this country who don’t have any skin in the game at all. When you have congressmen with no skin in the game, when you have business leaders, corporate leaders, others, religious leaders, no skin in the game, then you have the ability to go to war without any real restraint on you. And this is in addition to other problems we have, the military-industrial complex, other forces that are constantly agitating agitating for conflict, for war. And it makes it just too simple for the President of the United States to go to war.

PERIES: Larry, if you replace the current volunteer system to address the class nature of our military with a draft system, how would it change the nature of the force?

WILKERSON: We put it this way. You don’t find the Ivy Leagues in the Army. You don’t find the Ivy Leagues in the Marine Corps. If you do it’s the exception that proves the rule, like Seth Moulton from Harvard, for example, now a congressman. But there are not many Ivy Leaguers in the Army or the Marine Corps.

And what’s happening in order to recruit those people who are in the services, especially in the infantry, the Marine Corps and the Army, is really unconscionable. Let me just point out a few factors here. First of all, of the 2-2.5 million 18-year-olds that come into the Selective Service system every year, roughly one-third of them are not recruitable because they’re too fat. They’re too obese. Another third can’t pass the ASVAB, which is the basic entrance exam for the armed forces. So that cuts the pool to a third of that 2-2.5 million every year.

On top of that you have, as I said before, this phenomenon of the people in that one-third who could pass the tests, who are not obese, are apt to go somewhere else. They’re apt to go to college, they’re apt to go to more productive employment and so forth and so on. So what you’re left with is that bottom 1 percent of the clientele you’re looking at.

Not always. You have a few, like Pat Tillman, you may recall from the St. Louis Cardinals, and others. Seth Moulton, for example. But basically you’re drawing on the lowest ranks of your society to defend the highest ranks of your society. And for that matter, the middle class, too. That’s why you find so many soldiers coming from states that are deprived economically, like West Virginia, for example. Like Maine, for example. Like Oklahoma, for example. There’s a problem here that we have in this country, it’s an ethical and moral problem. But the fiscal problem, the dollar problem, is going to eat our lunch.

To recruit enough people we’re spending billions of dollars every year, in recruitment bonuses and reenlistment bonuses, paying for people to go to college, paying a full ride and so forth as a payback for having been enlisted in the first place, or having reenlisted. This is an extremely expensive proposition to maintain this force, and as I pointed out, we’re going more and more to women in the forces not because we want to be egalitarian or recognize women’s right to serve, which we of course do. It is because we can’t find enough men. The problem is acute and the problem is not going to get better. It’s going to get worse.

PERIES: And Larry, is there any other model in another country that you think would work, particularly what you’re referring to here, which is somewhat of a lottery-based system?

WILKERSON: Sharmini, I think this is a unique problem. We have the same problem we had with George Marshall and Harry Truman in the post-World War II period when they were trying to implement universal military training. We have the same problem with the group right now that’s meeting to try and determine if we can do national service.

The cohort that comes into exposure to selective service or to national service is so big that if we were to employ them universally we’d bankrupt ourselves, too. You’d have to pay them something and we’d bankrupt ourselves, whether they were in the Peace Corps, in Teach for America, in one of the five armed forces or wherever. If we employed them all we’d bankrupt ourselves. And we already know from what I just told you that only a third of that cohort is able to get into the armed forces.

So when you look at this, and you look at it closely, you begin to understand that you need some form of mandatory service that’s selective. That is to say, it’s not the whole cohort. And what we’re talking about is running a lottery-based, fair, fair, no one’s exempted, no one. Not a billionaire’s son, not the police person on the block. They’re not exempted, they’re all exposed. Draft into the reserve components. So we would actually have conscripts coming in to what is the strategic reserve of the country, the reserve components. That would make the reserves, who are now falling apart because of the situation that exists with Iraq and Afghanistan, the global war on terror. They’ve turned into an operational reserve rather than a strategic reserve, as they’ve always been before. You have reserve component soldiers, sailors, [inaud.] marines now deploying every three or four years. That’s unacceptable to employers who will refuse to rehire them. It’s unacceptable to governors who need their national guard, and so forth.

So we’re talking about beefing up the reserve components. We’re talking about drafting into the reserve components on a lottery-based fair draft, and we’re talking about reducing, to a certain extent, the active components because of that. And we’re talking about saving anywhere from $50-70 billion a year by doing that, which is essential if we’re going to survive physically in terms of the armed forces.

PERIES: Larry Wilkerson, thank you so much for joining us today.

WILKERSON: Thank you for having me, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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