Rebirth of Reason


The Immorality of Conscription
by Jonathan R

No matter how one rationalizes it—duty, the Constitution, necessity, practicality, shared sacrifice—conscription abrogates a man’s right to his life and indentures him to the state. As President Reagan recognized (at least rhetorically), “[T]he most fundamental objection is moral”; conscription “destroys the very values that our society is committed to defending.”[1]

The libertarian argument says that freedom means the absence of the initiation of coercion; since conscription necessitates coercion, it is incompatible with freedom. Conventional wisdom, however, holds that freedom imposes certain coercive obligations; and so, like taxes, conscription amounts to paying rent for living in freedom.

Which view is right goes to the heart of political philosophy—but the answer is straightforward. If government’s purpose is to protect your individual rights, it cannot then claim title to your most basic right—your very life—in exchange. Such an idea establishes the cardinal axiom of tyranny that hinges every citizen’s existence to the state’s disposal. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China well understood this monopoly. And they demonstrated that if the state has the power to conscript you into the armed forces, then the state has the power to conscript you into whatever folly or wickedness it deems most utilitarian. (This logic is not lost on the Bush administration, which given the dearth of C.I.A. personnel who speak Arabic, has floated plans to draft such specialists.) Moreover, as the philosopher Ayn Rand argued, if the state can force you to shoot or kill another human being and “to risk [your own] death or hideous maiming and crippling . . . if [your] consent is not required to send [you] into unspeakable martyrdom—then, in principle,” you cease to have any rights, and the state ceases to be your protector. “What else is there left to protect?”[2]

It matters little that you may neither approve of nor even understand the casus belli, since conscription is the hallmark of a regime that cannot be bothered with persuasion. This is of course the point, since by inculcating a philosophy of mechanical, unquestioning obedience, conscription churns men from autonomous individuals into sacrificial cogs. What could better unfit men for democratic citizenship?

By contrast, with voluntary armed services, no one enters harm’s way who does not choose that course; the state must convince every potential soldier of the justice and necessity of the cause. To a free society—one rooted in the moral principle that man is an end in himself, that he exists for his own sake—conscription robs men, as the social activist A.J. Muste wrote, “of the freedom to react intelligently . . . of their volition to the concrete situations that arise in a dynamic universe . . . of that which makes them men—their autonomy.”[3]

In this way, conscription exemplifies the “involuntary servitude” the American Constitution forbids. Yet the same Constitution that forbids Congress from enforcing “involuntary servitude” (Thirteenth Amendment), instructs it to “provide for the common defense” (Preamble) and to “raise . . . armies” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 12). Do these powers not amount to conscription? On one hand, they may—though the argument that because something is constitutional, it is ipso facto moral, fails to question whether the Constitution, on the given issue, is itself immoral. On the other hand, the verbs “provide” and “raise” need not entail coercion. Discerns David Mayer, a professor of law and history at Capital University, where the Constitution is ambiguous, we should refer to its animating fundamentals. We should read each constitutional provision in the framework “of the document as a whole, and, especially, in light of the purpose of the whole document. . . . [T]hat purpose is to limit the power of government and to safeguard the rights of the individual.”[4] Conscription explicitly contradicts these American axioms.

Even so, some argue, conscription is necessary to ensure America’s survival in the face of say a two-front war. A government that acts unconstitutionally in emergencies is better than a government that makes the Constitution as a suicide pact. Stability, of course, is neither government’s purpose nor its barometer. True, governmental stability provides the security necessary to exercise one’s freedom; but a government that sacrifices its citizens’ freedom to prop itself up is no longer a guardian of freedom but a tool for tyranny. No matter how grave and imminent the threat, the maxim of Roman statesmen should take primacy. “Fiat justitia, ruat caelum” (Let justice be done, though the heavens fall). Or, as Patrick Henry later declared: “Give me liberty, or give me death.”[5]

Yet what if, out of ignorance or indifference, people fail to appreciate a threat before it is too late? Would the sixteen million men and women whom the U.S. government conscripted for World War Two—over twelve percent of our population at that time—have arisen, voluntarily, in such numbers, at such a rate, and committed to such specialties as we needed to win the war?[6] Isn’t conscription, as President Clinton termed it, a “hedge against unforeseen threats and a[n] . . . ‘insurance policy’”?[7] Haven’t our commanders in chief—from Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War, to FDR interning Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, to Bush’s Patriot Act today—always infringed certain liberties in wartime? In 1919, the Supreme Court declared that merely circulating an inflammatory anti-draft flier, in wartime, constitutes a “clear and present danger.”

We should first distinguish between legal, civil, or secondary rights, like habeas corpus and trial by jury, and natural or first rights, like the right to one’s life. While wartime may justify a temporary alteration or suspension of the former, nothing can justify violating the latter, which are inalienable. Second, since the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, if one wants to continue to live in freedom, one should volunteer to defend it when it is threatened. Third, a dearth of volunteers would probably occur because the administration is corrupt or it undertakes to wage a corrupt war. For instance, without conscription, the U.S. government would have lacked enough soldiers to invade Vietnam; an A.V.F. would have triggered a ceasefire years earlier, since people would simply have stopped volunteering. Indeed, rather than deter presidents from prosecuting that increasingly unpopular, drawn-out and bloody tragedy—from sending 60,000[8] Americans to their senseless deaths—conscription enabled them to escalate it.

Still, even in a just war, enlistments might not meet manpower needs. Sometimes quantity overcomes quality. Napoleon, no neophyte in such matters, noted that “Providence is always on the side of the last reserve.”[9]

But God does not side with the big battalions, but with those who are most steadfast. As President Reagan put it, “No arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage”[10] of a man who fights of his own accord, for that which he believes is truly just. This is why American farmers defeated British conscripts in 1783, and why Vietnamese guerrillas defeated American conscripts in 1975. Would you prefer to patrol Baghdad today guarded by a career officer, acting on his dream to see live action as a sniper, or guarded by a haberdasher whom the Selective Service Act has coerced into duty and who can think of nothing else save where he’d rather be?

Furthermore, when private firms, in any field, need more workers, they do not resort to hiring at gunpoint. Rather, they appeal to economics, by increasing employees’ compensation. If anyone deserves top government dollar, it is those, who as George Orwell reportedly said, allow us to sleep safely in our beds, those rough men and women who stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.[11]

Nonetheless, isn’t an all-volunteer force (A.V.F.) a poor man’s army, driving a wedge between the upper classes who usually loophole or bribe exemptions, and the middle and lower classes on whose backs wars are traditionally fought? Similarly, doesn’t an A.V.F. devolve disproportionately on minorities, who, as one former Marine captain writes, “enlist[] in the economic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass”?[12] In fact, today’s A.V.F. is the most egalitarian ever. While blacks, for instance, remain overrepresented by six percent, Hispanics, though they comprise about thirteen percent of America, comprise eleven percent of those in uniform.[13] Moreover, overrepresentation of a class or race stems not from the upward mobility the armed forces offer—training soldiers in such marketable skills as how to drive a truck, fix a jet or operate sophisticated software—but from the inferior opportunities in society.

Still, critics insist the A.V.F. excludes the children of power and privilege, of our opinion- and policy-makers. Isolated literally and socially from volunteers, these so-called chicken hawks can thus facilely advocate military “advisors,” “police action,” national “interests,” and humanitarian intervention. After all, as Matt Damon remarks in Good Will Hunting (1997): “It won’t be their kid over there, getting shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, ‘cuz they were pulling a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie [a blue-collar district of Boston] over there taking shrapnel in the ass.” “The war,” therefore, as William Broyles Jr. recently noted, “is impersonal for the very people to whom it should be most personal.”[14] By contrast, the more people who serve, the more people will seriously weigh the real-life consequences of their opinions. It’s much more trying to advocate “regime change” in Iraq if your spouse, friends, children or grandchildren might come home in a body bag (and even more vexing if the government does not censor such coverage).

To be sure, serving in war gives one an essential understanding of its horrors. But that veterans, ipso facto, possess better judgment than their civilian counterparts elides both that Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who never saw combat, became America’s greatest wartime strategists, and that those who waged the Vietnam debacle—including presidents Kennedy, who won a Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and Johnson, who won a Silver Star—were decorated warriors. Moreover, as Lawrence Kaplan, senior editor at the New Republic, observes, Vietnam left Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE), John McCain (R-AZ) and John Kerry (D-MA) on three divergent paths, with Hagel a traditional realist, McCain a virtual neoconservative and Kerry a conventional leftist.[15] Experience, while laudable and invaluable, is neither mandatory nor monolithic.

Yet the military integrates blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles, immigrants and nativists, communists and capitalists, atheists and religionists. Esprit de corps breeds national unity. Not for nothing did “bro” enter the American vernacular in the Vietnam era—“Who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”[16]—nor was it coincidental that the army was the first governmental agency to be desegregated. A speechwriter for President Nixon, who wrote a legislative message proposing the draft’s end, now argues that the “military did more to advance the cause of equality in the United States than any other law, institution or movement.”[17]

Of course, forcing people to wear nametags in public areas would make society friendlier, but no one (except some characters in Seinfeld) entertains this silly violation of autonomy—so why should we entertain it for the most serious violation? Noble and imperative as the ends may be, a civilian-controlled military is not a tool to implement social change, but a deadly machine for self-defense. Further, to advance equality at home one may well need to watch one’s bros die abroad.

But conscription will restore the ruggedness today’s young Americans sorely lack, critics contend. Complacency cocoons my generation, who depend on anything but ourselves. Maybe they even quote Rousseau: “As the conveniences of life increase . . . true courage flags, [and] military virtues disappear.”[18]

Yet soft as we may appear vegging out before M.T.V., history shows that when attacked, Americans are invincible. As President Bush said of 9/11: “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”[19] Moreover, the problem is not a dearth of regimentation, but a dearth of persuasion; the administration has failed to convince potential soldiers to enlist. Rather than see this as a sign of pusillanimity, it seems that those with the most to lose think Washington is acting for less than honorable reasons—which should cause the government, not to reinstate conscription, but to rethink its policies.

In his augural address, JFK acclaimed the morality behind conscription. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he declared. “Ask what or can do for your country.” But our founders offered us an alternative between parasitism and cannon fodder, between betraying one’s beliefs by serving or becoming a criminal or expatriate by objecting or dodging: autonomous individuals pursuing their own happiness, sacrificing neither others to themselves nor themselves to others. The catch-22 goes further, since the prime draftee age, from eighteen to twenty-five, in Ayn Rand’s words, are “the crucial formative years of a man’s life. This is . . . when he confirms his impressions of the world . . . when he acquires conscious convictions, defines his moral values, chooses his goals, and plans his future.” In other words, when man is most vulnerable, draft advocates want to force him into terror—“the terror of knowing that he can plan nothing and count on nothing, that any road he takes can be blocked at any moment by an unpredictable power, that, barring his vision of the future, there stands the gray shape of the barracks, and, perhaps, beyond it, death for some unknown reason in some alien jungle.”[20] Death in some alien jungle yesterday, death in some alien desert today.

[1] Ronald Reagan, Letter To Mark O. Hatfield, May 5, 1980.

[2] Ayn Rand, “The Wreckage of the Consensus,” in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Italics added.

[3] A.J. Muste, “Conscription and Conscience,” in Martin Anderson (ed), with Barbara Honegger, The Military Draft: Selected Readings on Conscription (Hoover: Stanford, 1982), p. 570.

[4] David Mayer, “Interpreting the Constitution Contextually,” Navigator, October 2003.

[5] The New Hampshire state license plate puts it even more succinctly: “Live free or die.”

[6] Harry Roberts, Comments on Arthur Silber, “With Friends Like These, Continued—and Arguing with David Horowitz,” LightofReason.com, November 19, 2002.

[7] William Jefferson Clinton, Letter To the Senate, May 18, 1994.

[8] “Statistics about the Vietnam War,” Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crew Network.

[9] Burton Stevenson, The Home Book of Quotations (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1952), p. 2114.

[10] Ronald Reagan, First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981.

[11] For years people have quoted these eloquent words—either “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf,” or, “We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us”—and attributed them to George Orwell. Yet neither the standard quotation books, general and military, extensive Google searches, the Stumpers ListServ, nor the only Orwell quotation booklet, The Sayings of George Orwell (London: Duckworth, 1994), cites a specific source.

[12] Nathaniel Fick, “Don’t Dumb down the Military,” New York Times, July 20, 2004, p. A19.

[13] Nathaniel Fick, “Don’t Dumb down the Military,” New York Times, July 20, 2004, p. A19.

[14] William Broyles Jr., “A War for Us, Fought by Them,” New York Times, May 4, 2004.

[15] Lawrence F. Kaplan, “Apocalypse Kerry,” New Republic Online, July 30, 2004.

[16] Noel Koch, “Why We Need the Draft Back,” Washington Post, July 1, 2004, p. A23.

[17] Noel Koch, “Why We Need the Draft Back,” Washington Post, July 1, 2004, p. A23.

[18] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences.

[19] George W. Bush, Statement by the President in His Address To the Nation, White House, September 11, 2001.

[20] Ayn Rand, “The Wreckage of the Consensus,” in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

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