Debates over conscription typically take the form of a for-or-against binary with flavors varying according to the inclinations of the participants. Fascists champion conscription as a means of purification while others see it as a means of precluding or at least mitigating the possibility of war. The former perspective deserves no further exploration, but the latter does have some appeal. If people are actually faced with the possibility of dying for their country, they might actually take civic participation a little more seriously and the political will for war would evaporate – or so the argument goes. In their circles, I am sure that some progressives love springing the notion on each other to show how clever they are. Even if the idea is really just a more deranged version of fining people for not voting (anything to get people to buy into our reformism!), it does make some sense and supporters can point to some well known examples like Viet Nam. They argue that the civil unrest brought about or at least amplified by that war forced the warmongers to avoid the draft as a means of sustaining conflict and switch to voluntary enlistment instead. Others, such as Andrew Bacevich in his book Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, take this reasoning and, in a somewhat ageist manner, blame younger generations’ spoiled consumerist tendencies instead of the actual warmongers.
Opponents’ views come in different flavors as well. War-hawks argue that conscription makes for a weaker military – soldiers who don’t really want to be there won’t fight as hard. Others, in the only tolerable position I’ve listed thus far, argue against conscription on the grounds that it is a form of slavery. Such was Anthony Gregory’s concluding response in a review of Bacevich’s book in Reason:
Rather than reinstating the draft, a less drastic proposal exists, one more consistent with human rights, more conducive to peace, and more respectful of those on the front lines: a truly voluntary military.
Gregory even goes further to criticize the current enlistment model:
Today, unlike most any other U.S. institution, the armed forces practice indentured servitude: Employees agree to a term of service and face imprisonment or even execution should they quit. We do not consider it a “voluntary” job if a warehouse or factory forcibly prevents workers from quitting at will. Those who wish to honor the humanity of America’s soldiers should agitate not for conscription but for the freedom to resign.
Of course, at-will employment isn’t necessarily voluntary. What good is the freedom to resign for a soldier who never had any choice but to enlist? For many people, financial circumstances make enlistment their only viable option. And this is where I find debates over conscription so frustrating. They presume that the draft is no more and fail to acknowledge that we have a different kind in place – economic conscription. Just look at The DREAM Act. It sets the price of US citizenship at two years of college attendance or enlistment in the military. Ostensibly, these conditions make some sense. After all, how can the United States afford to kick out educated young people? Where would we get the nerve to deny citizenship to the nations defenders? But, don’t young, unwitting aliens deserve to be citizens in the only homeland they’ve ever known in the first place? As Camilo Mejía of Iraq Veterans Against the War points out in a debate over the merits of the DREAM Act on Democracy Now!, the legislation is plainly a means of conscription that takes advantage of the miserable economic realities that the act’s ostensible beneficiaries face all too frequently:
My main problem with the DREAM Act is the military portion of it, which, in my opinion, is the main portion of the DREAM Act, because when you look at the 65,000 youth who graduate from high school every year in this country, you have to take into account that the vast majority of them are not going to have the English level required to gain access into a higher education institution. The military has an answer for that. The military has a language institute. The military can say, “If you don’t speak a word of English, you can join the military.”
The DREAM Act also does not allow undocumented youth, who have applied to the DREAM Act and who qualify for the DREAM Act, to get Pell Grants or to get any kind of federal-based scholarships — only loans and work study, which is not sufficient to cover tuition. The military has the Montgomery GI Bill. The military, through the National Guard and the Reserves, has tuition waivers.
The DREAM Act does not include anything along the lines of financial stability, anything along the lines of healthcare, anything along the lines of housing, whereas the military has all of these things that it’s in a position to offer to the vast majority of these 65,000 students who graduate every year, to say, “Come over here. We will teach you English. We will give you housing. We’ll give you a steady paycheck. We’ll give you all these things, if you serve in the military.”
Certainly, many enlistees really want to be in the military and would have made that choice regardless of their financial situations. However, this earnest willingness cannot last as military ventures persist and expand indefinitely. Truly voluntary enlistment is unsustainable and a deliberate, compulsory draft is untenable (and too egalitarian). Coercion is the only other means left, and The DREAM Act is just the start. I expect to see legislation that exploits student debt next, perhaps under the guise of heading off the bursting of the student debt bubble. I just hope that our leaders have the sense of humor to call it The War on Debt, or at least miss the irony in doing so.