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May 12, 2005

A Moral Argument for the Draft?

Guest: cntodd

It seems that even the U.S. Army has to care about ethics now and then. With Army recruiters failing to make their monthly quotas, the shadowy side of conscription has reached systemic proportions. Unable to hide the problem any longer, the Army has called for the suspension of all recruiting day.

"Army to Spend Day Retraining Recruiters" [NYT]: Responding to reports about widespread abuses of the rules for recruitment, Army officials said yesterday that they would suspend all recruiting on May 20 and use the day to retrain its personnel in military ethics and the laws that govern what can and cannot be done to enlist an applicant.

Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the recruiting command at its headquarters in Fort Knox, Ky., said that every member of the command, including 7,500 recruiters nationwide and senior officers, was scheduled to take part in the day of instruction, called a "values stand-down."

Unfortunately, the problem is more serious then anything that can be resolved in a single day of a so-called "values stand-down." After all, recruiters already know that the underage and the mentally challenged may not be enlisted – they do not need a day of "kumbaya," they need to fire officers who violated recruiting laws. Consider these examples:

At least one family in Ohio reported that its mentally ill son was signed up, despite rules banning such enlistments and records about his illness that were readily available.

David McSwane, a 17-year-old who lives outside Denver, also recently caught one recruiter on tape, advising him on how to create a fake diploma, and another helping him buy a product that purportedly cleansed his system of illegal-drug residue. This week, a CBS affiliate in Houston, KHOU-TV, played a voice mail message from a local recruiter that threatened a young man with arrest if he did not appear at a nearby recruiting station.

Army statistics show that substantiated cases of improprieties have increased by more than 60 percent, to 320 in 2004 from 199 in 1999.

This "values stand-down" is not about correcting any ethics improprieties, but about public relations. Indeed, part of the "ethics retraining" will involve a plug for counseling services:

Mr. Smith said the Army would re-introduce recruiters to legal recruiting practices and the rules that prohibit them from lying to applicants or hiding information from the military that could make them ineligible to serve. He said the focus of the day would also be on reminding recruiters to take advantage of counseling services that might alleviate stress brought on by long workdays and the repeated rejection of their appeals by prospects.

Something needs to change fundamentally in the way conscription takes place. We have known for years that the Army targets some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in this country. It’s all well and good to have an all volunteer army, but it seems rather reprehensible to have the poorest dieing on the battlefield to protect the profits of the richest. Either something drastic needs to change in recruitment incentives to attract the rich and the poor, or else conscription should not be voluntary.

Let me be clear – I don’t like war and I don’t support the current occupation. Nor do I want a draft, particularly if the only reason is to make up for a recruiting shortfall. But it is immoral and unacceptable to create an army of the most underprivileged in this country. Wealth should not be a factor in deciding whether you are on the front lines or whether you get to stay at home in cushy Air Force base job. Wealth should not be a factor in whether you have to fight at all or whether during war time you get to run a company and make boon profits.

War is immoral enough without letting it divide society along lines of privilege for who gets to fight and who doesn’t. Its as simple as that.

If each division was composed equally of recruits from all ranks of the economic spectrum, perhaps the President and Congress would be a bit slower to sending them to war.

UPDATE (05/16/05):

For the record, I do not in any way support the draft. Given the discussion in the comments at Majikthise, I feel like many misunderstood my post (for example, see here and here).

The defense of state power can certainly be criminal or abusive. It is particularly abusive when the state decides to force its people against their wil - i.e. the draftl. But the state can also defend its power by exploiting the class of needy or disadvantaged citizens. In that case, the defense of state power can be just as abusive.

Those who rightfully oppose the draft are led to the conclusion that an all volunteer army is the only morally acceptable route. But in arriving at the decision, we can also fail to see that such an outcome, at times, can be just as immoral. In that case, one might be led from the all volunteer army in the opposite direction, i.e. to the conclusion that a draft that equally represents the population is the only morally acceptable route.

To be clear in my original post, I should have presented this as a moral dilemma, but I took for granted that the draft was an unacceptable option. The point of bringing out the dilemma was not to argue on behalf of the draft, but to bring attention to just how difficult the defense of state power can be from a moral point of view.

Another way to look at things would be to compare military recruitment to ordinary employment. Some might think that just as with the military, people have the free choice to gain employment wherever they chose, even if it means taking a job for 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, for next to nothing. But we recognize that although such decisions are not forced, they are also not free. If the two parties who enter into a contract are on an unlevel playing field to begin with, then the contract is not fair. That is one reason we have unions. By enabling workers to collectively bargain for wages and benefits, the union attempts to partially correct the imbalance of the playing field, to make sure that workers have a fair employment contract.

Workers take jobs with unfair wages, inhumane hours, and unsafe working conditions all the time, but we know that just because they seem to enter into the working arrangments of their own choice, that does not make their decision free. We don’t say, “Oh, well, it was their decision to work for 1 dollar a day, 80 hours a week” or “Oh, well, it was their decision to work around toxic chemicals without adequate protection.”

The fact that no one is holding a gun to their head when they decide to take such a job does not make it right. The same holds true for those who take jobs in known hazardous conditions – like military service.

In short, the point of all of this discussion is simply to bring attention to the moral difficulty a country faces when attempting to defend its power. It is certainly an evil when it decides to enslave its citizens. But knowingly recruiting those who are economically destitute for the defense of state power can be a form of enslavement just as much, and unless we are mindful, we may fail to see that our “all volunteer” army is just as pernicious as the forced enslavement of the draft.

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]


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» This one time, at band camp... from The Other Dark Meat
There's been a decent amount of discussion lately in blogeria about legal and ethical violations by recruiters who are falling drastically short of making their numbers. See here and here for examples. I'm frankly too lazy to find more. [Read More]

» Some of my fellow moonbats have lost their minds from dadahead
Compulsory military service is a form of slavery ... It isn't justified as an attempt (however well-intentioned) to rectify the injustice of a disproportionately poor armed forces. [Read More]


Thus it has always been, thus it will always be.

There are two things that I think should be mandatory for everyone...

1. Civics classes to understand how our government works, the principles that its founded on, and a test before you qualify as a voter... but everyone is registered who passes.

2. Mandatory two year service at the age of eighteen... either in the military, or a medics position or a civil service program of sometype for objectors.

I don't think that we would be so quick to go to war if everyone knew that it might be their child who goes into harms way.

What we have today is a whole lot of folks who are real gungho as long as its some poor kid who dies on the line. The Bush doctrine of preemptive strikes wouldn't be so attractive and easy to sell to a public so wrapped up in itself with greed and unenlightened self interest.

Maintaining a high quality, all-volunteer army during periods of relative calm is good. Using conscription during a genuine crisis to expand the army to whatever size is necessary is also good. It helps ensure that false crises are not exagerrated.I would like to believe that the American people would not resist a genuinely necessary draft, but that a draft would cause an uproar if done for merely adventurous purposes.

I totally agree. In fact, I think that this model of not making suffering limited to the poor and oppressed is very insightful. In particular, it is applicable in the following situations:

1. Since the poor are those who risk their lives in war, everyone should be conscripted for three years at age 18.

2. The poor usually have to drink tap water, which is of lower quality than mineral water and at times contaminated; hence, mineral water is to be banned.

3. 14% of Americans have no health insurance, and without health insurance, poor people have no way to pay for expensive operations. Hence, every perscription drug and medical procedure costing more than 50 dollars needs to be outlawed.

4. Inner-city schools in the United States are filled with crime, which is intolerable. Therefore, the government must sell drugs and weapons in all schools, to equalize the situation.

5. Women get raped more than men. Hence, for every woman who is raped, the government should rape a random man.

6. Black males are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States. Therefore, the police must throw white people into prison at random for no other reason than to make quota, just like they do black people.

Shall I continue?

The preceding was the impetus of Charlie Rangel's "Universal Service Act of XXXX" that kept getting floated every year. Take out all exemptions, men & women both, get them all into some term of federal service.

While I sympathize with the egalitarian idea of making sure no one can skip out on service based on wealth or status, I have two essential problems with it.

First, I have zero -- that is absolute zero, kelvin -- confidence that the powers that be will actually create that kind of sweeping conscription act. As we are seeing with the tinkering done on the most recent "Universal Service Act" wending its way through committees right now.

Next, I am not comfortable with giving the government the power to essentially turn all of its citizens into slaves or indentured servants; even paid slaves. For the record, I am a veteran, and I do have special place in my heart for notions of duty and service. However, I am not comfortable with trying to force that on my fellow citizens.

And as a pragmatic aside, last year I was watching a CNN report on the possibility of a draft, and the reporter was talking to some guys down at Fort Bragg. Their take, as soldiers, was that unit cohesion and esprit d'corps were vital concepts. The guys in their unit really had to want to be there. These soldiers really put a premium on interpersonal and unit loyalty. As one Staff Sgt. put it, "The last thing I want is to be in a hole in some hot zone with bad guys shooting at me with some guy who's only thought is '(bleep) this, I was drafted'..."

mojo sends


I understand that no one wants to be fighting alongside some guy or gal who doesn't want to be there but is only being forced and so might not be an asset in an emergency. I think we have a hard time imagining such people making a contribution in those times.

I guess I would want to know how countries like Israel do in managing their mandantory service time after graduation. What is morale like, how do soldiers get along with one another, etc.? If people were given options for what kind of service they do, as is the case in Israel, some gong into intelligence, other air force, and so on, it seems like there would already be a way of dividing people up so that they would be where they want to be, without creating the kind of problem you worry about. I don't know, but I am sure there are examples to be considered.

Alon Levy...

I think you misunderstand my point. I merely claimed that it seems immoral and reprehensible to have the lower class fighting and dieing for the priveleges of the upper class.

That's the problem, the question then is how to resolve it. One suggestion I gave in the post was to rethink recruitment incentives. Right now incentives disproportionately favor recruitment of the poor and disadvantaged. How could we amend that?

A second suggestion I gave would be to have some kind of draft that selected equally from all economic incomes.

Let’s assume we fight a war to defend our freedoms – freedoms that are shared equally by all. It seems like that is a burden that should be shared equally by all. At the very least, you would want a distribution that equally reflected economic distribution so that one income group was not asked to make a larger sacrifice then another.

But assume that we fight a war that is not about protecting our freedom. Rather, assume we are fighting a war about the securing of natural resources, like oil, for the profit of the dominate class. In that case, why should those who will not benefit from the war be asked to make a greater sacrifice then those who will? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Leaving aside the truly reprehensible recruiting practices cntodd mentioned, I think that many working class people regard the military as a genuine oppurtunity. It's a risky job, and not a particularly well-paying one, but there are good fringe benefits. Remember that equalizing the contributions to the military across class would, unless we dramatically increased the size of the military (which we might need, but I'm really not sure throwing more troops in the Iraq situation will make anything better), will me reduced oppurtunities for people to join, and later do things like get good college scholarships. Are there moral objections to reducing the already somewhat stunted oppurtunities of working class Americans?

The rich have always been able to avoid the draft.

During WW2, people inlisted in droves. Makes ya think, don't it?

One of the prime arguments for the elimination of the draft, was that a volunteer army would be a check on unpopular wars. A way to avoid another Viet Nam.

This is not a perfect control mechanism. It is clear it has a significant lag period before it has an impact. This has not protected us from another war in Iraq. This is because the man power committment was small, but it is probable that it has protected us from the expansion of that war into Syria, Iran and Lebannon.

Would an all voluteer army have kept us out of Viet Nam? Probably not. But more than half of the US was opposed to the war by 1968. Being limited to vounteer forces would have limited the extent and duration of that murderous and useless war. Tens of thousands of American men, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese men, woman and children would not have died. Millions not wounded.

If this President and Congress had the draft, and could put a million more into the military, what would have stopped the invasion of other countries that are imagined as members of the "axis of evil?"

A historical example of this war being a failure, for this very reason, may serve to prevent us from another such escapade in another twenty years.

Don't let these bastards get a draft. Don't let them get getting deeper into the mess they have made. Put a limit on the destruction and the killing. Keep the military volunteer.

But wasn't the problem with the draft during the Vietnam era that it wasn't equitable? If the George Bushes of the world had had to go, that war would have ended a lot sooner.

Actually, it was only the very few and very wealthy or connected that won out like George Bush.

Using educational levels at the time of induction as a rough proxy for social status tells a somewhat different story. The least likely to be drafted were high school dropouts. High school grads were next, followed by college grads. The highest percentage of people who were drafted were those who had started to attend college.

Sorry, the last sentence should have been

The highest percentage of people who were drafted were those who had started to attend college, but dropped out.

Actually, it was only the very few and very wealthy or connected that won out like George Bush.

Who are those with the most political power.

High school grads were next, followed by college grads

Which maybe tracks the increasing unpopularity of the war?

Per the arguments that draftees didn't fight as well as volunteers:

How could you tell who was truly a volunteer, when most of the volunteers were only there to avoid the draft? A lot of guys would volunteer with the promise of a safe specialty military school, like missile electronics. Then they would flunk out, or it would be in the best interests of the military, and they would end up in the infantry, or some other combat role. They had enlisted, but they were any different than the draftees?

In a firefight you are not fighting to win a war. You are fighting for your own life, and your buddys. You lose and you stand a good chance of dying. Has not got a lot to do with whether you are drafted or not, you just want to stay alive.

Military training has provided great brainwashing for 2000 years. It takes a lot of special expertise to take the average 18 year old and break down the moral prohibitions about killing other people. In WWII, a 1/3 of combat soldiers froze during their first action. By Viet Nam, that had been reduced to about 15%. It is the brainwashing and training that makes a soldier, not why they went there in the first place. At least for the overwhelming number of soldiers. Read about it -- its better than experiencing it.

In Israel, military service is a lot less universal than it looks. Most people go into the military, but some don't. Even among those who do go, there is social stratification; it's unavoidable that the intelligence corps is filled with people who graduated with very high grades, for example. However, note how belligerent Israel is; the military draft only makes the nation more militaristic, with many claiming that the military is the mark of citizenship. It goes to show that conscription doesn't reduce the probability of war, nor does it reduce inequality.

That's beyond the more basic argument against the draft, which is that in the form the American left is proposing it, it is exactly hostage taking: it takes innocent people and holds them hostage to a certain foreign policy. This is why it's exactly like raping men because women get raped or banning all medical procedures that some people may not afford.

No, it was not the popularity of the war.

The military is looking for a particular target. It doesn't really want a high school dropout. Most are not bright enough, or are unwilling to become educated. Often have physical disabilities that have caused some of their problems, or resulted from them. Often don't have enough selfdiscipline to start out. Reading skills are limited. Even during Viet Nam, there were quotas limiting how many of this group would be accepted for enlistment or draft.

The military wants someone who can read and understand what is required. It wants a mind that is smart enough to follow orders, and most important maleable. It wants people who start killing on order, and then stop killing on order. Doesn't do well if a guy gets peeved and blows away his barracks mates. High school grads are OK, but college droupouts were/are lots better. Not too academic, not too old.

College grads are good because they bring inteligence and skills. But they are too old, and they think too much. Being older even by 3/4 years, and being better educated, they are less likely to follow orders. They were good for skills, not so great for combat roles. Charge that machine gun nest: 19 year old says "I can do it -- I'm John Wanyne". 23 Year old says "maybe we ought to think this out".

So yeah, college grads had more time, education, connections and prediliction to avoid the draft often via medical means. But they were not as successful as high school grads or dropouts.

I am running out of time, so I develop this, but:

The draft is slavery. Pure and simple. Involuntary servitude, with a significant chance of being killed or being disabled.

A draftee does not even own his/her own body. Our military used to be willin to punish (jail, fine, demote) people who caught an STD, got a serious sunburn off duty, or suffered other "voluntary" bodily harm. The rationale was the "destruction of government property". STD's at least are now punishable only if you don't report them (at least for enlisted personell). Want to live in a world like that?

Do we really want to roll back what the abolitionists fought so hard to obtain?

Hey you! Over there! Stop what you are doing! Get over here! Die for me! Cause I say so! Cause I want to be a bigger, badder, meaner, SOB than my dad!

It certainly seems as if we should all, in some way, contribute to the welfare of our society. An obvious mode of doing this would be to enact some type of compulsory military service. It does seem though that many equally important positions in society are disproportionately populated by either under-privileged, or at least middle class citizens. The police force certainly does not attract many Harvard or Yale graduates yet I have heard no calls for compulsory police service. In addition, the ranks of elementary teachers and fireman tend not to be populated to the "landed" class yet are no less integral in society than members of the military. Unfortunately, the division of labor results in a volunteer army (Although the military attracts many more elite college graduates than any of the former professions I mentioned) populated by those who are less advantaged. These people are subject to the vicissitudes of presidential whim, to a degree, but then so are members of the other professions mentioned.
As a proud member of a military family I can say that the people I have met have invariably been of the highest caliber. Each has a sense of pride in their profession which I believe would be hard to find in conscripted service. This "esprit de corps" is certainly a strength of our military (Along with our incredible corps of NCOs) and would only be diluted by forcing our citizenry into military service.
Historically the "foot soldiers" of any army have come from the lower classes while the officer corp was populated by the wealthy and highly educated. Formerly this was simply due to caste/nepotism while today it exists as a result of an opportunity differential. People born into poverty are simply much less likely to go to college than those born to wealthier families thus limiting their ability to move vertically (e.g. into the officer corps) in society. We could certainly enact methods (and we have) to encourage and enable the less advantaged to participate in higher education but, in the end, there will be a need for an enlisted class, and an officer class. This division will most likely be drawn along educational lines (and therefore, statistically, generally along the lines of wealth background).
We should not forget that the military does offer many opportunities (including education grants) to the poor and thus it is more attractive to them. It may also be a better avenue for social advance than other career opportunities traditionally selected by the less advantaged. We still don’t have an answer as to the moral question of whether it is “right” that the less advantaged be tasked with the defense of our society. I would say that in a perfect world everyone would “select” to participate militarily but of course, this utopia would also obviate the need for a military in general.
I believe conscpription was offered by Rep. Rangel as a method of increasing opposition to the war in Iraq (rather than an idealogical slam against the division of labor militarily). He reasoned that if the family members of the "wealthy" classes were involved in the military operation that support would implicity decline (I don't know if I agree with this view but it is an interesting statement on the implied disproportionate political power of the "wealthy" versus the poor). I personally don't believe the social engineering of military service would serve this purpose. I also have problems with compulsory military service which have been well described by the posts above (vide supra). The only true mode of changing the course of action in Iraq would have been a Democratic Presidential victory in 2004. Of course, even then, I doubt we would be doing very much differently.

I hope nobody likes the idea of the draft. I certainly don’t. The purpose in even bringing it up was to think about moral issues a country like the U.S. could face when fighting a war given the composition of the military – in short, who dies and makes the sacrifice and who gets protected.

Another question that gets raised is the actual morality of the recruiting process that takes place to support an all-volunteer army. For example, does the recruiting process exploit the needs of the disadvantaged and underprivileged?

The U.S. has a long history of such immoral practices – of the upper classes mobilizing the lower classes to protect the interests of the upper classes.

Consider the American Revolution – a perfect example of class struggle.

In the years leading up to the Revolution, class inequality in the British colonies had increased, with the anger of poor landless workers sometimes boiling over into mob violence – violence against the homes of wealthy merchants.

The leaders of the Revolution found a way to direct that class-based anger away from themselves and towards the ruling British elite. In particular, wealthy merchants did not want their wealth going to fund Britain’s wars with France and they also saw the opportunity to enrich themselves with the estates of British Loyalists in the colonies.

Those leading the Revolution talked of “freedom” and “liberties” to excite what were otherwise viewed as the “dregs of society.” Adventure and rewards were promised to enlist the poor essentially for a cause that was not their own.

As the war began and the Loyalists fled, their estates were confiscated and distributed among those who were already landed and their friends. The Revolution was itself a struggle among the elite for who had power. George Washington, if I am not mistaken, was the wealthiest man in the colonies.

The “people” were promised a lot – and by people I mean laborers, landless workers, small farmers, seamen, etc. In some places, tenants were promised land to mobilize them to fight in the Revolution. But in the end, the Revolution merely replaced British rule with the rule of colonial elite, protected by the most famous aristocratic document of all – the Constitution – a document that protected the rights of the landed.

The constitutions of many of the new states only exacerbated the problem. In 1776, Maryland’s constitution required a person to have 5,000 pounds of property to even run for Governor, and 1,000 pounds for senator.

This is what the poor and landless workers were enlisted to fight for? For the wealth and privilege and power of the merchant capitalist class?

My point is simply that having an “all volunteer” army does not mean that those who enlist are actually there willingly, but because they believe it may be the best option they have to make a better life for themselves. In exploiting their need, enlisting someone “voluntarily” can be just as much a form of indentured servitude as the draft.

It certainly seems as if we should all, in some way, contribute to the welfare of our society.

True. The obligatory contribution to the welfare of our society is paying taxes and obeying the law in other ways. In addition, citizens may make supererogatory contributions to our society, such as going into a lower-paying public service profession (possibly the military) when there's the oppurtunity for a higher-paying private job, giving to charity, volunteering in horizontal organizations, donating old clothing, blood, and other things.

Going from the corvée to taxation was a step forward, as Anne Roberts Jacques Turgot knew. We should not go from our system of tax obligation back to the corvée.

As noted by previous authors "the rich always manage to avoid the draft", they are also the one able to avoid paying taxes.

As that they are now sending their investment dollars over seas and using our tax dollars to outsource jobs... what is do they contribute... taxation, corvee or otherwise?

If it were a period of two to three years of service by everyone without exceptions it would go along way to eradicate unnecessary wars, especially if the bar for conscientious objectors was kept high as it currently is.

I agree with everyone who has said that implimenting a wrong but fair plan does not make up for a wrong and unfair plan.

Drafting people to make up for recruiting abuse is one of the most moronic things I have ever heard of.


You write a very interesting article which seems to be a discussion of Strauss's views on esoteric versus exoteric reasoning in foreign policy. This is often used as a rationale for the Iraq war (i.e. the "exoteric" reasoning was the WMD issue which inflamed the "benighted" American public while the "esoteric" reasoning was the formation of a democratic bulk-head in the Middle East etc...).
It is interesting that in your example of the revolutionary supporters you state that they enlisted the "dregs of society" into a cause which was "not their own" by using "freedom " and "liberties" as essentially a form of propaganda. We could argue as to the morality of motivating an unsuspecting public via means which may be either misleading, or specious, but it would be difficult to make the case that the revolution did not bring some overall good to those "dregs". This is not a defense of the Bush administrations casus belli; I am simply opening the question as to whether or not it is moral or ethical to use misleading (although not totally untruthful in the case of the revolutionaries) information in motivating citizenry to actions which would, altogether be positive. I suppose it would depend on your ethical viewpoint (i.e. deontological versus teleological).

"If it were a period of two to three years of service by everyone without exceptions it would go along way to eradicate unnecessary wars, especially if the bar for conscientious objectors was kept high as it currently is."

The voluntary army is fulfilling a valuable check against the expansion of this war.

Were the US to be attacked, there would be an enormous number of volunteers.

But this volunteer military, which has protected us for 30 years, is telling us that this is an unjust war. When it first started, there was an upsurge in volunteers, because people thought it was the right thing to do. As the populace has become aware that it was manipulated and lied to, enlistment has fallen. The very fact that there are insufficient volunteers tells us that people do have a choice.

If service was not voluntary, then military manpower would not be as much of a limiting factor as it is now. We would be in Syria, Iran, Lebannon, etc. Instead of 100,000 dead without cause, there would be 400,000 dead. The results of voting with one's feet is more valuable and effective than voting at the ballot box. Everyone who considers volunteering, and decides not to, is voting against this criminal war.

Yes, in this world we must have a military. It a real and proper need, but what check have you seen that has worked better against the adventurism that Bush et al are practicing?

"If service was not voluntary, then military manpower would not be as much of a limiting factor as it is now. We would be in Syria, Iran, Lebannon, etc. Instead of 100,000 dead without cause, there would be 400,000 dead."

Do you really think that if the sons and daughters of the wealthy and influential in our society were the soldiers in harms way... that they would be so quick to authorize expansion?

The administration is beating the war drum now on Iran as we speak. The propaganda machine at FOX has been doing it for some time. Are you so certain that we aren't heading for an expansion as it is?

There are a lot of insiders who say that June is the strike time... guess we'll find out.

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