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Restoration of conscription: Pro and con

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted June 9, 2008

Even though the Afghanistan War is largely below the United States media radar as of now, the Iraq War isn't. As the (primarily) American troops stay longer and longer, and the capacity of the U.S. military gets closer and closer to its limits, there have been more and more discussions about pulling out the ace in the hole: conscription.

The Rangel plan is the most interesting one, because it meets most of the workaday challenges to any such restoration – the fairness challenges. According to this kind of restoration critic, restoring the old-style draft makes for a raw deal. Joe Sixpack will almost certainly be sending his Johnny to the war, while Richard Champagne won't be. Such critics point out that a draft rigged in this way is not only unfair, but also impedes the war effort due to the U.S. academy's partiality to anti-war activism. Why would a gigantic loophole, one that would deliver the supposed "essential war-related work" cadre right into the hands of war opponents, be anything other than counterproductive to the war effort?

These critics do have a point. Any conscription system that divides people into two classes, one being "cannon fodder," is going to be galling. The Vietnam experience shows that it can be galling enough to mainstream-ize war critics. In addition, to continue down the cynical path, the GI bill can be seen as a compensatory payoff that masked the inequalities of the draft system during World War II. It broke down the old college elitism. That payoff is now standard operating procedure, as is college meritocracy, and won't be seen as compensatory this time ‘round. It certainly wasn't seen as such back in the Vietnam days, when the Ivy League had been largely drained of its elitism.

Omitting the cynicism, it could instead be argued that the college exemption was designed for a day when higher education was reserved for the elite, most of whom would be expected to serve anyway out of gallantry (or fear of shame,) and the smart kids who did drift into essential war-related work – in the sciences and maths. That old university is long gone. Leaving aside the anti-war aspect of the current American academy (which might not be so permanent after all,) how could a popular B.A. major like economics be construed as preparative for essential war-related work?

For the above reasons, a kind of Rangel plan – compulsory service, or equal treatment in a draft lottery for anyone that's 1A – is the kind I'll be discussing below. By "conscription" or "draft," whether or not "comprehensive" is pre-tacked on for emphasis, I will mean "no exemptions, except for the rejection of the physically, psychologically, or spiritually unfit."

Pros to Restoring A Comprehensive Draft:

  1. Restoring conscription entails a huge increase in troop strength, with a more predictable reservoir of potential troops. The American military will no longer be "running with leg weights." Also, conscription will ensure that the prosecution of a future war will not be hampered by a crucial uncertainty: the desirability of a military stint. Above and beyond the fluxes of career fashionableness, it could be argued, seriously, that the all-volunteer army provides implicit encouragement for desertion. After all, casting a military hitch as little more than a job does leave a hole for the "right to quit" to enter, thus making desertion seem less grievous. Conscription rubs in the point that military service isn't exactly a job. Through removing those instabilities, using a coercive measure does remove an obvious means by which strategic planning can go aft a'gley.
  2. Conscripted troops fight better. This point is sufficiently counterintuitive as to rate an explanation, which has been supplied by Vietnam vet John T. Reed. According to his own experience, volunteer enlistees suffer a morale drop because of buyer's remorse, which can make them sad sacks. Draftees, on the other hand, acquire a "what's done is done" attitude, and lose any conscription-related resentment quickly. Thus, the latter group of enlistees fight capably, while the former might not. A related side question is whether or not volunteers who don't suffer enlistee's remorse wind up medal-chasing.
  3. Conscription is anti-plutocratic. A military staffed by paid volunteers can encourage the idea that military service is merely for the lower and regular middle classes, who need the money. The uppers, most particularly the moneyed semi-uppers, can thus cultivate the conceit that "only the little people serve." In addition to a value-judgment argument, it could also be said that military forces being cast as "little people" isn't exactly the right clime to encourage honorable conduct by the ‘saps' who signed up.    
  4. Conscription is good soulcraft, as it inculcates a service-over-self mentality. This argument is also more value-judgmental than the first two, but it's a big selling point. The "idealistic" version, the one usually encountered, claims that the conscription of youths teaches them that there are duties over and above the pursuit of self-interest, and also teaches them that they have to shoulder the collective load. A more cynical version is much briefer, if pithier: "They voluntarily swallowed the Government's Shilling, didn't they? Why would they be permitted to duck out of the payback?"
  5. Conscription sends a message to the rest of the world – "Don't Mess With Us!" In this sad old world, relatively few people understand the benefits of free markets, free minds and peace. It is more human (in the doleful sense) to size up wealth as potential materièl - or as easy pickings. Comprehensive conscription would send a message to the world that the U.S. (or, more broadly, the NATO-sphere) comprises more than a bunch of gluttons who struck it rich. This last point, which could be called the "conscription defense shield," seems to be the decisive one behind the Israeli and Swiss conscription regimes.

Cons to Restoring A Comprehensive Draft:

  1. Restoring conscription gives a lot more "toy soldiers" for warmongering politicians to play with. Once the restraint inherent in an all-volunteer system is gone, then the launching of a war becomes a far less messy business. There will be less blockage to getting a new war rolling. Removing the volunteers-only brake to future wars, consequently, will encourage some citizens to cobble together a substitute brake. The unintended consequence of a universal draft will likely be the emplantment of a permanent peace faction, which will end up with the semi-legitimacy already granted to the "Dr. No" in matters of fiscal policy. Conscription will likely necessitate assigning a permanent top-level seat to "Dr. No-War." In addition, if vainglory gets the better of post-draft-restoration political leaders, the fear of "another Vietnam" might prove to be understated. We may face another World War 1 – the full 4+ year deal.
  2. Conscripted troops fight like numskulls. The "what's done is done" mentality, although it does make for capable troops, also inculcates passivity. People who aren't of a mind to stand up for themselves are less likely to show initiative of any sort. In addition, being press-ganged in general leads to a work-to-rule mentality, in general. Thus, conscripted troops will tend to have a "fight-to-rule" mentality, and will tend to greet the voluntarist spirit with rancor. The resultant rule-driven mentality won't be confined to the troops, either. Since officers are (to use an old-fashioned phrase) "leaders of men," they have to inspire the "men" they lead through getting said "men" to identify with them. Fight-to-rule troops are not going to look up to the voluntarist officer. They'll look up to the procedure-driven martinet, because that kind of martinet is also a fight-to-rule type. Officers of that quality are tough and often heroic, but they are also mentally inflexible - "wooden-headed."
  3. Conscription entails a much more hierarchical society. Like most counterintuitive arguments, this one is rooted in fact-finding too. I would find it hard to believe that any Israeli would believe that "anyone can become President" after his or her hitch was up. More to the point, taking a trip to the plush parts of Switzerland, and asking the rich locals what rank they hold in the Swiss militia, will make for an eye-opening straw poll. Like it or not, the military is hierarchical – and the heart of the hierarchy is the division between officers and enlistees. A rich fellow who puts on airs is far less questionable if he can flash old officer's bars (except when being questioned by another officer.) Also, one of the downsides of a "service" society, of the comprehensive-conscription sort, is that you only get one chance in life to show whether or not you're a cut above. In a very real way, there's a no-second-chance mentality in a conscription polity. The late bloomer isn't going to be all that much of a happy camper. In fact, (s)he may be inclined to scoff at any future war effort as coining influence through "leveraging, with other people's lives." 
  4. Conscription is bad soulcraft, as it inculcates a glory-hound mentality. Despite the expected rancor noted above, there will of course be heroes. Those heroes are likely to be self-effacing, which could be seen as an upside to conscription. Modest or not, though, such heroes, and the ordinary rigors of military service, do drum out selfishness and acquisitiveness. Many would consider that to be a boon. Those people might reconsider, though, if they ask themselves what values would take the place of self-interest and wealth accumulation.
  5. Conscription sends a certain message to the world "Look At Us Wrong And We'll Crush You." It's not that much of an exaggeration to say that a big and strong man who's convinced that he's small and weak is a dangerous man. The same thing can be said about a big and powerful nation which adopts a defense measure appropriate for a small and threatened nation. The U.S., or NATO, by giving the less-free world "what they asked for," may end up joining them – "going native," as the British put it.


After examining the pros and cons, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the conscription debate is a value-driven one. The practical arguments for, once matched up with the corresponding arguments against, turn into an infinite regress. That's because there's no practical argument that encompasses the elephant in the room: the "ought." All arguments of that sort, including the practical-sounding "winning hearts and minds at home," aim at tapping into people's already-existing value judgments. There's no way out of this dilemma unless the moral factor is worked in explicitly. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.





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