What You Should Think About Conscription

“. . . a draft or draft registration destroys the very values our society is committed to defending.”

–Ronald Reagan

The decline of the Roman Empire was a complex phenomenon involving many factors. Yet the case can be made that foremost among these factors was the decline of Rome’s citizen-soldier culture. From the days of the early monarchs until well after the time of Julius Caeser, physically fit Roman citizens were bound by duty to a term of military service, typically four years in length. In limited contexts, outsiders had been involved with the Legions. Yet so long as Rome thrived, so did reliance on the citizens of Rome to provide manpower to fight for the interests of the state.

In fact, it was traditional for Roman mothers to send their adolescent sons off to war with the directive, “come back with your shield or on it.*” This sort of universal conscription (keeping in mind that women were never eligible for Roman citizenship while foreigners in annexed territories as well as freed slaves were normally given a lesser form of citizenship) served a number of purposes. Citizens from different families and different cities might serve side by side, learning to view the state and life itself from fresh perspectives. More importantly, all the sons of Rome were put in peril by any military aggression. This dramatically changes the context of public debate about warfare.

As hindsight grants more and more clarity over time, it is fair to ask if a Pyrrhic victory was won by the peace movement protesting Viet Nam era policies. When all was said and done, America marginalized conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force. No more would reluctant or even unwilling citizens be compelled to train and fight, sometimes also losing life or limb, to provide manpower for the armed forces of the United States in time of war. In many circles ending the draft was considered a great advance in the march of peace and enlightenment.

Was it so? The events of this century crystallize one aspect of this issue. “They all signed up knowing this could happen,” is an argument that dramatically lowers the threshold of justification for military action. Perhaps even in time of conscription, America offered up loopholes to shelter reluctant sons of Senators from combat duty. Still, at least 99% of the nation felt pressures to closely scrutinize American war efforts. Those pressures are now much less intense and widespread.

The thing is, war itself has not changed nearly as much as the political context of it. In a jungle where draftees are getting shot to pieces, “support the troops” is not at all easily equated with “support a policy of open-ended military occupation.” In a desert where volunteers are getting shelled and ambushed, “support the troops” is more easily confused with “support the war policy.” In the absence of a draft, it becomes easier for national leaders to equate political hawkishness with national loyalty.

That equation is always bogus — there has yet to be a war waged with such perfection of justification, planning, and oversight as to eliminate all legitimate grounds for loyal criticism. Yet political discourse so often does not take place at a level where that understanding given due consideration. The blurriness of debate is made even worse by some confusion about the ambitions and experiences of actual soldiers in time of war. Eagerness to kill is never truly a good thing. In some battlefield contexts it can become a useful thing, but no sane combatant craves bloodshed for its own sake. An agenda that actively promotes death and destruction never serves the actual interests of soldiers. Yet this too is sometimes overlooked without the context provided by conscription.

The end result plays into a dangerous theme evident in all of history’s military superpowers — the glorification of violence. There is legitimate debate about removing Andrew Jackson from American currency because his deeds, both as a commander in the war of 1812 and later as a President orchestrating Native American genocide, were not at all heroic. A real hero, even in time of war, is defined by the assumption of personal risk for the purpose of protecting comrades and/or bystanders from harm. Jackson was more involved with putting others at risk than assuming it himself. His most significant acts and policies brought about deaths that were not at all necessary to accomplishing any defensible purpose. Yet he has stood tall in American history for such a long time, as less enlightened generations failed to distinguish between the real heroism of courageous self-sacrifice and the bloody grandstanding of killing merely for the sake of killing.

Could the war in Afghanistan have been put on a better course if a number of draftees had been called up to assist in combat operations since the fall of the Taliban there? Would the war in Iraq ever have occurred if the prospect of widespread conscription motivated more Americans to be attentive to pertinent facts during the rush into that debacle? Would pundits and media outlets profligate with outright lies leading up to the war still enjoy so much respect and attention if a portion of the fallen were reluctant draftees? Clearly being drafted is not a good thing for a majority of conscripts. Yet the lack of conscription seems to be an especially useful thing for irresponsible warmongers.

Thus we might also ask if a lack of conscription is an especially bad thing for our own nation. Rich with spoils from a vast empire, weakened by rampant corruption in the halls of power, and suffering from the protracted stagnation that often accompanies a sense of supremacy, Rome eventually abandoned the draft. Citizens still had a duty to support the army, but those with money were given the option to hire mercenaries as an alternative to personally fighting for their nation.

It would not be long after that policy change that the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed. Foreigners hired to fight the Romans’ wars soon became strong enough to fight on their own behalf. Romans increasingly detached from their citizen-soldier roots were losing both the will and the means to defend their own interests. The greatest power in the history of Western civilization, according to legend founded by the wolf-suckled twins Romulus and Remus, officially came to an end after a captive teen, Romulus Augustus, abdicated his position to the barbarian Odoacer.

It is hard to imagine Rome would have declined so precipitously if its citizens remained much more actively involved in military affairs. It is worrisome to imagine what awaits America as we continue to separate the interests of our ordinary citizens from the plight of our professional combatants. My medieval history professor grabbed attention artfully by beginning his first lecture with a warning that America was doomed. As it turns out, no great society has thrived for more than a few generations while relying chiefly on volunteers for military service. I hope he was mistaken, and I do believe modernity presents a different context than Europe at the end of the classical period. Yet I also believe it is imperative that modern life does not prevent us from considering the examples of unraveling superpowers, moving with startling swiftness from unchallenged dominance to the pages of history.

*Many seem to associate this line with the Spartans. I am in no position to categorically disprove that. However, I am troubled by the logistics of it. The standard Spartan shield was not large enough to be effective as a corpse-hauling implement. Roman shields were made large in order to facilitate a number of distinctive tactics like the testudo. A well-made Roman shield would have been large enough and strong enough be serve as a stretcher or sledge even while carrying the weight of an adult human.  Also, that language is recurrent in Roman literature.
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