Karl Eikenberry has spent the better part of the last 40 years in uniform, and much of it in combat zones. Then as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, he continued a mission of service to his country.
Now he’s offering his thoughts on the future of the military, and even turning a critical eye on the institution he has long served.
But, he told the audience for this year’s Payne Lecture, hosted last week by Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies , "We must not confuse dissent for disloyalty."
Eikenberry, who left the Army in 2009 when he became ambassador, said he has been disturbed in recent years by how political leaders have been using the military and by what he characterized as the military’s outsized role in determining national security and foreign policy.
"These are problems that have to be acknowledged and debated publicly for the good of the nation and, I believe, our Armed Forces," he said.
He said the dissolution of the draft after the Vietnam War led to the creation of an incredibly competent and capable military, but one that elected officials are more willing to deploy.
Drafted vs. voluntary Armed Forces
"Question No. 1," Eikenberry asked the audience, "If we had a conscript Armed Forces in 2003 and that conscript Armed Forces then are the sons and daughters, drafted, of constituents of our members of Congress, I want you to raise your hand if you think in 2003 we would have invaded Iraq."
Eikenberry questioned, as well, whether Congress would have held hearings – which it hasn’t done – into the killings of Americans and allied servicemen by Afghan soldiers and police if the victims had been draftees rather than enlistees.
After only a few hands went up, Eikenberry said, "When you see those results, is there something wrong with the system?"
The former lieutenant general, who did not endorse a draft, urged a debate on ownership of the military: Does it belong to the American people or politicians?
He warned that the separation between soldiers and civilians – in daily life on bases, for example – also leads to ignorance of how the other lives. The separation can mean less judiciousness by lawmakers when determining whether to send service members into war, he said.
He also criticized the lack of oversight of the military by Congress and the media.
"I witnessed this up close and personal in Afghanistan when I transitioned from general to the top diplomat," he said. "Formerly treated with great deference by members of Congress, both I and my embassy team were now constantly on the witness stand."
He said lawmakers were right to challenge them: "We’re spending a good deal of taxpayers’ money."
He said as a member of the military, he never experienced that kind of scrutiny, as lawmakers are reluctant to be seen as less than fully supportive of troops.
"But by not subjecting the military to the same rigorous standards of scrutiny, they were applying a double standard and I don’t think they were doing their complete jobs," he said.