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When the Levee Breaks: Dissenting from the Draft

If you are reading this article, you have likely never served in the military. You may well not have any immediate family members who have served, either (at least during the past forty years or so). And you probably do not know anyone who has been killed in Iraq.

The reasons for this state of affairs have been well chronicled. Journals like this are read, in large part, by blue-state urban professionals. The American military, however, draws disproportionately from red-state, small-town backgrounds. The states with the highest percentage of 18–24-year-olds in the military are Montana and Alaska. The ones with the least are Massachusetts and Rhode Island. According to a 2005 study, fully half of all Iraq War casualties have come from towns of 25,000 inhabitants or less.


Is this a problem? Doesn’t basic social justice demand that all parts of the American population contribute equally to the nation’s defense? Can a society whose elites slough off this vital responsibility remain a healthy one?

In recent decades, these questions have arisen repeatedly in American politics. They began to do so soon after the Vietnam War, when some of the young men who protested it from the safety of college campuses began to reflect on the fact that their deferments, dodges, and craftily obtained medical exemptions came at a very high price for thousands of the less privileged. In his career-making Washington Monthly article “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy,” James Fallows painfully sketched the scene at a Boston recruiting center where M.I.T. and Harvard students (including himself) easily won classification as unfit for the military, even as working-class men submitted meekly to the Selective Service. The elites’ success in avoiding the draft was, Fallows charged, their “dirty little secret.”

True, once Vietnam and the draft receded into the past, attitudes toward the subject changed. In the 1980s and 1990s, the military’s appeal to minorities and the poor became something to celebrate. Indeed, conventional wisdom held that the military did a better job of advancing racial equality and social mobility than anything in civil society (with Colin Powell as everyone’s favorite example).

But with the Iraq War, the old questions have emerged again. In Farhenheit 911, Michael Moore attacked prominent supporters of the war as hypocrites for not asking their own children to serve. Many commentators, as well as prominent members of Congress such as Senator Chuck Hagel and Representatives John Murtha and Charles Rangel, called for a reinstatement of the draft. Actual bills to this effect won little support, but one poll of military veterans showed two-thirds supporting the idea. Some advocates of the draft have presented it straightforwardly as a ploy to end the war, but others have insisted on conscription as a matter of principle.

And at the level of principle, their arguments have gone largely unanswered. When asked about the draft, President Bush and administration officials reject the idea purely on pragmatic grounds: the military has not asked for it, and it is not necessary. The questions of fairness, and of the civic (as opposed to military) desirability of universal service, are entirely sidestepped. It is as if everyone concedes that on the level of principle, the argument for a draft is unanswerable—which makes it much more likely that at some point America may choose to have a “citizens’ army,” as Representative Murtha calls it, once again.

For this reason, it is worth taking a look back at the history of conscription in the Western world and asking whether “citizens’ armies” are, in fact, a good idea. Are they the best possible expression of a healthy democracy, as Murtha and Rangel believe? Or are they, to the contrary, a distracting, and even dangerous mirage? Conscription has served a crucial purpose for Western democracies in a few exceptional historical moments, but for most of the past two and a half centuries, it has fit squarely into the “mirage” category. The inequities of military recruitment in the United States today are indeed painful to contemplate. But this does not mean that they represent a problem in need of a legislative solution.

T he current debate on “citizens’ armies” is nothing new. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Renaissance, and to the current of political thought known as “classical republicanism.” In the early sixteenth century, certain Italian writers—Niccolò Machiavelli first and foremost—derided the fact that their city-states relied largely on armies of foreign mercenaries to fight their interminable, if usually inconclusive wars. Only if all citizens stood ready to sacrifice everything for the homeland, Machiavelli insisted, could civic virtue flourish, as it had supposedly done in ancient Greece and Rome. He also warned that even native armies, if composed of professional soldiers rather than volunteers or conscripts, ran the risk of turning into Praetorian Guards that ambitious rulers could use to stamp out liberty. Seventeenth-century English radicals further developed these ideas, which gained wide appeal during the Enlightenment. “Each citizen should be a soldier by duty,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the early 1770s, a time when nearly every European army still staffed their militaries with a mixture of mercenaries and long-serving professional soldiers, commanded by noble officers. Within twenty years, the phrase “every citizen a soldier, every soldier a citizen” had become commonplace in French political debates. On our side of the Atlantic, many of the founding fathers agreed, hailing the minutemen and other Revolutionary-era militias as living proof of the doctrine. Thomas Jefferson repeatedly denounced the idea of a professional army while calling for all adult men to undergo military training. “We cannot be defended, but by making every citizen a soldier,” he liked to remark.

Given this background, it is stunning how little Western democracies have heeded Jefferson’s teaching. In the United States, while the Bill of Rights famously celebrated the necessity of a “well regulated Militia,” the authors of the Constitution made no attempt to institute universal military service, or even universal military training. In France, site of the next major Western revolution, a deputy to the new National Assembly proposed the creation of a “citizen’s army” of draftees in 1789, but won no more support than Rangel or Murtha today.

Conscription in the modern West in fact began as a result of bitter necessity, not high principle. In the summer of 1793, the new French Republic found itself at a moment of extraordinary peril. Its armies had lost a succession of key battles to a broad European coalition, while rebellions against its authority had broken out throughout the country. In consequence, the ruling National Convention declared a so-called mass levy (levée en masse): “From this moment until our enemies are driven from the territory of the Republic, all Frenchmen are permanently requisitioned for service in the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge weapons and transport supplies; the women will make tents and clothes and will serve in the hospitals; the children will make up old linen into lint; the old men will have themselves carried into the public squares to rouse the courage of fighting men…” Hundreds of thousands of young men went into the French army, turning it into the largest ever seen on European soil. Debate continues to rage on just how much they actually helped the war effort, since many, perhaps most of them, went into battle without proper training or equipment. Quite possibly, the adoption of new tactics, and a new insistence on professional leadership, played a more decisive role in the nascent Republic's survival than sheer numbers.

In any case, the mass levy did not amount to a permanent system of conscription in France. That came five years later, during another military crisis. And even then, the shift from small armies of highly trained professionals to large ones of poorly trained conscripts proceeded in halting and uneven fashion, although the vast scale of the Napoleonic Wars exacerbated it. Conscription also had a grisly side effect. As the military historian Gunther Rothenberg once put it: “Soldiers had been expensive; now they had become cheap.” Commanders became far more willing to incur huge losses, knowing they could always replenish their forces with more draftees. Austria’s Prince Metternich claimed that Napoleon once boasted to him: “A man like me does not give a shit about the lives of a million men.” In Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign alone, as many as 400,000 of his troops died.

The United States, which has never faced a situation like that of France in 1793, did not resort to conscription until much later in its history. Until the mid-twentieth century, pace Jefferson, the vast majority of young American men received no formal military training, and in peacetime the armed forces hardly ever numbered more than a quarter of one percent of the American population. The graduates of America’s elite universities largely shunned the army and navy as a career, leaving recruitment, as today, disproportionately rural and southern. Even during the immense crisis of the Civil War, when social elites on both sides volunteered for service to an extent unseen since the Revolution, attempts to introduce conscription met with massive resistance, especially in the North (New York City’s famous “Draft Riots”). As in Napoleonic France, the wealthy had the option of paying someone to serve in their place. All in all, even in the Civil War, only 3 percent of the total population actually served in the military (although with a higher proportion in the Confederacy).

In modern history, the heyday of conscription came surprisingly late—in the first half of the twentieth century, during the two World Wars. While France and several other European nations instituted universal military service well before 1914, it was only after the outbreak of World War I that they again attempted anything like the mass levy, literally requisitioning every able-bodied young adult male for the armed forces. Great Britain did not resort to conscription until 1916. And it was only in World War II that European states did everything possible to maximize their manpower. In the Soviet Union, some thirty-four million men went into uniform. As for America, World War II arguably represents the only moment in its history when anything like a “citizens’ army” has actually existed. During the conflict, roughly 9 percent of the total American population served in the armed forces—some sixteen million men and women—which is roughly three times the proportion reached at any other time since independence (to be sure, a greater proportion than ever before served in support roles, and did not take part in the actual fighting).

Of course, these staggering numbers have very little to do with democratic ideals (all the combatants, regardless of ideology, resorted to massive conscription) and everything to do with the nature of warfare in the first half of the twentieth century. At this time, the ordinary infantryman, armed with new and powerful weapons such as submachine guns, still had a key role to play on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the development of modern bureaucracy and industry made it possible for states to draft, train, equip, and transport vastly greater numbers of infantrymen than in the past—and to kill vastly greater numbers of enemy infantrymen. And so the same grisly calculus that Rothenberg saw at work in the Napoleonic wars came to be applied on an industrial scale. At Stalingrad alone, it is likely that some 750,000 German and Soviet soldiers lost their lives (a figure that amounts, incidentally, to more than twice the total number of American dead for all of World War II). The Soviet Union, facing extinction at the hands of the Nazis, was particularly profligate with the lives of its men, passing death sentences on hundreds of thousands of them, mostly for trying to avoid battle. According to the historian A. J. P. Taylor, when Dwight Eisenhower attempted to impress the Soviet Union’s Marshal Zhukov by boasting of the sophistication of American mine-clearing techniques, Zhukov curtly replied that the Red Army cleared minefields by marching across them.

It is important to emphasize that the particular material conditions that caused World War II’s vast demand for manpower have not endured. Developments in air power and mechanized warfare long ago brought the era of vast infantry battles to an end. In a graphic illustration, a well-informed amateur historian recently compiled a list of the ninety-five bloodiest battles of the twentieth century. Fully fifty-six took place in World War II alone, and all but five before 1950. The Iran-Iraq War was the last in which the deployment of large numbers of infantry had a decisive effect.

Today, the United States military faces a manpower crisis, but it does not do so because the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan demand unprecedented numbers of troops. True, the army has lowered its standards drastically to attract new recruits (including 21 percent without high school diplomas and 2 percent with felony convictions) while rotating active duty personnel back to Iraq far more quickly than it would like to. But to keep things in perspective, even with the recent “surge,” we have only about 150,000 troops in Iraq, far less than we had on the ground in Southeast Asia at the height of the Vietnam War. The reason for the crisis is simply that few young people think the option of social mobility through military service is worth the risk of death or maiming—especially during a hugely unpopular war.

What this history makes clear, first, is that except for a few relatively short historical periods, most Western nations have not needed armed forces large enough to make conscription necessary, or even useful in military terms. For the United States, arguably the only period in history when a draft was needed was from 1941 to 1945. Second, despite the heritage of classical republicanism, there has been a notable lack of support for introducing conscription for purely civic reasons—stimulating patriotism, or promoting social equality by mixing young men (and possibly women) from different backgrounds. In the United States before World War II, the idea of a “citizen’s army” received almost no popular support.

T his should not surprise us because, in fact, even in purely civic terms, conscription is a dubious idea in modern societies. The great French thinker Benjamin Constant explained the basic reason why in a series of brilliant essays nearly two hundred years ago, written against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. It is very dangerous, he argued, to attempt to apply the values of ancient Greece and Rome (or, rather, the values of some of their prominent authors) to the modern world. The ancients considered war one of the most sublime and natural of human activities. For them, to fight for one’s country was not just a duty, but a source of distinction in its own right. Modern people, by contrast, tend to consider war an aberration and a source of horror—at best, a necessary evil. Furthermore, ancient forms of liberty were collective, not individual: a man was free by virtue of citizenship in a self-governing state, not by virtue of possessing individual rights. Modern forms of liberty, by contrast, involve a vastly greater emphasis on individual rights—liberal democracies deliberately place as few demands on their citizens as possible. Significantly, they have declarations of rights but not declarations of duties. Even the French revolutionaries, whose infatuation with the ancients exceeded anything seen in the American Revolution (“the world has been empty since the Romans,” wrote Saint-Just), twice rejected the idea of a declaration of duties, and accepted one in 1795 only to ignore it. In short, modern liberal societies are likely to greet any attempt to impose universal military service as unjustified, not because they are in any sense weak or degenerate, but because it is in their civic nature to do as little as possible for the state, and their culture is fundamentally unmilitaristic.

Yet, as Constant himself realized, despite the differences between ancient and modern societies, the power of legend and anachronism remains awesome (how else, he asked, to explain Bonaparte’s initial political appeal?). Short moments of great peril and trial sear themselves into national memories in ways that long periods of peace do not. In France, the legend of the mass levy of 1793 cast such a spell on successive generations that the government brought back conscription at various moments in the nineteenth century, systematized it in 1905, and only finally dispensed with it in 2001. How, the politicians asked, could new generations of French youth not make the sacrifices willingly undergone by their ancestors? In Germany, a very different sense of obligation to the past—instilling a civic education to guard against any resurgence of past demons—has led to the maintenance of modified conscription down to this day, although young men can replace military service with limited service in civilian institutions such as hospitals or old-age homes.

In the United States, our equivalent of the legend of 1793 is the legend of World War II. Particularly today, with the last members of the “Greatest Generation” dying off, the years 1941–45 have come to be regarded as a veritable American Golden Age, endlessly celebrated in such works of piety as the miniseries Band of Brothers or Ken Burns’s documentary The War. So, instead of treating the war as a truly exceptional moment in American history—a combined moment of industrialized mass warfare and real national peril—we treat it as a paradigmatic one. It has become the standard against which we measure ourselves, and, not surprisingly, find ourselves wanting. Adding to the misapprehension is the fact that the unprecedented mobilization of World War II continued, in milder form, for two decades thereafter, thanks to the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam. Between 1950 and 1973 the percentage of the American population in the military never fell below 1.5 percent—roughly six times greater than the average pre-1941 peacetime figure. And until Vietnam, all sectors of the population shared the burden in much the way it did during World War II. Elite universities had ROTC programs that routinely enrolled hundreds of their male students (Stanford had 1,100 in 1956, compared with roughly 30 today). The American population continued to tolerate the imposition because it perceived the international situation as one of imminent danger.

T oday, the United States again faces grave threats, but of an extraordinarily nebulous and unpredictable nature. It is difficult to know how to fight them, but one thing is clear: it makes no sense to fight them with an army of conscripts. If the Iraq War in particular has proved anything, it is how the methods of World War II—identifying a sovereign state as an enemy, defeating it on the battlefield, and occupying it—are unsuited for the twenty-first century. The sort of armed forces that the United States needs today are highly trained, highly motivated, highly mobile ones, which is to say the exact opposite of the last army of draftees we raised. And so, the only possible reason for reinstating the draft, besides the purely tactical one of making adventures like the Iraq War politically radioactive, is the civic one: to place the burden of sacrifice, including the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice, on the population as a whole, and to provide the population as a whole with a common civic experience.

Despite the glow cast on this ideal by the memory of World War II, the overall history of modern Western democracies offers very little basis for thinking it a practical, or even a desirable one. At the height of the French Revolution, during a legislative debate on the war, a deputy to the Legislative Assembly grandly declared that “if we are not yet Spartans or Athenians, we will become them.” But in fact, we are not Spartans or Athenians, and will never become them. Which is to say, we will never accept the infringement on individual liberty represented by conscription other than as a direct response to extreme danger. To do otherwise is simply not in our civic nature.

My own experience of living in France just after college, in the 1980s, when French men my age still faced obligatory military service, confirms this point for me, if only anecdotally. Despite the powerful myth of the “nation in arms,” born out of the fires of 1793, and despite a tradition of state involvement in private life that still goes well beyond anything seen in America, conscription in France was still seen as something of a joke. Young men of middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds behaved exactly like the young James Fallows during Vietnam, doing whatever necessary to escape service. Of some thirty or forty whom I knew well, none of those who attended elite institutions of higher education did “ordinary” military service—undergoing basic training and living in barracks. Most managed to obtain psychological exemptions from friendly doctors. Several enrolled in France’s program of “international cooperation,” which theoretically meant work similar to that of the Peace Corps, but which for one involved serving as an assistant cultural attaché in New York, and for another earning a PhD in American history at Princeton. Two from the elite École Normale Supérieure underwent basic training, but one then went on to write speeches at the Defense Ministry in Paris, while the other taught history for a year at the French naval academy. Of the few working-class and peasant boys I knew, most of whom underwent basic training and lived in barracks, not one of them considered the experience particularly worthwhile. The experience is similar in Germany today, where scarcely 15 percent of young men experience military service despite conscription, and less than one in three even bother with the alternate “civilian service.”

Of course, it is possible that the United States could devise a better system of conscription than these. But, in practice, devising something of this sort would be a terrifically difficult and costly undertaking, with very dubious benefits. My own sense is that it would be deeply resented, while adding nothing at all to our national defense. And the reason would not be that we are somehow deficient in comparison with the “Greatest Generation,” but that we live at a very different moment of history.

So we should come to terms with the fact that for the foreseeable future we will—and should—have an all-volunteer force that draws disproportionately from certain parts of the country, and from certain backgrounds. If we want to make military service more equitable—and also address the very real manpower crisis—the solution is not to envisage a system of national service. Instead, we should offer better pay, benefits, and housing to the men and women who enlist. And if we find this solution difficult to afford, we should think harder about those portions of our armed forces that still, despite all the reforms of the past fifteen years, seem to exist principally to fight the sort of massive land or sea battles that the United States has not engaged in for more than sixty years.

David A. Bell is Dean of Faculty and Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author, most recently, of The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It.

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