12 February 2010

Conscription--there was a reason we did away with it

Lt. Col. Paul Yingling always posts some rather provocative articles, such as the infamous "A Failure in Generalship", which appeared in Armed Forces Journal in 2007. This past week, he released another thought-provoking article in AFJ regarding the issue of conscription, entitled "The Founders' Wisdom".

While I can't say that I fully agree with Lt. Col. Yingling's article, I respect enough of his writing to offer a bit of a constructive critique. I suppose that the biggest problem that I have with conscription in America is, of course, that I doubt that the US would ever reinstate the draft to begin with, making the article more academic than anything else. Seriously, only once in the years since the Vietnam War has a Congressional proposal in favor of any sort of compulsory service ever made it out of committee, whereupon it was defeated by a vote of 400 to 2.

Yet, mandatory peacetime conscription isn't unheard of among democratic nation-states. Many typically associate conscription with totalitarian regimes, such as Iran, North Korea, Cuba and even modern-day Russia. However, a number of modern liberal democracies practice some form of compulsory service as well, including Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Sweden, Norway, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel. Most of these countries have, or had at some point, implemented conscription as a means of retaining a pool of military reservists to augment a full-time military cadre in the event of invasion from one or more hostile neighbors.

For many of these nations, this made for sound defense policy. During the industrial era, Napoleon's levee en masse created national armies on a scale previously unheard of. In order to mobilize on a scale necessary to stave off attack, modern nation-states implemented some form of conscription in order to ensure their very survival, particularly if they found themselves among one or more hostile states. The most obvious example would be Israel; surrounded by potential enemies, and small enough for jet fighters to cross the length of the country in a matter of minutes, it would have ceased to exist in 1973 had it not been for a large pool of reserve military manpower.

Nevertheless, not all nations with compulsory service live under the imminent threat of annihilation. Certainly, in the year 2010, most European nations are hardly worried about being overrun by Russian tanks, yet conscription remains. Why? In the absence of a credible land-based threat, many nations use still use conscription as a program of national service, with young men and women serving in disaster relief and emergency jobs, such as firefighting duties.

Lt. Col. Yingling advocates the draft for two reasons 1.) because he believes that it will increase the quality of recruits, and 2.) because having a separate volunteer warrior class--largely removed from American society as a whole--has made America more willing to go to war. I'm not quite certain either of these are entirely true.

When we think of the positive aspects of the draft, we tend to think of the many Americans who fought in the Second World War (glossing over the fact that many of them actually volunteered for service, and were not drafted). We might look at John F. Kennedy--who actually used his father's power and influence to get the Navy to overlook his medical records and place him in the torpedo boat squadrons, which were among the most dangerous branches of the US Navy. One might also look at famous baseball players such as Ted Williams, or actors such as Clark Gable--the latter of which actually had a bounty placed on his head by Hitler. (Apparently, Hitler was a Clark Gable fan. Who knew?)

The draft continued through the 1950s and 60s, when the US felt that it needed to keep a large, trained, standing Army in order to prevent the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe. During this period, even Elvis Presley served in uniform.

Nevertheless, the Vietnam experience soured most of America on the draft, with recruit quality taking a massive nose-dive. Those who remembered the Vietnam era (and the years shortly thereafter) recall an Army where drug use and violent crime was rampant and discipline and morale were almost non-existent.

Other countries with conscription systems also note that there are significant flaws in the organizational culture it creates. The Israeli Defense Force has come under increasing scrutiny recently. A book by Stewart Cohen cites a recent study which noted that the best and brightest Israelis--who ordinarily used to be drawn to the infantry and armor corps--are now being attracted to jobs which have more practical civilian application, leaving the less capable to serve in the front-line jobs. Moreover, nearly 40% of the IDF receives early discharges, mostly being granted to soldiers who are given relatively simple jobs, not those who actually partake in combat. It is these soldiers, who suffer more than their fair share of the burden, who then more frequently recalled to active service, due to their competence level, dedication and training. Indeed, the flaws in the conscript system place an increasing burden on a relatively small portion of Israeli society.

And with over 3/4 of American society ineligible for military service, the same might likely happen to us, should we go back to the draft.


SJ said...

Of course, pumping America's youth through basic might help improve the overall health of America's population... if only for a short while.

Conscription in Korea is starting to fall apart with the period of service shortening rapidly. The only thing that probably prevents the talent drain is that Korean society has a strong stigma against "draft dodgers". Still, as the North Korean menace becomes less of a threat, more are questioning the necessity for maintaining such a massive military. That, and the ROK military draws its heritage in part from the old Japanese Imperial Army, which despite mitigating American influences, still makes it rough and brutal for conscripts (though my dad always likes to comment how both the modern ROK and US militaries are soft and squishy).

Starbuck said...

You might be on to something here. If America wants universal health care, make 'em get Tricare :)

Anonymous said...

LTC Yingling makes a number of errors as have others of a return to a draft. First and foremost, none of these proposals are universal conscription. At best, they're a lottery aimed at only one segment of the population-- young men (and perhaps women). Concerned about propular buy-in and think the draft is the best way? Let's see this expanded to all age groups.

More realistically, popular support is ensured when potential soldiers have other choices and make their own individual choices on serving. The expensiveness of a current recruit is both a reflection of the actual cost to wage a war and an impediment to wage unnecessary wars. Both peacetime & wartime drafts did nothing to stop any military expedition. In fact, one could argue much more convincingly that lowering the financial barriers to war is more likely to lead to war.

I'm also reminded of Milton Friedman responding to GEN Westmoreland when the issue of a draft comes up. There seems to be this reoccuring notion that draftees are noble while paid volunteers are mercenaries:

"In the course of his [General Westmoreland's] testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I [Milton Friedman] stopped him and said, 'General, would you rather command an army of slaves?' He drew himself up and said, 'I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.' I replied, 'I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.' But I went on to say, 'If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.' That was the last that we heard from the general about mercenaries."

We were able to support a larger AVF during the 70's, 80's, & early 90's both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers than we do today. The days of harvesting cannon fodder like wheat and paying them peanuts have been over for almost 40 years and for good reason.