Universal Conscription: A Way Towards Lasting Peace?

Universal Conscription: A Way Towards Lasting Peace? May 30, 2011

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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