As the war in Ukraine drags on, the US military is beginning to formalize a set of lessons learned from the fighting thus far. One of the most significant of these appeared in the most recent issue of Parameters: The US Army War College Quarterly under the title “A Call to Action: Lessons from Ukraine for the Future Force.” The authors, Katie Crombe and John A. Nagl, conclude that the US armed forces have arrived at a “strategic inflection point” comparable to the demoralization of the waning years of the Vietnam War. That earlier predicament led to the replacement of the draft with an all-volunteer model—the very model that is in crisis today.

The most realistic solution to this problem, Crombe and Nagl conclude, is a move back to some form of conscription—in other words, a return to the draft. The authors aren’t wrong about the severity of the organizational difficulties faced by the military. But the alternative they propose would be politically challenging even in a relatively harmonious era. In a time of worsening polarization, such a move would only exacerbate divisions. And if the prospects for such a plan look dismal now, they will almost certainly look worse after the 2024 election.

The report looks at the casualties sustained by both sides in Ukraine and concludes that the US Army would need to be prepared to handle around 3,600 casualties per day in a high-intensity warfare setting. Only around 25 percent of these casualties—that is, those involving death or permanently debilitating injuries—would require replacements, but that would still amount to some 800 people flowing through the personnel pipeline every day.

The authors contrast this to the sedate pace of casualties the US Army got used to over the long years of the War on Terror. Two decades of fighting in the “sandbox” of the Middle East produced some 50,000 casualties in total. In a real ground war, they argue, America could sustain 20 years’ worth of casualties in as little as a couple of weeks.

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