On the face of it, the defense of Ukraine and the defense of Israel could not be more different.
Ukraine was invaded by Russia, the world’s largest country by land mass, a rich, powerful and well-armed world power. Israel, on the other hand, among the world’s smallest nations with none of the natural resources possessed by Ukraine, was attacked by an even smaller foe, Hamas, a terrorist organization that has for years controlled the narrow 140-square-mile Gaza Strip and its 2 million inhabitants.
The entire world saw the coming Russian attack on Ukraine. Russia’s armed buildup unfolded through late 2021 and into 2022, as convoys and trainloads of troops and equipment streamed west toward the border. The only doubts were whether Russia would actually pull the trigger and, if so, under what pretense. Otherwise, the intent was clear.
Not so with Gaza. Hamas, which has frequently launched rocket salvos into Israel and occasionally sent terrorist cells across the border, had never before launched such a coordinated, widespread attack, and never before set out so intently to massacre civilians with no apparent military objective other than to provoke a response.
U.S. military power well managed is the key to both global peace and global prosperity.
Yet there are similarities and linkages that must not be ignored.
The first is the role played by international despots. In Ukraine, Russia is an inept bully, battering and bloodying its smaller neighbor but failing to impose its will. There, it has become dependent on Iran for drones and other weapons, North Korea for ammunition, and China for oil sales and public support. In the Israel-Hamas war, Iran is the hidden instigator, the evil wizard behind the screen, manipulating Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and other proxy forces in Syria and Africa to kill innocents and provoke violence wherever possible.
The second similarity is one Americans should recognize and possibly replicate. Both Ukraine and Israel’s defense are largely in the hands not of a professional full-time military but of citizen-soldiers activated to protect their homelands from foreign foes.
Ukraine had a standing army of some 200,000 in February 2022 when the Russian war began. Weeks later, it had nearly 700,000 men and women under arms, as office workers and plumbers, engineers and waiters, artists and carpenters rose up and volunteered to defend their country. This cobbled-together force has successfully resisted Russian aggression and held its ground. To be sure, arms, intelligence, and training provided by the United States and other allies have been invaluable to that defense. Having the will to win and the moral certitude of one’s cause can sometimes be just as important.
In Israel, a nation of just over 13 million that has required military service for nearly its entire population since its creation in 1948, the citizen-soldier story is similar. Service in the reserve is not mandatory, but common, and typically continues until the age of 40. Israel called up 300,000 reservists—3.2 percent of the entire Israeli population—two days after the attack, and still that was less than two-thirds of its reserve force.
If the United States could match that scale and call up 3.2 percent of the U.S. population it would field a force of 10.6 million—more than four times the size of our existing Total Force.
But it’s not the size of the force that matters so much as it is the common experience and connections that come with military service, connections that have increasingly been diminished over the course of the past 50 years, since the birth of the All-Volunteer Force. In that time, the percent of Americans with military experience has declined rapidly and the share of American leaders in Congress has plunged.
At the same time—or perhaps as a result—Americans seem increasingly misinformed and disconnected from the roles and responsibilities of their government and their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The result is a growing clamor for government to solve every manner of problem, whether or not it is suited to solving it. More than two centuries ago, the framers of the Constitution made clear the purpose of our federal government. They listed them in the preamble to the Constitution: “to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Ensuring domestic peace and providing for the common defense are utmost among these. Without them, the rest are just wishful thinking. But key to the entire paragraph is the final phrase: “to ourselves and our posterity.” In other words, it’s not just about what we do now, but how we preserve what we’ve built for future generations.
The answer should be obvious. But what must we do to preserve this treasure we call America? The first thing is to ensure more Americans see themselves not as takers, but as givers to their country. John F. Kennedy’s inaugural exhortation—“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!”—is even more relevant today than it was then.
The time has come to recognize that the All-Volunteer Force is not sustainable for the long-term. While a return to the draft may no longer be practical or even feasible, a national service requirement or option could prove both useful and effective on many fronts.
Imagine if every American were obligated to complete at least a year of public service before the age of 21. Not everyone would have to serve in the military. Young people could choose from among a range of publicly funded programs ranging from the military to the national parks, hospitals, and other federal agencies: the Border Patrol, the Transportation Security Administration, local food, health and education programs, maybe even the Postal Service.
This is not a panacea. The world is far more complicated and dangerous today than it was just a few years ago. With Russia’s war in Ukraine still boiling, Vladimir Putin could still bet that expanding his war might lessen Western resolve and undermine support for Ukraine. Israel’s war in Gaza threatens to spill over into Lebanon and could have implications in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, all of which host Iran-backed instigators. That could further roil the waters of the Persian Gulf.
China and North Korea remain wild cards. China’s “unlimited” relationship with Russia makes it a player in that conflict and its ambitions in the Middle East and Africa make it at least a bit player there, as well. More critically, with the U.S. preoccupied by tensions in Europe and the Middle East, China may be emboldened in the South China Sea.
The Air Force, now smaller, older, and arguably less ready than at any time in its 76-year history, is not equipped to meet so many obligations at once. Rushing six squadrons to the Middle East leaves other flanks undermanned. Providing for the national defense requires greater investment in the forces most vital to that objective, specifically air and space forces that have the farthest reach, the greatest power to deter, and the most essential capabilities.
Isolationists in Congress want the U.S. to reel in the military and look inward. They have it wrong. The greatest threats to our nation are not coming across our southern border but are challenging America in every region of the world and beyond our world, in space, as well. U.S. military power well managed is the key to both global peace and global prosperity.