Sunday, March 21, 2010


I get angry when anyone starts suggesting that our country should consider reinstating any form of military conscription.  This is partly because they demonstrate ignorance of military facts by assuming that the quality of a volunteer and a conscript are the same.  Volunteers are always far better than conscripts, and the damage that would be done to the morale and culture of our armed forces by reinstating a draft, in any situation, would be immense.

The existence of conscription damages society in other ways.  It makes people despise the concept of military service.  It gives the elites a tool to abuse their own population, and also to threaten other countries.  It makes it much easier to wage aggressive war.

But mainly, my feelings come from a very strong belief that military conscription is wrong.  It is fundamentally and unequivocally wrong, one of the worst possible violations of human rights that can be imagined.  It is the ultimate and most brutal consequence of the philosophy that human beings only exist to serve a collective, and that individuals can be sacrificed at will when 'society' demands it.

Conscription is slavery.  It is actually worse than slavery, because the conscript is forced to do things that are far worse than manual labor.  Slavery 'only' puts you in a position where you have no power over your own life and are subject to arbitrary cruelty and violence.  Conscription does all of this, and combines it with a regime of psychological manipulation designed to make you murder your fellow human beings.

I may need to explain that last sentence a little.  I do not mean to imply that volunteer soldiers are doing anything wrong.  Volunteering to defend your family, friends, homeland, and civilization from things that would threaten it is a good and noble thing to do.  It is precisely this nobility of purpose that makes conscription such an abomination.  Conscription corrupts something that should be an individual choice by making it a type of slavery.

To see what I mean, consider marriage.  Marriage is an extremely important institution; the proper raising of children is vital for the future of society.  If people did not get married and have children, then the country would surely be destroyed.  But consider what would happen if the government conscripted people into marriage.  Consider the damage it would do to individuals, to the idea of marriage, and to society as a whole.  Forcing people to get married would be an abomination, precisely because a volunteer marriage is such a good thing.

This analogy also helps explain why it is so insulting to call our soldiers 'mercenaries'.  The difference between a volunteer and a mercenary is the difference between a wife and a prostitute.  The only thing they have in common is the fact that they are not slaves.

Society can only function when people make choices to do the things that are necessary for that society to grow and prosper.  You cannot force them to do these things.  If you try, you end up with a hollow shell of a civilization.

There is never an excuse or justification for conscription.  Any civilization that cannot summon enough volunteers to defend itself does not deserve to exist.


LTC Hatcher said...

[AW], interesting blog. What provoked this thought process for you to write it? I know there has been a lot of talk in recent years over a resurgent draft, and I would agree with you, this is not the time or place for one. I just have a few thoughts for you to consider from this humble Army officer.

By the way, when I state that I am humble, I do not mean uneducated or unassuming, your tax dollars do not pay for that. I am fairly well educated for my peer group. I have stood between Arabs and Israelis keeping the peace in the Sinai and spent 28 months in active combat in Iraq. I have been on 4 continents and worked with countless nations, including the 28 in NATO. But I know my place, after 24 years in service and battalion command under fire, I am still not a “senior officer,” regardless how privates and lieutenants may see me. This is what you want from your volunteer Army, men of experience and education, physically fit, who love their country and people enough to sacrifice family, time, and the American dream of potential wealth for a desire to serve something bigger than themselves. This is why on the surface, I agree that the current volunteer military is the best choice for the US and any form of conscription is a step backwards for the military's ability and for basic human rights (more of this in cultural context later).

My only disagreement with your blog is your final statement: “There is never an excuse or justification for conscription. Any civilization that cannot summon enough volunteers to defend itself does not deserve to exist.” There is a time and a place for conscription, but as Americans we have only felt this once: the Civil War. It was justified and I think President Lincoln did the right thing. But our Nation’s existence has never really been completely threatened. If it were, we would need the draft. Not enough citizens would volunteer until the horror of annihilation or takeover was imminent. A government has to see it and lead the people—even unwillingly. It is possible this will occur in the world again, but right now the volunteer military has got things under control.

I do want to point out that we could not have done what we did in WWI and WWII with a volunteer Army. And we still needed to join the alliance and we would have just taken more casualties with less troops to press Germany and Japan on all sides. We could have never placed 8.5M men in uniform (Army WWII) without conscription.

We are all in submission to someone or something--possibly even qualified to be slaves. If a country's existence were at stake, the citizens can either submit to conscription or the possible take over by a hostile country, thereby making them slaves to a new government.

LTC Hatcher said...

Your topic needs some cultural context. Slaves in the form of the triangle of slavery between the new and old world with Africa was abhorrent. But through history slavery has had many contexts, many of them quite acceptable to the people participating. Same with prostitution by the way. This occupation is still popular and even respected in many parts of the world, but the sex slave trade which exists throughout the world today is also abhorrent. It is a disgusting form of human rights abuse far worse than what we might have done in the 17-1800's with Africans. Women are sold into the sex trade, controlled with drugs, and die there; very little is reported on it and nation-states do not do a good job combating it.

Human rights, slavery, prostitution, marriage, individual choices, etc all need to be seen in cultural context. Western nations are not even in agreement on these matters and around the world you would be hard pressed to gain consensus. Several rights may be inalienable but we will never have full agreement around the world for implementation, at least, not in our lifetime or direct Divine intervention. So these things around the world may not be your concern, but what about at home?

We are all "slaves" to one thing or another, we happen to live in a country where at least you can make some of these choices. We can be slaves to righteousness or sin, slaves to our job, our mortgage, our parents, our spouse, our obligations. Even if we choose to be free of these masters, we become enslaved to freedom and its pursuit to preserve it. Contextually, even in our wonderfully free country, we make choices to submit to something. You are a slave to [your] PhD program--good choice.

Okay, enough philosophy on context and slavery. I agree with your opening statement, we do not need conscription. This is why our senior military officers have argued against it, even when we were in our greatest need for more personnel. Three years ago when things were tight, the Vice Chief of Staff said (in confidence at the time) that it was like being surrounded at Bastogne, but we knew the situation was worse for the enemy because the solutions were in place. Now we are surging in Afghanistan and the future is bright in Iraq. We can meet the political end state using the volunteer military leg of National power (diplomatic, economic, and information are the other 3 forms of National power). God forbid we ever see a day when our Nation's very existence is threatened. Terrorist would like to think they are a threat along those lines, but they are not.

Your statement, "damage that would be done to the morale and culture of our armed forces by reinstating a draft, in any situation, would be immense." is on target. Volunteer Soldiers can be hard to make into professionals. Our volunteer Soldiers come to the military for reasons as varied as you can imagine; but they did ultimately did choose to submit to the military, even if they were escaping something at home. Our military culture, values, and ethos creates the best and most professional Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines possible. They are serving something greater than themselves. Forcing the unwilling 18-24 yr old population to join the military would be self-destructive (statistics say that only 3 out of every10 are physically, mentally, and morally capable of joining).

I discussed your blog with several other officers, several from other nations. Good discussions!

Alleged Wisdom said...

There was no current event that prompted me to write this; the thoughts had been floating around my head for months, in response to various things in the popular press and papers I had seen presented in our department.

Thank for sending me your thoughts. I have some specific responses.

It is true that, in past wars, we could not have raised a sufficiently large army without a draft ... at the existing wage rate. Soldiers were underpaid relative to what they could have earned in civilian life. Think about the signal it sends to the population when the military claims that it needs soldiers, but it is unwilling to pay a decent wage for them. One of the fundamental rules of economics is that if you pay more money, you get more and better job applicants. Raising the pay for soldiers, with appropriate bonuses for education and skills, would have probably gotten the soldiers we needed, just as it does today.

With the draft, the military had access to a vast pool of people who were underpaid. One result of this was that it was cheaper to have soldiers do menial tasks, like KP, than to hire outsiders to do them. This meant that the time and talents of soldiers were wasted, and I imagine that it also was bad for morale. If they had been paying soldiers what they were worth, then they would have been used better and we would have needed fewer of them.

I will agree that, in the past, our government may not have had the knowledge or ability to raise a suitable army without a draft. But things are different now. Moral standards have changed, as has the military situation. Dropping atomic weapons on Japan was the right thing to do at the time, but today, only 65 years later, launching a nuclear first strike on a civilian population center would be considered a monstrous war crime, and we would never do it (I hope). Mass conscription is in the same category.

I cannot think of any situation where we would really need a large army, and we could not raise this army by communicating the relevant facts to the American people and offering, say, $100,000 a year base pay for new recruits. If our leaders really felt that the nation's existence was being threatened, they could come up with the money to hire enough volunteers. And if there were not enough suitable American volunteers, then they could start hiring people from other countries, with the additional offer of American citizenship at the end of their service. I would rather be defended by these 'mercenaries' than by conscripts.

I strongly disagree with your use of the word 'slavery'. If you can walk away from something, it is not slavery. I could walk out of here today, and all that would happen would be that they would stop paying me. 'Slavery' means that if you try to leave, someone hunts you down and then either shoots you or drags you back in chains. Choosing to sell my time and agree to a contract on a temporary basis is not slavery, and calling it so destroys the meaning of the word.