The Immorality of Conscription

Jonathan Rick
Issue XXIV - July 20, 2004
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In January 2003, two months before the Iraq war, Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Senator John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) sponsored legislation to reinstate the draft. Now, fifteen months later, Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) has joined their call. But 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 anti-freedom. The common reply holds that conscription, like taxes, is tantamount to paying rent for living in freedom. In this view, rather than entirely laissez-faire, freedom imposes certain positive obligations.

Put another way, this means that your right to your own life is provisional—which means you don’t have that right. This means that you must buy your rights by surrendering your life. Of course, since government’s purpose is to protect your rights, it cannot then claim title to your most basic right—your very life—in exchange. Such an idea inverts the state-citizen relationship and establishes the cardinal totalitarian axiom 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, is floating plans to draft such specialists.) Moreover, as 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]

By contrast, with voluntary armed services, no one enters harm’s way who does not choose that course. As such, the state must convince every potential soldier of the justice and necessity of the casus belli. But conscription is the hallmark of a regime that cannot be bothered with persuasion. It matters little that you may neither approve of nor even understand the cause, for conscription churns men from autonomous individuals into sacrificial cogs. To a free society, however—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. Observes 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? Indeed, 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 a government is corrupt or it undertakes to wage a corrupt war. Without conscription, the U.S. government would have undoubtedly lacked enough soldiers to embark on our calamities in Korea and Vietnam.

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.”[8]

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”[9] of a man who fights of his own accord, for that which he believes is truly just. This is why American farmers eventually defeated British conscripts in 1783, and why Vietnamese guerrillas eventually 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 enable 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 harm us.[10]

Nonetheless, critics assert that an all-volunteer force (A.V.F.) devolves disproportionately on minorities and the poor, that it drives 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. Of course, today’s A.V.F. is the most egalitarian ever.[11] Second, the overrepresentation of minorities stems, not from the upward mobility the armed forces offer, but from the inferior opportunities in society.

But conscription will restore the ruggedness today’s young Americans, especially in the middle-class, 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.[13]

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.”[14] Moreover, the problem is not a dearth of regimentation, but of persuasion; the president has failed to convince us to enlist. We should see this as a sign that those with the most to lose think that Washington is acting for less than honorable reasons, which should cause the administration, 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 about eighteen to twenty-five, in Ayn Rand’s words, constitutes “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.” This is when man is most vulnerable—the time that draft advocates wish to force man “to spend in 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.”[15] 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 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,”, November 19, 2002.

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

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

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

[10] 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.

[11] See Doug Bandow, Policy Analysis: “Fixing What Ain’t Broke: The Renewed Call for Conscription,” CATO Institute, August 31, 1999.

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

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

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

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