Compulsory service

Posted by lex, on December 22, 2006

Comments in another thread have discussed the relative merits of a national program of service – a draft, essentially. This is only tangentially important to the instant issue of ground forces size and military end strength: For both proponents and critics, this has much more to do with national character.

Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel is probably the least serious, and therefore least important of those people currently agitating for a renewed draft. His intention is mostly political: He seeks a pulpit from whence to sermonize on his contention that politicians at the national level face fewer barriers to committing troops on adventures when they have no personal or political skin in the game. After all, to paraphrase Madeleine Albright when she was facing opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the commitment of ground forces in one or another of the Balkans butcheries, “They’re volunteers, aren’t they?”

Rangel also has a persistent – even if persistently incorrect – belief that the burdens of military service fall disproportionately upon the underprivileged and those of color, so his advocacy of a draft isn’t entirely political. It also has roots in the daddy-knows-best brand of paternalism that so many of today’s volunteers find so comprehensively offensive – witness his burblings about the lack of “career choices” driving people towards a volunteer service.

But a more compelling line of thinking is that compulsory national service, whether that be in the military, peace corps or what have you, would be a way of inculcating sequential cohorts of American youth with the knowledge of what service actually means, the sacrifices necessary to create and sustain the foundations of a great and prosperous society. Some people make this argument from an emotional standpoint – they don’t like to see men with earrings and goatees spouting off in Starbucks about issues whose complexity they only dimly comprehend. Others make the argument from a concern that generations of soft youth have come to voting age taking the advantages of geopolitical pre-eminence for granted, and for whom national security and personal prosperity are givens rather than an inheritance deeded down to us for safeguarding through the blood and sacrifices of our forefathers. Serious thinkers have proposed such a service, including Samuel Huntington in the conclusion of his seminal, but growingly dated book, “The Soldier and the State.” There is also an argument that the memories of a shared and common service in youth could be the glue that holds together an otherwise fractious polity – this would only hold true of course in a truly universal compulsory service, or else we’d run the risk of running new fault lines through society as once again the wealthy and privileged found ways to evade the service.

But even though a truly universal and compulsory national service might help to put a welcome quietus on the pseudo-intellectual musings of such dim bulbs as Matt Damon – whose maunderings on the topic should be given all the weight due an actor who played a role as a wicket smaht Hahvahd student that one time – and while I do admit a certain prurient curiosity as to what Paris Hilton would look like in fatigues, with load-bearing gear (and a rifle!), the prospect of compulsory service holds little attraction to me.

Five years after 9/11, virtually every man or woman now serving in the US military has enlisted, re-enlisted or voluntarily continued to serve knowing that there was a high likelihood of serving in combat. The moral value of having an all-volunteer force, committed to the fight, is not to be underestimated, especially keeping in mind Napoleon’s dictum that “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” From a qualitative standpoint, especially in the combat arms, the services are as strong or stronger today than they have ever been.

Nor does one need to use the “army of slaves” language that Milton Friedman used in debating General William Westmoreland to believe with him that the idea of compelling young people to serve in a way that might end up costing them not just their liberty but their very lives is fundamentally illiberal – in the most cherished meaning of that often misused word.

Not everyone wants to be a soldier and not everyone that wants to be one is cut out for the task. Compelling the inadequate and malcontent to serve alongside those who truly believe in their mission – absent immediate, existential need – is a recipe for undermining the effectiveness of the latter while denying ourselves whatever useful production the former might provide if freed from constraint. This a kind of redistributive social taxation that Friedman recognized early in the volunteer force debate:

When a young man is forced to serve at $45 a week, including the cost of his keep, of his uniforms, and his dependency allowances, and there are many civilian opportunities available to him at something like $100 a week, he is paying $55 a week in an implicit tax. … And if you were to add to those taxes in kind, the costs imposed on universities and colleges; of seating, housing, and entertaining young men who would otherwise be doing productive work; if you were to add to that the costs imposed on industry by the fact that they can only offer young men who are in danger of being drafted stopgap jobs, and cannot effectively invest money in training them; if you were to add to that the costs imposed on individuals of a financial kind by their marrying earlier or having children at an earlier stage, and so on; if you were to add all these up, there is no doubt at all in my mind that the cost of a volunteer force, correctly calculated, would be very much smaller than the amount we are now spending in manning our Armed Forces.

The European model of compulsory service also serves as an instructional caution: Most of those countries with conscript forces are paying for a service that in the end they cannot use, while only those who fill their ranks with volunteers field forces worthy to fight alongside our own. One notable exception to this rule is the Polish special forces, or GROM – superbly professional operators – but they are an elite selected from within a much larger and mostly undistinguished mass.

There is also a high apparent correlation between societies with compulsory service and those in which the dead hand of government inteferes with the efficiency of free markets. This gives birth to an illuminating observation – it seems that only societies which are sufficiently free to rely upon volunteer service are sufficiently prosperous to afford it. This is not meant to take anything away from the valiant sacrifices and great accomplishments of previous generations who served their country, many of them as draftees. But just as armaments and tactics evolve, so too do societies – we are much the wealthier and freer country now than ever we were before, and in any case a country that voluntarily severs its access to a virtually unlimited pool of conscript manpower is one that is compelled to use what resources it does have access to more wisely.

Fundamentally – absent the most dire and immediate exigency – we cannot be a truly free country if we are forced to rely upon the indentured service of a conscript class for the maintenance of our freedoms. If the day should ever come that we can no longer provide for our defense with the service of courageous volunteers, then the day has perhaps come when we no longer deserve to be defended.

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Filed under by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Military

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