Universal Conscription: A Way Towards Lasting Peace?

A dear friend and mentor of mine, Timothy Leonard, is a strange sort of Quaker: a Quaker who supports universal conscription. His reasoning is compelling in many ways and is clearly motivated by a genuine concern for peace, not war. He argues that, if politicians were voting to send their children into battle, they would avoid war at all costs. So, he supports a universal draft into the military.

In a strikingly similar vein, a colleague of mine at Wabash (Paul Vasquez, a political scientist), examines the difference between democracies with either conscript or volunteer armies. His research suggests a propensity for conscript militaries to correspond to higher interest and engagement across a constituency, a quicker trigger for popular protest and discontent of a war, and, as one might expect, more caution in terms of military engagement.

Paul’s research bolsters the credibility of Tim’s intuitions and for good reason: when very few to none of the “volunteers” in the military are of the ruling class, they become politically expendable; when their lives are tied together—when the peasant and the aristocrat share a common fate—they transcend political valuation.

Nonetheless, I still must admit that, while I can see and appreciate the rationale for these kinds of arguments, they make me a bit uncomfortable. As someone who believes that “world peace” can only begin with a serious political—and spiritual—aspiration for demilitarization, it seems counterproductive to pursue demilitarization through compulsory military service.

As vexing as it may be to my own pious self-interest, the occasion of Memorial Day has given me the time to ponder and re-consider these questions. Embedded in what I had previously dismissed as an irreconcilable contradiction lays this pregnant grain of truth: the only way towards peace will be one in which we go together.

In a way, universal conscription is, literally, deeply Catholic: it calls us into a common union that has no room for fragmentation or alienation; it demands that if we die, we die together—the rich with the poor; moreover: it demands that, if we are to live, if we are to build a civilization of love and a culture of life, then, we must begin to imagine anew the possibilities of conscription, beyond the martial and bellicose purposes of the day.

In short, universal conscription creates a commons: the first step towards a politics of life and love.

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  • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson


    I don’t buy it. I find many problems with the idea. We can find many militaristic societies which finds universal conscription as making it more likely for one to be desensitized and accept war crimes. Remember, when you are conscripted, you will be going through all kinds of training which includes psychological training.

    Second, the argument reminds me of justifications given for the arms race and the increasing of one’s nuclear arsenal. Those who supported it said it was for “peace.”

    • http://www.samrocha.com samrocha

      I understand your objections, Henry. And I take them seriously enough to admit that the kind of conscription I am advocating for here is likely compromised by the thorny descriptive issues of the matter. But, as a normative argument, I think the principles guiding the matter are reasonable and grounded in solidarity and community—in the trinity. I do admit that both cases you bring up are likely perversions of the aims of my post.



    • Paul


      I think your arguments about conscription’s ability to militarize a society is much more true for non-democracies than democracies.

      I would also argue that with a volunteer military like the US now has, we risk having a military that may be more disproportionately staffed by people who have a natural inclination toward violence and a heavy handed us of force than would be true with conscription. Moreover, with more people with military service, the average American would probably be less likely to support military action reflexively out of guilt/naivete-induced impulses to merely “support the troops.”

  • doug

    It’s an interesting argument. I think much depends upon the culture, not the policy. I like the Swiss model, with universal conscription and participation in the reserves, but with a small standing military. They have remained neutral. South Africa, Russia, and North Korea had universal conscription and a history of conflict with their neighbors, but had relatively large standing armies.

    • Liam

      The Swiss cantons as states have remained neutral, but Swiss mercenaries were a fearsome military component for centuries.

  • Ryan Klassen

    Timothy Leonard does sound like a strange sort of Quaker! I see where he’s coming from and his idea has potential in terms of changing the militaristic tenor of American society, but I have a hard time seeing Quakers, Mennonites (my own tradition) or other religious traditions with a long history of conscientious objection actually serving in the military. Does he possibly propose a form of alternative service for conscientious objectors that would last the same length of time as mandatory military service? I can see a sense of social shame that would inhibit those who do not come from a pacifist tradition from choosing this mode of service, but I can also see even alternative service being too nationalistic for many pacifist Christian traditions to swallow.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    I also find this argument problematic. The argument that universal conscription makes societies less militaristic seems grounded in recent history, particularly the Vietnam War: opposition to the draft played a big role in generating opposition to the war. However, World War I provides a stark (and horrifying) counter-example. This war was fought with conscripted armies, and the elites willingly sent their sons to serve. But they also willingly fed them, and millions of their confreres, into the belly of Moloch. The reason, of course, is that European society had accepted the myths of jingoistic nationalism and of redemptive violence: that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a noble sentiment, even when the cause is unjust (or at least morally ambiguous) and the blood is shed in job lots. The left was as guilty of this as the right: the move to have social democratic parties halt the war by refusing to vote war credits died aborning.

    What we are seeing currently in the United States is the willingness of the elite to expend other people’s lives (in this case, the volunteer military) in the service of the “small colonial wars” of empire. This in turn parallels the behavior of, say, England in the 19th century. (Think of Kipling’s bitter poem “Tommy” for instance.) This appears to be the lesson of Vietnam. In passing, though, I do wonder if in the hysteria and uber-patriotism that followed 9/11, Bush could have reinstated the draft.

    While your partly formed vision of a “conscription for peace,” as it were, is enticing, I think it will not in the end produce the fruits of peace that you want. Conscription, in the end, means coercion, and you cannot coerce someone to embrace the Cristian values of peace and reconciliation, any more than you can force someone to become a Cristian. (Historically, the Church has a mixed record on forced baptisms, but I think that they are now universally rejected.) Here you are sitting on the edge of the precipice which seduced so much of the left in the 20th century: the notion that an enlightened vanguard could force the masses to embrace some new ideal. Or as Zamyatin trenchantly parodied it: “If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically infallible happiness, we shall be obliged to force them to be happy.”

    I agree that we need to build a new commons, one which transcends the narrow individualism of our own day, but we can only build it with the tools of love: evangelization and witness to the truth.

    • Paul

      Hi David,

      Your point about conscription in WWI is interesting, and one I address in a book manuscript I am working on. The argument I address in my research is about a constraining effect of conscription on democracies. In the British case their conscription was representative of many classes, but excluded the Irish who would have resisted fiercely. Moreover, elements of democracy that would have ordinarily constrained policymakers was undermined because the king was good friends and provided political protection to General Douglas Haig, the commander of British forces in Europe, who was despised by Prime Minister Lloyd George for his frivolous wasting of British troops at the front. As for the French, their army mutinied during WWI in the face of offensive operations that were doing little more than spilling French blood.

      I think the 24 hour news cycle and social media would make war resistance easier to organize today than during WWI or Vietnam, for that matter.

    • http://www.samrocha.com samrocha


      Thanks for your objections here. I think you grasp the normative core of my point and might expect too much of the descriptive part of it. Like Tim’s view, I find my place in this not, primarily, as a way to influence policy, but more so as a way to guide the ways we might imagine the conditions for the possibility of these descriptive states of affairs. It might sound detached, but it buffer between some of your immediate concerns here and my more to-come (a venir) motives. Then again, Paul’s research may dot he descriptive work that I cannot do — but even without it my focus is on normative principles that guide it.

      So refreshing to disagree with fellow contributors!


      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I love to disagree Sam, so bring it on! :-)

        On a more practical level, I am not sure I understand the distinction between normative and descriptive that you are trying to draw.

  • digbydolben

    I too believe in a period in everyone’s life of mandatory national service, and I suspect, too, that a conscripted army–in the modern context, which is quite different from that of World War I–would cause the elites to be far less likely to to initiate the “little wars” which are the likely ones of the future. I just want the “mandatory national service” to include other things than the military–Peace Corps, Teach for America, various medical corps, etc.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Paul wrote:

      “I think the 24 hour news cycle and social media would make war resistance easier to organize today than during WWI or Vietnam, for that matter.”

      I agree, in theory, that this is the case. On the other hand, these same phenomena, along with the good “old-fashioned” internet would be an equally powerful tool for generating and maintaining the “war fever” required to quash dissent. After what happened recently to my colleague Vijay Prashad (which I posted about a couple of weeks ago) I have had an up-close perspective of how the right can use these media, in an almost casual fashion, to crush any meme except its own. I actually shudder to think what a concerted campaign could accomplish.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Digby, could you expand on your reason for this belief? I do not share it, if only because of the ways in which some of the elite managed to manipulate the system during Vietnam to avoid conscription, particularly later in the war.

      • digbydolben

        David, did you see the looks on the faces of the pro-war Congressmen and women in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 when he attempted to interview them on Washington sidewalks and streetcorners, and suggested that they enroll their children for the war in Iraq? I think that those scenes made my point eloquently.

  • Tim Leonard

    Thanks, Sam for bringing this argument to the forefront. A major testimony of Quakers is Equality. In the world of my experience this testimony comes in conflict with pacifism. Another of the Quaker testimonies is integrity, another harmony. How can one live in harmony with one’s neighbors, with personal integrity and a commitment to equality, and not share the burdens of one’s brothers and sisters who are sent off to die? And yet, for the most part, that is what we do. A society can set conditions under which it is more likely that bearing each others’ burdens becomes more likely. That is the substance of my position.
    I realize we are not living in an actual democracy, and that the term democratic republic is more fiction that fact here. Yet I think the net effect of a univeral military draft in the U.S. would lessen the likelihood of wars without end than it did in the cases of the Soviet Union and South Africa.
    This does not lighten the burden of Quakers at all. In fact it would bring forward the testimony in full light. Quaker commitment to resist war fighting might replace the safe claim to be pacifist in a word with no draft. Jim Smurl, an old Catholic friend of mine used to call this bearing the burdens of justice.

  • http://eclecticmeanderings.blogspot.com/ Hank


    His idea sounds nice on paper. But I do not think it reflects reality.

    The fact is that conscripts tend to be cannon fodder. They are cheap to recruit and replace. If you save few bucks cutting on training or equipment and more of them get killed, so what you can always get more. And you have som many serving dfor short times that finicaial pressures almost require ti. Volunteer armies tend to be more careful with the lives of their soldiers. They are expansive to recruit and replace. By the time they are in combat there is a substantial investment in the individual. Thus justifying more training and better equipment for each soldier, there are less to train and equip.. And he is around long enough to take longer training and learn more complex equipment. Not that they won’t be thrown in to very bloody battles if necessary, more effort will be made to avoid that and they will have a better chance of wi8nning and surviving. Even leaders of doubtful virtue have a interest in avoiding war, controlling the circumstances.

    Within the special conditions of military service, the norms of an employer in Social Justice doctrine should apply. In garrison you have to provide volunteers with acceptable living conditions in garrison. Or they will not not enlist or reenlist. Draftees have no choice, poor barracks, bad food, little pay are the norm. For example in WWII the permanent birck barracks were converted to offices, and the draftees put in the temporary barracks you see in movies. The troops stated in those same buildings until after the end of the draft when new modern permanent barracks were built.

    The argument that political leaders would tend to avoid war in aconscript situation because their children would be sent to combat down not hold water, it is easy enough to pull strings and have them serve in a safe assignment.

    While the draftee army is sited as a reason for opposition to Viet Nam, it was the existence of a draftee army that made that large deployment possible with a large deployment in Europe.

    Interesting reading.
    McNamara’s 100,000. This is the reality.

    • Paul


      The American experience in Vietnam shows that as the draft became less amenable to local political influence as had been true with with draft boards who could get elite children out of duty and the country moved to a lottery without that kind of latitude, opposition to the war became much greater b/c the “have’s” realized they would have to fight alongside the “have nots.” Similiarly, recall that the American Civil War had “conscripts,” but this was really a sham since men could purchases substitutes to fight in their place.

      I contend that the greater care we have seen taken with our volunteer troops in recent years in terms of spending on technology and weaponry is because political elites who came of age during Vietnam fear that the public will respond now as they did back then to mounting casualties.

      I would offer a minor correction to the McNamara link you posted. The author of that piece should have indicated that the Project 100,000 was the brainchild of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who thought military service would help redress some of the social disintegration he was seeing around the country.

      A broader point of relevance to social justice issues is this: our all-volunteer force is more expensive to maintain because of the huge signing bonuses and such that have to be extended by the Pentagon to “attract” young men and women to join the service in the first place. Yet, we have continued to borrow internationally from countries like China to finance wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


    • http://eclecticmeanderings.blogspot.com/ Hank


      Thanks for your comments.

      Of course having a conscript army has many pluses and minuses, and you bring up some of the pluses.

      Conscription can place restrictions on how and when an army is used but it also creates opportunities to solve a problem with force because there is a large army available. From a political only view there is something to be said for the early republic where virtually everyone was enrolled in a common militia unit and there was a great emphasis on the country being defended by brave citizens, but the common militia was virtually useless for defense and totally useless for offence – the best of both worlds. But if an army is needed that is not good solution.

      I remember the switch over to the lottery a little better than I would prefer. The issue was about predictably not deferments. If one was in the lower range one and had the necessary perquisites getting a deferment was no more difficult than before. My observation at the time was that it helped dampen opposition, if one had a high number (over half the pool) one did not have to worry about being called. (Mine was 264 and I signed a contract anyway.) And despite all the hoopla most boards were honest and ran by the letter of the law. But it was and is the Selective Service System a “New Deal” program designed not only to select for the military but to push qualified people into universities and skilled trades. The selecting out better educated and connected people was always intrinsic to the system.

      But taking a longer view on military manpower issues my main points are valid, the tendency to use conscripts a cannon fodder and provide them with substandard living conditions is a fairly consistent practice since the first use of modern conscription in the French wars of 1793-1815. Since I have spent a good bit of my live associated with the military, my opinion is that those compelling reasons to reject conscription except in response to extreme need.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/ Sofia Loves Wisdom

    Your belief is echoed by Owen Meany in The Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Owen argues that without universal conscription Americans will no longer care about what happens in the rest of the world, especially when it is someone elses kid who has to die in some war. There is wisdom to it because besides the fact I live in a military town and have many military friends, I have NO idea there are two wars being fought. It has not impacted me in any serious way. Only when my brothers were overseas did I have to worry and agonize. But non-military families? Zero impact. That is not right! ESPECIALLY when you consider that the war in Afghanistan is America’s LONGEST war in US HISTORY! And no one cares.

  • Tim Leonard

    A question remains. How do we influence a government to establish conditions under which peace, integrity, equality, and harmony are likely to occur?

    • http://www.samrocha.com samrocha

      I don’t really know the answer to this question, and a few different kinds of replies pop into my mind, but here is what I think I think at the moment:

      A government must be able to recognize those condition (the ones you named above) to begin with. More ambitiously perhaps, a government must be directed, in some way, towards them in some fundamental way. It is my own view that our governments of late modernity—as those of yesteryear—are blind to these conditions, and for good reason: they were not built for seeing those sorts of conditions. This is why, in my view, we best “influence” a government, by seeking and ushering-in a new age and with it, a new (imperfect) social order—always seeking a civilization of love.


      ps – Another answer was about becoming Church…