Saturday, November 30, 2013

Let's you and him fight, Part 1

(Note: This article turned out a lot longer than I planned, so I'm breaking it into multiple parts.)

There's a question I've long been interested by, and with talk of possible American military intervention in Syria over the past few months it's taken greater prominence again: Where the hell did so many ostensibly anti-war people left of political center- from garden-variety liberals/progressives to more radical sorts to “anarchists”- get the idea that the draft is a good idea as an anti-war measure?

You certainly don't have to look far for examples. Renowned scholar, activist, and alleged anarchist Noam Chomsky has endorsed the draft on that basis. It's the perennial obsession of Congressmen Charles Rangel (lifetimes ratings of 4% from the American Conservative Union, 95% from the AFL-CIO, 92% from the Brady Campaign, 91% lifetime yearly average from American for Democratic Action) of New York. MSNBC talking head and self-described "practical European socialist" Lawrence O'Donnell is a fan. And it's easy enough to find it supported in publications like In These Times, Mother Jones, or London Progressive Journal. You can hardly take a metaphorical step in the comments sections of most major "progressive" sites without tripping over a horde of boosters for the idea when the military and foreign policy are the issue at hand. It may not be a majority opinion, but it's certainly not a rare one

Now, I wouldn't be surprised by folks like that liking the draft as a matter of general principle, as indeed many openly are. If you're a big fan of forcing people to do things in groups, fetishize things like "shared" sacrifice for the state, and/or want to decisively repudiate the idea that a man's life belongs to him and not the rulers of some collective, it doesn't get much better than conscription. But the idea that it would encourage a more peaceful foreign policy as well is still pretty common.

The argument is usually that conscription gives more Americans a direct stake in decisions to use military force by raising the threat that they or someone they love will be drafted and possibly killed, and so will prevent the public from supporting war without good reason. The volunteer military, on the other hand, is said to insulate much of the public from the costs of war by drawing a disproportionate amount of its personnel from particular subsets of society,  typically said to be racial minorities and the poor, who join for lack of other options.

Now, one problem with this is that it's not actually accurate in the modern United States. The poorest fifth of Americans are actually underrepresented in the US military; enlistment rules concerning education and criminal records make a disproportionately large percentage of them ineligible. The military is disproportionately black, but- due to relatively lower Hispanic and Asians enlistment- not disproportionately nonwhite. The actual disparity most worth noting (other than sex, which a draft wouldn't change*) is regional, with a disproportionate number of military personnel coming from the South or the states around the Rocky Mountains. Inconveniently, these are also the parts of the country that are most pro-war, so the supposed mechanism by which the draft would discourage support for war is questionable.

(If any American military draft included women, I'd be very surprised. If that draft were continued into a war of any significant size and length and didn't offer females enough exemptions to make their inclusion a dead letter, I'd be even more surprised. If it actually put female conscripts into the line of fire in any significant numbers, I'd be absolutely shocked. If someone invented some sort of superdrug that gave the average woman the upper body strength and bone density of the average man, those predictions would not change. American conservatives are antsy enough about women's current degree of involvement in the military when they're all volunteers and there's nearly 49 dead men for every dead woman. Actually existing American feminism has a habit of recoiling in horror upon contact with anything resembling equality with non-elite men and retreating into leftish-sounding justifications for traditional protections and privileges. Women currently aren't even required to register for a draft that hasn't actually been used in decades; the idea that any restoration of conscription in the United States would be done in anything resembling a gender-neutral fashion is laughable, and the claims of some conscription advocates that it would or should be are empty showboating.)

And, more generally, the popular cliché about how the wealthy and powerful would lose their taste for war if it were their sons in harm's way doesn't actually hold up to scrutiny very well. Young men of the upper and upper-middle classes have suffered disproportionately in many wars, and not just in pre-industrial societies where the nobility was also the warrior class or where the army was composed of those who could afford to provide their own arms. It's typically been more dangerous in modern armies to be a junior officer then an enlisted man, which historically didn't prevent the ranks of freshly commissioned lieutenants from being filled with the sons of aristocrats or the upper bourgeoisie, and even in the enlisted ranks front-line combatants have often disproportionately been men from comfortable backgrounds simply because they were healthier. Casualties were disproportionately high among men from upper and upper-middle class families in First World War Britain, to cite one conspicuous example; those in power still thought the conflict was worth the lives of well over 800,000 British men.

Joe Biden's son spent a year on active duty in Iraq. Sarah Palin's son spent a year on active duty in Iraq. John McCain's son served in Iraq. The period of all three deployments partially overlapped with the 2008 Presidential race. If any of them experienced some sort of epiphany about the horrors of war as a result, they kept it to themselves. 

A less commonly heard argument, generally limited to more radical circles, is the idea that a conscript (Noam Chomsky slips the euphemism “citizen” in here) army will be less willing than a volunteer (often dysphemized as “mercenary,” as if in unconscious tribute to the modern Left's reactionary Prussian roots) army to fight in imperialistic wars or commit atrocities.

This is historically dubious, to put it mildly. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had “citizen” armies. The Japanese Empire conquered and brutalized much of Asia with a “citizen” army that- just to recap, since some people seem to forget that Asians are not indeterminate clouds of quantum fuzz that only have definite characteristics and histories when white people are fucking with them- slaughtered millions, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians by dousing Chinese cities in cholera and bubonic plague, and torturously killed thousands more researching medical mysteries like "What happens if you saw a still-conscious infant's torso open and start yanking stuff out?"  Every major belligerent in World War I had a “citizen” army. Napoleon conquered much of Europe with a “citizen” army. The first modern “citizen” army in Europe carried out the first modern ideological genocide in Europe on tens of thousand of civilians in the Vendée before it was even half a decade old.

For a bit of irony, that link up above leads to a transcript of a talk Noam Chomsky gave on the occasion of Yasser Arafat's death, condemning the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory... by the State of Israel, which is so enthusiastic about the idea of “citizen armies” that it has mandatory military service for all men 18-21 and is one of the only countries on Earth that conscripts women as well.

For bonus irony, in light of the fact it's radical leftists making this argument, consider the implications of simultaneously agreeing- as Chomsky does- with the statements that:

1.Volunteer armies are full of the sort of brutal, amoral “mercenaries” well-suited to murderous campaigns of aggression and imperialism, while a conscript army would be full of much more humane, thoughtful “citizens” who wouldn't be able to stomach such depravity.
2. Volunteer armies are dark-skinned and poor, while a conscript army would have a greatly increased proportion of whites and the rich.

I don't want to wander too far afield of my main subject, so I leave the question of what a naturally concomitant 3 might be to others.

There's another problem when we look at the American historical record. Proponents of these pro-draft arguments often cite the size of the antiwar movement and the eventual shift in public opinion against the war during America's involvement in Vietnam as an example of the draft having the effect they claim, and the relative lack of a noisy antiwar movement during America's even longer military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as a demonstration of how the lack of a draft makes the public tolerant of unjustified military adventurism.

How well does this claim hold up? We'll examine that next time.

(Spoiler alert: Poorly.)

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JOR said...

This isn't a strictly leftist tendency - plenty of antiwar conservatives (even a few self-described libertarians) make basically the same arguments.

Anyway, I wanted to add that a lot of draft advocates point to actually existing or historical states with drafts, often in ways that imply jawdropping ignorance. Israel is very commonly cited and yet the perfect example of what should set off immediate red flags for anyone supposedly making an anti-imperialist case for the draft. Also they often point back to Rome, failing to note that Rome did plenty of imperial adventuring and international arm-twisting before it was technically An Empire with a 'volunteer' army. And then there's the Swiss, who have apparently been very peaceful for 600 years despite the fact that their biggest export until the 19th Century was mercenaries, usually contracted through the cantons themselves.

JOR said...

"Inconveniently, these are also the parts of the country that are most pro-war, so the supposed mechanism by which the draft would discourage support for war is questionable."

Actually, re-examine this this, and you'll see why their argument has some intuitive weight. With a volunteer army, the military tends to get stocked by people who are pro-war (if you're anti-war there's no reason to sign up, obviously). This differs from the leftist exploitation narrative, though it's intuitive evidence that conscription might, other things equal, encourage military restraint. I agree it doesn't bear examination well, and again it conflicts with much of the narrative they want to sell, but it makes the resonance of the argument sort of understandable.

Of course one problem for the theory is that these militaristic, pro-war people don't just vanish when you have a "citizen" army and will still try to get their country into wars so they can prove how manly and patriotic they are by murdering people. At best all conscription does is force people who are indifferent to or against war to provide more directly the logistical support that eager warriors need to do their bloody work. At worst it puts them in the line of fire right along with the bloodthirstiest, "bravest" warmongers, and battlefields being what they are, encourages them to identify as brothers with some of the worst people their own society has to offer and perpetuate militaristic values.