January 27, 2012

A Case for Conscription

Recently, I ran across a fascinating concept in a book1 by the late sociologist Stanislaw Andreski. He asserted that, in general, the social equality of a society stands in direct proportion to what he termed its military participation rate, or M.R.P. To put this another way, the more a society needs a substantial and diverse portion of its citizenry to fill out the ranks of its arm forces, the less disparity can exist between those citizens and their ruling elites. In even simpler terms, mass armies promote increased democracy, while elite armies promote the concentration of power. Since, for Andreski, power is always reducible to either the use of force or the potential use of force, the relation described above follows simply as a corollary.

If we accept Andreski’s rule, for which he offers an impressive body of historical support – much more than is usual for a social scientist – an examination of current trends is the United States is rather alarming. Due, among other things, to a declining tolerance for the loss of American lives since the war in Viet Nam, our military has evolved into a compact, elite, highly technological-oriented force. The idea of a draft, let alone the levying of armies on anything like the scale that we employed in World War Two, has become politically unthinkable. Even in the face of two unpopular wars, voluntary recruitment remains sufficient – if only just – to fill the ranks of our superbly equipped but numerically modest forces. Such shortfalls as occur are filled by foreigners willing to exchange their services for citizenship. As these recruits are unfamiliar with our traditions and liberties, and as they are motivated chiefly by economic need, we can only consider them mercenaries – albeit of convenience rather than disposition.

Whatever these changes in the size and composition of our armed forces may mean militarily, politically they merit our concern. While we are used to taking a certain pride in the fact that our army is composed of volunteers, one consequence of this policy has been that unpopular wars are actually easier to conduct than they used to be. The war in Viet Nam caused a great deal more controversy than the wars in either Iraq or Afghanistan have done. This is true not because the latter were more justifiable to the public, but because many dissenters (or sons of dissenters) were obliged to participate in the former. People may have reservations about the war in Afghanistan, but since they don’t have to go or send their children they are unlikely to take to the streets. Wars conducted by machines, mercenaries, and tiny minorities of citizens mostly drawn from the underclass don’t arouse the same level of either patriotism or outrage as wars that involve conscription. They are simply mediocre television programs as far as the most of public is concerned.

According to Andreski’s principle, the public’s relative indifference toward current and future wars may only be the beginning of our problems. It has generally been difficult for any government with a large conscripted army to employ it to quell rebellions or intimidate dissent. Even in the Soviet Union, the maintenance of an enormous army during World War Two forced at least a moderation of Stalin’s tyranny.2 Soldiers do not like to brutalize the civilian masses they are recruited from. The employment of highly-trained, rigidly-disciplined troops begins to overcome this restraint. The employment of mercenaries makes it negligible. The growing use of robotic devices opens the prospect of removing it altogether. In the end, we do not have civil liberties because we are protected by laws, but because we have some means of protecting ourselves. Civil liberties are meaningless when we as citizen are either impotent or indifferent in their defense. While a powerless public may not be subjugated immediately, the erosion of rights will proceed inexorably, if gradually, as those in power find their authority unchecked. An honest look at history shows this almost without exception.

Consider the second amendment to the US constitution:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

In recent years, we have tended to focus on the right to bear arms as an individual right, and I am not attempting to rebut this interpretation. Perhaps, though, we should not consider the founder’s belief in a militia a mere historical curiosity. While they obviously needed a militia to defend the republic from external enemies, I believe that they were also aware that an army drawn from the citizenry, owing its ultimate allegiance not to men but to principles embodied in the constitution, was necessary to protect us from internal dissolution. Obviously times have changed, and we cannot turn our high tech weapons over to colonial minutemen. We should, however, be wary of an overreliance on tiny bodies of over-indoctrinated special forces, mercenaries, and soulless machines.


1 Military organization and society

2 A close examination of Soviet military policy supports Andreski’s rule, though at first glance the USSR would seem to have been an exception. It is true that the Soviet military was both enormous and drawn from all ranks of society. Two deliberate counteractive measures should be noted, however. First, the Soviet Union had a deployment practice common to many large, ethnical heterogeneous empires: they levied units of a single ethnic group and deployed them in distant parts of the country where they were functionally foreign troops. Second, the Soviets fostered resentments between soldiers levied in different years. Each year’s conscripts were encouraged to abuse those that succeeded them, the end result being that every unit’s soldiers were divided into three mutually hostile groups, according to their year of enlistment. There is no good military reason to sabotage unit cohesion. It only reduces the effectiveness of the force. The only practical reason the Soviets would have established such a policy would have been to render the army less capable of organized revolt, every soldier being automatically distrustful of most of the others. (See: Inside the Soviet Army, Viktor Suvorov)


  1. I'm reading Pinker's THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, which has a somewhat more nuanced view on the relationship between violence and state power.

    However, I completely agree that conscription (of both men and women) is a good idea. In fact, the socialization process, whereby we implant the values and duties of being a citizen into the next generation, should start as early as possible. And we should call it... public school.

    I don't know about you, but my public school experience was a lot like being drafted!

    Wait - actually, I do know about you, and I think we've both served our time. :D

  2. Per MCP--

    Indeed we did serve concurrent sentences.

    Interestingly, while I see conscription as necessary to keep the ruling elite in a state of obligation to the people, I suspect you see it as a means for the ruling elite to indoctrinate a substancial part of the public.


  3. But we weren't founded as a democracy .....