September 10th, 2004

Why Conscription Is Immoral and Impractical

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

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 incompatible with freedom. Most political scientists, however, believe that freedom imposes certain positive obligations; and so, like taxes, conscription amounts to paying rent for living in a free society.

Which view is right goes to the heart of political philosophy—but the answer is straightforward. If government’s purpose is to protect your individual rights, it cannot then claim title to your most basic right—your very life—in exchange. Such an idea establishes the cardinal axiom of tyranny 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 wants. (This logic is not lost on the Bush administration, which given the dearth of C.I.A. personnel who speak Arabic, has floated plans to draft such specialists.) Moreover, as philosopher Ayn Rand argued, if the state can force you to shoot or kill another human bring and “to risk [your] death or hideous maiming and crippling”—“if your own consent is not required to send [you] into unspeakable martyrdom—then, in principle,” you cease to have any rights, and the government ceases to be your protector.[2]

It matters little that you may neither approve of nor even understand the casus belli, for conscription is the hallmark of a regime whom persuasion cannot bother. This is of course the point, since by inculcating a philosophy of mechanical, unquestioning obedience, conscription churns men from autonomous individuals into sacrificial cogs. What could better unfit people for democratic citizenship?

By contrast, with voluntary armed services, no one enters harm’s way who does not choose that course; the state must convince every potential soldier of the justice and necessity of the cause. To a free society—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. And yet the same Constitution that forbids the state from enforcing “involuntary servitude” (13th Amendment), instructs it to “provide for the common defense” (Preamble) and to “raise and support armies” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 12). Do these powers not amount to conscription? Not necessarily. David Mayer, a professor of law and history at Capital University, explains: Where the Constitution is ambiguous, we should refer to its animating fundamentals; we should read each 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 that 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 into a suicide pact.[5] “Injustice is preferable to total ruin,” the social scientist Garrett Hardin once opined.[6] But stability is neither government’s purpose nor its barometer. True, stability provides the security necessary to exercise one’s freedom; but a government that sacrifices its citizens’ autonomy to prop itself up is no longer a guardian of freedom. To put it another way, the survival of the nation is an imperative, but since the Constitution defines the nation, the nation’s survival is meaningless apart from that relationship. As philosophy professor Irfan Khawaja puts it, “A constitution is to a nation what a brain is to a person: take the brain out, and you kill the person; take large enough chunks of the brain out, and it may as well not be there.”[7]

Yet what if, out of ignorance or indifference, people fail to appreciate a threat before it is too late? Would the 16 million men and women whom the U.S. government conscripted for World War Two—over 12 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?[8] Isn’t conscription, as President Clinton termed it, a “hedge against unforeseen threats and a[n] . . . ‘insurance policy’”?[9] 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? In 1919, the Supreme Court declared that merely circulating an inflammatory anti-draft flier, in wartime, constitutes a “clear and present danger.”

Of course, since the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, if one wants to continue to live in freedom, then one should volunteer to defend it when it is threatened. As a practical matter, a dearth of volunteers is often the result of a corrupt war. For instance, without conscription, the U.S. government would have lacked enough soldiers to invade Vietnam; an all-volunteer force (A.V.F.) would have surely triggered a ceasefire years earlier, since people would have simply stopped volunteering. Indeed, rather than deter presidents from prosecuting that increasingly unpopular, drawn-out and bloody tragedy—from sending 60,000 Americans to their senseless deaths—conscription enabled them to escalate it.

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.”[10]

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”[11] of a man who fights of his own accord, for that which he believes is truly just. This is why American farmers defeated British conscripts in 1783, and why Vietnamese guerrillas 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, who as George Orwell reportedly said, allow 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 do us harm.[12]

Nonetheless, isn’t an A.V.F. a poor man’s army, driving 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? Similarly, doesn’t an A.V.F. devolve disproportionately on minorities, who, as one former Marine captain writes, “enlist[] in the economic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass”?[13] In fact, today’s A.V.F. is the most egalitarian ever. While blacks, for instance, remain overrepresented by six percent, Hispanics, though they comprise about 13 percent of America, comprise 11 percent of those in uniform.[14] Moreover, overrepresentation of a class or race stems not from the upward mobility the armed forces offer—training soldiers in such marketable skills as how to drive a truck, fix a jet or operate sophisticated software—but from the inferior opportunities in society.

Still, critics insist the A.V.F. excludes the children of power and privilege, of our opinion- and policy-makers. Isolated literally and socially from volunteers, these “chicken hawks” can thus advocate “regime change,” “police action,” protecting our “national interests,” or “humanitarian intervention.” After all, as Matt Damon’s character remarks in Good Will Hunting (1997): “It won’t be their kid over there, getting shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, ‘cuz they were pulling a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie [a blue-collar district of Boston] over there taking shrapnel in the ass.” “The war,” therefore, as former marine William Broyles Jr. recently noted, “is impersonal for the very people to whom it should be most personal.”[15] By contrast, serving in combat gives one an essential understanding of its horrors, and the more people who serve, the more soberly and honestly will people weigh the real-life consequences of their opinions. It’s exceedingly more trying to beat the warpath if your spouse, friends, children or grandchildren might come home in a body bag (and even more vexing if the government does not censor such coverage).

In theory, this argument has much merit. As a moral issue, however, no matter how egalitarian conscription may be, there is no getting around that it still violates individual rights. Additionally, that veterans, ipso facto, possess better judgment than their civilian counterparts elides that those Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, neither of whom saw combat, were America’s greatest wartime strategists. Moreover, as journalist Lawrence Kaplan observes, Vietnam left Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE), John McCain (R-AZ) and John Kerry (D-MA) on three divergent paths, with Hagel a traditional realist, McCain a virtual neoconservative and Kerry a leftist.[16] Experience, while laudable and preparatory, is neither mandatory nor monolithic.

Yet the military integrates blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles, immigrants and nativists, communists and capitalists, atheists and religionists. Esprit de corps breeds national unity. Not for nothing did “bro” enter the American vernacular in the Vietnam era—“Who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”[17]—nor was it coincidental that the army was the first governmental agency to be desegregated. A speechwriter for President Nixon, who wrote a legislative message proposing the draft’s end, now argues that the “military did more to advance the cause of equality in the United States than any other law, institution or movement.”[18]

Of course, forcing people to wear nametags in public areas would make society friendlier, but no one (except some characters in Seinfeld) entertains this silly violation of autonomy—so why should we entertain it for the most serious violation? Noble and imperative as the ends may be, a civilian-controlled military is not a tool to implement social change, but a deadly machine for self-defense. Further, to advance equality at home one may well need to watch one’s bros die abroad.

But conscription will restore the ruggedness today’s young Americans 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.”[19]

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.”[20] Moreover, the problem is not a dearth of regimentation, but a dearth of persuasion; the administration has failed to convince potential soldiers to enlist. Rather than see this as a sign of pusillanimity, it seems that those with the most to lose think Washington is acting for less than honorable reasons—which should cause the government 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 you 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 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 18 to 25, 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.” In other words, when man is most vulnerable, draft advocates want to force him into 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.”[21] Death in some alien jungle yesterday—death in some alien desert today.


[1] Ronald Reagan, Letter to Mark O. Hatfield, May 5, 1980. As quoted in Doug Bandow, “Draft Registration: It’s Time to Repeal Carter’s Final Legacy,” Cato Institute, May 7, 1987.

[2] Ayn Rand, “The Wreckage of the Consensus,” in Ayn Rand, 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 (Stanford: Hoover, 1982), p. 570.

[4] David Mayer, “Interpreting the Constitution Contextually,” Navigator (Objectivist Center), October 2003.

[5] The term “suicide pact” comes from Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Jackson, who, in his dissenting opinion in Terminiello v. Chicago (1949), wrote: “There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”

See also David Corn, “The ‘Suicide Pact’ Mystery,” Slate, January 4, 2002.

[6] Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, December 13, 1968.

[7] Irfan Khawaja, “Japanese Internment: Why Daniel Pipes Is Wrong,” History News Network, January 10, 2005.

[8] Harry Roberts, Comments on Arthur Silber, “With Friends Like These, Continued—and Arguing with David Horowitz,”, November 19, 2002.

[9] William Jefferson Clinton, Letter to the Senate, May 18, 1994.

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

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

[12] 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, which was the pseudonym of Eric Blair. 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.

[13] Nathaniel Fick, “Don’t Dumb Down the Military,” New York Times, July 20, 2004, p. A19.

[14] Nathaniel Fick, “Don’t Dumb Down the Military,” New York Times, July 20, 2004, p. A19.

[15] William Broyles Jr., “A War for Us, Fought by Them,” New York Times, May 4, 2004.

[16] Lawrence F. Kaplan, “Apocalypse Kerry,” New Republic Online, July 30, 2004.

[17] Noel Koch, “Why We Need the Draft Back,” Washington Post, July 1, 2004, p. A23.

[18] Noel Koch, “Why We Need the Draft Back,” Washington Post, July 1, 2004, p. A23.

[19] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences,” in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses (London: Everyman, 1993), p. 20.

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

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

Unpublished Notes

1. Bill Steigerwald, “Refusing to Submit to the State,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 19, 2004.
We [draft dodgers] exploited nearly 30 deferments, which—until the draft lottery was instituted in 1969 to make involuntary servitude an equal opportunity for every 18- to 26-year-old—were embarrassingly rigged in favor of the white and privileged and against minorities and working classes.

We went to college (2-S)—for as long as possible. We got married—and had kids ASAP (3-A). We faked diseases and psychoses, made ourselves too fat or over-did drugs (4-F).

We became preachers (4-D) and teachers and conscientious objectors (1-O). We fled to Canada or even committed suicide.

2. David M. Kennedy, “The Best Army We Can Buy,” New York Times, July 25, 2005.
But the modern military’s disjunction from American society is even more disturbing. Since the time of the ancient Greeks through the American Revolutionary War and well into the 20th century, the obligation to bear arms and the privileges of citizenship have been intimately linked.

When our deferments were refused or elapsed, we became draft bait (1-A). . . .

[I]t’s the military draft that’s morally wrong, not the [politician] . . . who dodges it.

3. Christopher Preble, “You and What Army?,” American Spectator, June 14, 2005.
A draft would succeed in getting bodies into uniforms, but conscription is morally reprehensible, strategically unsound, and politically unthinkable. The generals and colonels, but especially the junior officers and senior enlisted personnel who lead our armed forces, know that the military is uniquely capable because it is comprised of individuals who serve of their own free will.

4. Richard A. Posner, “Security vs. Civil Liberties,” Atlantic Monthly, December 2001.
Lincoln’s unconstitutional acts during the Civil War show that even legality must sometimes be sacrificed for other values. We are a nation under law, but first we are a nation. . . . The law is not absolute, and the slogan “Fiat justitia, ruat caelum” (Let justice be done, though the heavens fall) is dangerous nonsense. The law is a human creation . . . It is an instrument for promoting social welfare, and as the conditions essential to that welfare change, so must it change.

5. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. As quoted in Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars.
The only test . . . of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions is that they, or a sufficient portion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labor and danger for their liberation.

6. Mario Cuomo. As quoted in William Safire, “Cuomo on Iraq,” New York Times, November 26, 1990.
You can’t ask soldiers to fling their bodies in front of tanks and say, ‘We’ll take our chances on reinforcements.’

the latter means that your right to your own life is provisional—which means you don’t have that right. Instead, you must buy your rights by surrendering your life.

integrate idea of “shared sacrifice” to “poor man’s army” counterargument

Data on Draftees
According to Pentagon officials, draftees tend to serve shorter terms than volunteers, so the armed services get less use out of their training. Draftee military units also don’t jell as well into cohesive fighting forces (Mark Thompson, “Taking a Pass,” Time, September 1, 2003, p. 43).

the lack of unit cohesiveness from constant rotation

“With soldiers now serving 50% longer than they did in the Vietnam era, the Pentagon invests heavily in career-length education and training, helping the troops master the complicated technology that makes the U.S. military the envy of the world” (Mark Thompson, “Taking a Pass,” Time, September 1, 2003, p. 43).

7. Fred Kaplan, “The False Promises of a Draft,” Slate, June 23, 2004.
In 2002 (the most recent year for which official data have been compiled), 182,000 people enlisted in the U.S. military. Of these recruits, 16 percent were African-American. By comparison, blacks constituted 14 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. population overall. In other words, black young men and women are only slightly over-represented among new enlistees. Hispanics, for their part, are under-represented, comprising just 11 percent of recruits, compared with 16 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds.

Looking at the military as a whole, not just at those who signed up in a single year, blacks do represent a disproportionate share—22 percent of all U.S. armed forces. By comparison, they make up 13 percent of 18-to-44-year-old civilians. The difference is that blacks re-enlist at a higher rate than whites. (Hispanics remain under-represented: 10 percent of all armed forces, as opposed to 14 percent of 18-to-44-year-old civilians.)

Still, the military’s racial mix is more diverse than it used to be. In 1981, African-Americans made up 33 percent of the armed forces. So, over the past two decades, their share has diminished by one-third.

There is a still more basic question: What is the purpose of a military? Is it to spread the social burden—or to fight and win wars? The U.S. active-duty armed forces are more professional and disciplined than at any time in decades, perhaps ever. This is so because they are composed of people who passed comparatively stringent entrance exams—and, more important, people who want to be there or, if they no longer want to be there, know that they chose to be there in the first place. An Army of draftees would include many bright, capable, dedicated people; but it would also include many dumb, incompetent malcontents, who would wind up getting more of their fellow soldiers killed.

It takes about six months to put a soldier through basic training. It takes a few months more to train one for a specialized skill. The kinds of conflicts American soldiers are likely to face in the coming decades will be the kinds of conflicts they are facing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Bosnia—“security and stabilization operations,” in military parlance. These kinds of operations require more training—and more delicate training—than firing a rifle, driving a tank, or dropping a bomb.

If conscription is revived, draftees are not likely to serve more than two years. Right now, the average volunteer in the U.S. armed forces has served five years. By most measures, an Army of draftees would be less experienced, less cohesive—generally, less effective—than an Army of volunteers. Their task is too vital to tolerate such a sacrifice for the cause of social justice, especially when that cause isn’t so urgent to begin with.

Mandatory National Service
A final spin on the conscription arguments appeals to compulsory national service.

With the phrase painted across the back of his jacket, a nineteen-year-old department store worker, Paul Robert Cohen, said it memorably: “Fuck the draft.” In Cohen v. California (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected this speech (which in full read, “Fuck the Draft. Stop the War”). Yet 58 years earlier—the only time the high court has reviewed conscription—the Court ruled conscription unconstitutional.

Each must choose according to his own priorities.

The word “sacrifice” apparently now applies only to our grandparents.

But I do not want to sacrifice; in fact I want to live selfishly, to protect my own freedom, not that of my 280 million compatriots.

“Soviet Russia took children away at an early age and indoctrinated them with ideas of war and the glories of the regimented life in which the individual does not count.”

Constitutional Arguments
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.

Under the ordinary rules that courts use to harmonize potentially conflicting laws, the more specific one typically governs (Adam Liptak, “In Limelight at Wiretap Hearing: 2 Laws, but Which Should Rule?,” New York Times, February 7, 2006).

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