War, pestilence and natural disaster — the past two decades have brought into terrifying focus the massive resources needed to adequately respond to crises, especially when any of them occur in parallel. Relying as we have on uniformed military resources likely will prove inadequate in the future. A solution can be found among America’s 18 million veterans.
The U.S. has emerged from a two-decade conflict in Afghanistan that, in simpler times, might be called a “guerilla war.” It was not a “big” war, yet at its height a decade ago, it badly strained the nation’s land forces. Units deployed, returned home for the minimal interval, and then redeployed. Families were strained and some broke. Patriotic employers of employees in the Reserve and National Guard in some cases chafed and jobs were endangered.
Generals nervously considered the implications should something else, perhaps something bigger, arise. The Pentagon spent hundreds of millions of dollars (and still is doing so) to attract and retain young men and women. Meeting recruiting goals frequently has proved impossible in a country where less than a third of military-age youths are qualified for military service — and among that fraction, just 15 percent are interested in doing so.
Will parents, clergy, educators and peers encourage young Americans to serve under leaders whose ability to win a war they could arguably question?
History tells us in stark terms that disasters occur usually when preparation is not optimal. History tells us that big wars happen. We are not immune from history. While becoming too tolerant of lesser war, we have fooled ourselves into thinking a “big one” is impossible. But war is a product of human nature, and human nature does not change.
On Aug. 1, 1990, the theme was the superfluity of big armies: the Soviets were gone and tank battles a thing of the past. On Aug. 2, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Less than seven months later, as a captain in a U.S. armored division, I coursed into Iraq amid a sea of tanks that stretched to the horizon in every direction. Tank battles were fought; fortunately, our enemy used their Soviet-built machines — many of which survived weeks of aerial bombardment — with neither skill nor determination. It could have been very different.
So, here is the creep to war in the Pacific. No, it may not happen, or it may be muted by a sharp clash and then a drawing back of parties. There is a resurgent Russia intent on reclaiming its former glory and territory. And in between, the “smoking” trouble spots that could ignite — or be ignited by — the big ones.
Add the effects of climate change, natural disaster and population dislocations among millions, the specter of other pandemics, civil disorder among a populace increasingly polarized. In the U.S., of necessity, the go-to has been the military, from troops deployed overseas in small but exhaustive wars, to military nurses staffing civilian hospitals, to the National Guard saving lives in the states and on guard in Washington. These massive resource demands, with near simultaneity, have left us in some cases exhausted.
This is not a call, however, for more military spending. The U.S. military is already too expensive for what we’re getting. Absent a global war, the spending necessary to appreciably expand the force is unaffordable. Yes, we can grow key capabilities selectively — and should, while reforming acquisition.
Recently at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, a friend — an Army Ranger with too many combat tours and a faithful service black Labrador — suggested what we, over lunch, dubbed a “Veterans Ready Reserve.”
A Veterans Ready Reserve would constitute a reservoir of veterans who volunteer to be called on in time of national need. These volunteers could be used depending on the need and their abilities. For those less fit than in youth, one could envision non-physically demanding “admin” jobs.
Already, a praiseworthy bipartisan bill in Congress, H.R. 4343, sponsored by Reps. Brad WenstrupBrad Robert WenstrupAmerica's veterans hold a reserve of national security strength we should tap 20 years later: Washington policymakers remember 9/11 House approves select panel to probe Jan. 6 attack MORE (R-Ohio) and Jimmy PanettaJames Varni PanettaAmerica's veterans hold a reserve of national security strength we should tap GOP ekes out win in return of Congressional Baseball Game 20 years later: Washington policymakers remember 9/11 MORE (D-Calif.), both veterans, would enable the Department of Defense (DOD) to place some military retirees with special skills that address a critical shortage into the Ready Reserve.
Our idea of a Veterans Ready Reserve goes further. Such a “reserve” constitutes capability. Even if a million veterans “registered” and only 10,000 were used, that is 10,000 fewer personnel demands. The reserve could be activated by the president and managed by the Pentagon. Beyond that, until activation, little taxpayer expense would be necessary.
Such a “reserve” also offers intangible benefits. These volunteers, who have declared their willingness to again serve their nation, would derive pride and a sense of re-engagement. One can even envision a lapel pin, etc. One can also envision fitness and health improving on the part of some volunteers, who decide they must be ready if called.
Volunteering would not entail benefits, although actual service might. Volunteers would agree that they may never be called upon, or that if the reserve were called upon, they may not be selected for service, based on need and capability. Further, volunteering for this service would not affect any existing veterans or retiree benefits. (Only actual service might affect those benefits.)
We can be certain that America will face crises that create historic demands. Engaging willing veterans in readiness for the call to service is one way to increase capacity and tap into a patriotic spirit that runs deep — for the benefit of us all.
Jeffrey Phillips is executive director of ROA, dba Reserve Organization of America. A retired Army Reserve major general, he served in the regular Army for nearly 14 years.