What You Should Think About Conscription

November 6, 2007

“. . . 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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What You Should Think About Saddam Hussein

October 3, 2007

So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and humiliate their Muslim neighbors.”

–Osama bin Laden
(in a 1998 fatwa, predicting the U.S. invasion of Iraq)

The executive branch, backed by overwhelming legislative majorities, rushed this nation into Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the time, American media utterly failed in fulfilling a civic duty to keep the public informed. There was no shortage of content addressing the issue. Alas, there was a near total failure to let that content be shaped by findings of fact. Wild speculation was presented as undisputed truth. Even obvious deceptions were presented as one of two equally valid opinions.

Unprovoked military aggression seemed insane to much of the rest of the world. Nations eager to provide strong support for operations in Afghanistan were openly critical of the effort to invade Iraq. The policy only seemed sane to the American public because of a crucial distortion where traditional journalism collapsed under the weight of “balance” defined by equal attention to hawk rhetoric and dove rhetoric. From shady sources to implausible assertions to outright lies, nothing was defined as out of bounds in some sort of perverse game to generate public support for a White House wet dream.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I have no idea what inspires George W. Bush’s nocturnal emissions. However, I do know that the motivation for war could not have been based on genuine concern about the “mushroom cloud” scenario. This is not a gut impulse or even a close call, but the obvious conclusion to be drawn from plenty of solid givens the politically astute ought to have already known.

Perhaps foremost among these givens was the nature of Saddam Hussein. He was a tyrant. He modeled himself after Joseph Stalin, which is every bit as evil as adopting Adolf Hitler as a role model. There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. Yet did he have to go? Why him and not any of a dozen other tyrants? I certainly cannot defend tyranny, but Iraq should be near the bottom of a 2002 cost-benefit analysis conducted by anyone intent on picking places where liberty might be achieved through forced regime change.

The administration could plead incompetence by conceding something like “irrational exuberance” when it came to this extremely bloody pet project. Yet if there was an earnest desire to spread liberty, and it was merely misdirected by inept planning, then why provide generous financial support to the secret service of Uzbekistan? A totalitarian regime uninhibited in the use of medieval torture techniques, including executions by means of boiling oil, hardly seems like an ideal partner in global democratization efforts. If that alliance, as with kowtowing to Saudi royalty, is required by realpolitik; then how credible was this idealism regarding the creation of a power vacuum in Iraq?

It is true that Saddam Hussein was enamored with weapons of mass destruction. The architects of this war understood that point from historic deployments. A cynic would say that American consultants assisting with chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war enabled Pentagon analysts to study those weapons without creating the diplomatic backlash that would result if American forces actually conducted the gassings. I would not go that far, but there is no denying that hostility toward Iran caused our nation to support battlefield utilization of chemical weapons that we ought to have harshly condemned.

When the tyrant turned the poison on his own people, it was no longer possible to remain so supportive without losing face on the world stage. It would not be until the invasion of Kuwait that Saddam Hussein would become known as an enemy of the United States. Still, a prior strong working relationship was undermined by the atrocity at Halabja.

Of course, there was much more to this man’s personality than his fascination with horrific weaponry. Any informed and competent analyst intent on honest work product would have noted that, above all else, Saddam Hussein was a survivor. Many public figures in the Middle East have good reason to fear assassins, but only Hussein went to such extraordinary lengths to deal with that situation. He maintained a substantial corp of body doubles, all selected for a natural resemblance, then carved by expert plastic surgeons to better resemble their security-conscious employer. That is just one example of the many elaborate schemes actually implemented to insure his survival in time of trouble.

Hindsight seems to validate so much criticism of the war in Iraq. Yet it was never invalid as foresight. We know now from taxicab tales and the infamous “spider hole” that Saddam Hussein was indeed a self-preservationist of the first order. We knew that going into the war for all manner of reasons, including his willingness to let weapons inspectors travel unfettered throughout Iraq.

Credible allegations held that Western spies infiltrated UN weapons inspection teams. Then there is the affront to sovereignty — how many other nations would let foreigners go anywhere, anytime, unannounced in the name of compliance with UN mandates? Could you imagine the American reaction if somehow the world came to call for unfettered inspections of our WMD stockpiles?

The fact that he complied in principle with the call for a new round of inspections reveals that his pride as a head of state, never mind his quirky fascination with exotic weaponry, took a back seat to personal survival. He may have been a megalomaniac with other psychological disorders, but he was still sane enough to think that “let the inspectors in or we’ll invade” meant that letting the inspectors in would avert an American-led invasion.

Somehow, collectively, our nation failed to exhibit even that level of mental health. From distortions implying a dangerous level of non-compliance to Dick Cheney’s outright lies about a working relationship between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda, almost no major media outlets had the courage to challenge propaganda points. On a good day, blatant deceptions about the level of menace posed by Iraq were still presented as valid opinions . . . one of “two sides to the story.”

Sometimes there really aren’t two sides to a story. Oceans are mostly water. If someone with a different political mindset than me contends that oceans are mostly vodka, that would not create a legitimate controversy. The right way for news and information media to cover that dispute would be to point out that the vodka theory is demonstrably wrong and the water theory is confirmed by countless credible observations. The fact that a man with a secret underground lair and a cyborg heart told the nation that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda — that is a great reason to do exposés on Vice Presidential dishonesty. It does nothing to justify pieces lending credence to Dick Cheney’s bizarre assertions.

Yet even today, his body long grown cold, the pro-war machine continues to slander Saddam Hussein. Fred Thompson has taken it upon himself to tug at those strings of misguided fear, still useful for controlling all those gullible patriots who were so certain the administration was accurate in its public assessment of the threat posed by prewar Baghdad.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. However, he was a very bad man who was very much in love with the idea of staying in his own skin. His narcissism would never allow WMD development to take precedence over personal security. Anyone anywhere near the Presidency who still doesn’t get that point is far too inept a judge of human character to manage a small business, never mind a modern superpower.

So, what should you think about Saddam Hussein? As an individual his life is a case study in irony. He clearly deserved as harsh a punishment as any human authority is fit to dish out, yet his ultimate fate seems to have been sealed for all the wrong reasons. For so much of his life he was the epitome of villainous, yet in the end he died no differently than would any hero of a conquered nation.

Like other heads of state in power today, some collaborating contentedly with the U.S. government, Saddam Hussein was a monster who tormented his own people ruthlessly. Yet like those other tyrants, he was also in no way a threat to the American people. Perhaps, after stripping away the misinformation about WMD programs and terrorism, there remained some sort of case for pursuing regime change in Iraq.

If so, nothing about that case justified putting Afghanistan on the proverbial back burner or diverting assets away from efforts to neutralize the original Al Qaeda. In a century so far dominated by tragically misguided national priorities, stoking public hatred toward Saddam Hussein proved an effective way to make the American public less rational and thus, temporarily, more supportive of a bold move to take our foreign policy headlong in the direction of historic folly.