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Conscription is the term given to any involuntary labour called upon by an authority. Historically, conscription refers to people being required to enlist in the armed forces of a country during wartime. Where it is still practised, it is usually only for a fixed period and euphemistically referred to as something far nicer, like "national service" or the "draft."
Although the zeitgeist of the world post-Cold War has led to conscription being considered A Bad Thing, many countries still retain laws to enforce the practice if they put themselves in an "emergency" position, such as war.
Arguments for conscription
Believe it or not, there are some half-decent arguments for the practice of conscription into the armed forces:
- The most obvious is the additional manpower. Back in the days of the First and Second World Wars, millions of men were used in combat, a number far outstripping the size of the standing armies of pre-war times. Conscription gave a valuable boost to military numbers during wartime. This is less applicable to Western nations today, which rely on superior technology and training (or at least picking the right enemies with far less technology and training), rather than weight of numbers and human wave attacks that characterized war in the early 20th century and earlier. However, some countries still rely on the draft in order to afford a credible defense without relying on a military alliance.
- Another popular argument is the idea that making conscription into a rite of passage of sorts is important for social solidarity. The fact that — ideally, at least — everyone should serve acts as an equalizer for the population, which can improve not only the civilian world, but also military life. The American military is currently perceived as being dominated largely by conservative, evangelical Republicans in its political and religious makeup; conscription could theoretically result in a wider range of viewpoints in the forces. Take, for example, the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the knee-jerk reaction by a disproportionate number of Joint Chiefs of Staff was to invade Cuba (yet again), against the objections of John F. Kennedy. Likewise, it has been suggested that a draft, by creating much greater contact between the military and civilian spheres, could prevent elitism (especially against non-veteran civilians) from developing in the armed forces.
- Education also comes up. Often, a conscript service will be trained in ways that a populace left to their own devices might otherwise avoid or not have access to. Military service especially often leaves people with great team working skills as well as experience in many other areas. Engineering and medicine being two vital, non-combat, professions that support the military — volunteer reserve forces tend to focus on these disciplines. Often these skills can be applied to a professional field once the conscript leaves military service. The American Graduate Equivalency Degree was originally designed for World War II veterans who left high school early, either because they were drafted or volunteered. They had better success with their GEDs because the military, like high school, also teaches oft skills" like team working and problem solving which can then be applied to other contexts.
- A seemingly counter-intuitive argument often used by pacifists is that the draft would make war "real" to the upper classes, leading to demands for greater accountability on the decision to go to war. With a draft, the children of well-off families would have to actually worry about the reality of war. As a result, there would be a lot more opposition to war if there were even the slightest chance that the average middle-class American or his or her children could be called up and asked to fight. (The obvious case study here is the Vietnam War, where the draft fuelled the anti-war movement, and the burning of draft cards became a common protest). This criticism of professional armies highlights that, in the U.S. armed forces, voluntary enlistment comes disproportionately from poorer family backgrounds.
- A corollary to the pacifist and solidarity arguments is that a "citizen army" of conscripts acts as a counterforce to militarism and lessens the risk of military coups, because it (presumably) gives every (male) citizen a stake in the military and counteracts the military elitism mentioned above. This argument also tends to draw on the classical connection between military service and the franchise found in ancient Greece and Rome and allude to the professionalisation of the Roman legions as a cause for the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
Arguments against conscription
There are also numerous arguments against conscription:
- The big one, of course, is coercion. Conscription, by definition, is not voluntary. Therefore, its use in society can be considered tantamount to slavery, which is considered an immoral act by most modern standards. Although a very simple and primarily emotional argument against conscription, it is one of the more powerful ones. In light of the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, involuntary servitude of any kind is now effectively illegal worldwide. Conscription has also been unfavorably compared to sex slavery, especially considering accusations leveled against the Japanese military about how it has used its women in the past. it's important to remember, however, that legal challenges to conscription laws on these grounds have almost universally failed. In 1918, the United States Supreme Court, in its Selective Draft Law Cases held that conscription was an implied power of Congress, since Congress had the right to declare war and appropriate funding for the military.
- The fact that most conscripts have zero interest on their service and relate it rather as a prison sentence than as a job is likely to relate into complete and reckless indifference on their service and tasks, leading into serious danger situations, accidents and even deaths. Sometimes the conscripts may outright sabotage their equipment to skate out of the service. Low motivation to serve leads also into low motivation of learning essential military skills.
- Another issue is that conscription produces lower-quality soldiers compared to a volunteer, professional army. Almost by definition, conscript soldiers do not want to be fighting and tend to not have the mindset or physical prowess to be effective soldiers prior to training — and in most cases, probably still don't have such things after training. As a result, conscripts make for a very ineffective fighting force, and popular culture (based on some historical fact) often portrays them as expendable. However, this reasoning doesn't really apply if all you want is a bunch of men carrying a sign reading "eat us first."
- The sheer horrendous number of the locust swarm of conscripts means that whilst the resources are limited, the resources for training each individual soldier are pitifully low. This is result of basic arithmetics: the greater the divider, the smaller the division. The conscripts get only rudimentary training: they are intended to learn the trade of soldier in the war in practise. This creates a numerically strong army which can do little else than march in order, shoot, dig foxholes and do the basics of their branch training, but little else. In Argentine, military service has been referred as la colimba - from words correr (to run), limpiar (to cleanse) and barrer (to sweep), illustrating that most of the service is spent on learning skills not essential for actual bang-bang war.
- The economics of a conscript force also don't stack up well against a volunteer army. It simply costs too much to pay and train an army of unwilling soldiers (thus kicking them out of the labour force) who will return to civilian life long before the armed forces get a return on their investment. Furthermore, some studies have shown that "conscription increases the likelihood of developing a criminal record," thus increasing the negative economic impact, while other studies have found no link between military training and violent crime, or, conversely, suggest that those with a criminal record are less likely to re-offend if conscripted.
- While proponents of conscription argue that it would randomly and equally select from all levels of society, historically some people have been more equal than others when it came to their ability to dodge the draft. In the American Civil War, the Union had a draft but allowed people to pay a $300 substitute fee, something that poor families could not afford. These tensions, unsurprisingly, boiled over in the 1863 New York draft riots. During the Vietnam War, there was rampant abuse of student deferments to avoid the draft. Gaining a graduate degree on top of a graduate degree was often an option not available to younger men who were drafted into the conflict.
- Military conscription truly is indeed a cross-section of the whole cohort of the society. It includes not only the brightest and best of the society, but also the bottom dregs: the weakly talented, the antisocial, the alcohol and drug addicts, the unmotivated and the criminals and the bullies. The more heterogeneous the materiél is, the more likely it is to develop internal problems, disputes and fights within. Much of the energy and resources are spent to prevent and resolve these internal conflicts. In Russia, felonies, robberies, rapes and outright murders amongst conscripts are commonplace. Even worse is dedovschina, a form of organized hazing, harassing and bullying. It is no coincidence that in Finland the army and prison slang overlap each other a lot - and army is considered a worse place than prisons. Sometimes, it can unwittingly provide criminal elements with training in weapons, explosives, mechanics, and other skills which can be used for harm.
- Since the conscript army gets also the worst of each cohort, it means the training must be adjusted to the learning capability of the least able of the cohort. This will leave the skills and quality of the ordinary soldiers pathetically low. Therefore elites, such as Parachute Rangers in the Finnish forces, are always formed of select volunteers.
- Conscription does not necessarily correlate with internal stability of the society. Most military coups are not made by privates, NCOs and junior officers, but by the higher echelons of the army. Conscription did not prevent the coup attempt in Turkey 2016.
- Finally, conscription usually doesn't cover women. Even the biggest supporters under the "traditional gender roles" don't want to forcefully train young women to become housewives. In the United States only men, starting at age 18, must register for the Selective Service although there have been proposals to change this. This is not true in all countries, however; in Israel, for example, men and women are equally subject to the draft, although women are still barred from many positions and have a shorter term (two years vs. three years for men). In Finland, women have had a chance to volunteer in the armed forces since 1992; men still have the choice only between military service, civilian service or prison.
Most countries in the developed world have abolished conscription - in some cases very recently: it was suspended in France and Spain in 2001, in Sweden in 2010, and in Germany only in 2011, but in the UK as far back as 1960. A few European countries still require it: Finland, traditionally worried about its big bearlike neighbor, requires it for all males, while women can volunteer. Norway instituted military service for women as well as men in 2015 but even before that only 8,000-10,000 male conscripts were chosen from a pool of 60,000, with conscientious objectors allowed to opt out.
- Mercenaries - The opposite extreme.
- Military conscription: Does your country need you?, The Economist
- JFK vs. the Military, The Atlantic (Apparently being a WWII veteran wasn't enough for them.)
- This column goes so far as to suggest that an all-volunteer force could lead to a coup d'etat by a military that feels itself to be above civilians.
- Lutz, Amy, 2008, Who Joins the Military? A Look at Race, Class and Immigration Status, Journal of Political and Military Sociology 36(2), pp. 167-188
- This was central to Chalmers Johnson's gloomy outlook on what he perceived as U.S. militarism in his "Blowback trilogy": Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2000, revised 2004), The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2005), and The Sorrows of Empire (2007)
- Outlawing slavery: international conventions and human rights legislation, National Museums Liverpool
- Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of World War II, Berkeley Journal of International Law
- Arver v. United States.
- Drafted Armies are Self-Killing Machines, War on the Rocks
- In Georgia, Russia saw its Army's shortcomings, Christian Science Monitor
- The problem of willingness is mitigated in most democratic states by offering Alternative civilian service, a system originating with the necessity of dealing with conscientious objectors, for instance as pacifists such as the Quakers.
- The Economic Costs and the Political Allure of Conscription, University of Helsinki
- Conscription and Crime: Evidence from the Argentine Draft Lottery
- Does the Military Train Men to be Violent Criminals? New Evidence from Australia’s Conscription Lotteries
- Does Peacetime Military Service Affect Crime?, a study from Denmark, which, like the Australian study, found no effect of conscription on violent crime, but found that property crime decreased for up to two years after the end of conscript's military service.
- et. al
- Trampling on his father's career.
- Military Service on suomi.fi
- Norway Extends Compulsory Military Service to Women, norway.org.uk
- Norway's military conscription becomes gender neutral, Deutsche Welle, 14 October 2014