Policy Of Conscription Research Paper

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Conscription is the compulsory enlistment of people into military service. In modern democratic states, conscription is governed by a set of rules regulating eligibility, length of service, pay, and benefits. Conscription may involve universal military service, but it need not. The terms ‘to conscript’ and ‘to draft’ have become virtually synonymous.

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1. Scholarship On Conscription

Conscription is one of the most important policies available to states. The very essence of the state, at least according to Max Weber, is its power to monopolize coercive power within a given territory, and this power depends on the state’s control of an army, which in turn depends on the ability of government to recruit soldiers. Nonetheless, scholars concerned with developing a more adequate theory of the state have given relatively scant attention to military obligations and the institutions that enforce these obligations. Military service is demonstrably as important an aspect of the state–citizen relationship as any that exists. A government’s decision to conscript and its policy implementing conscription have significant political and social implications for state building and for citizenship.

There has not, of course, been total neglect. Anthony Giddens, Michael Mann, Pierre Birnbaum, and other political sociologists have, on occasion, addressed the significance of military service and, more specifically, conscription for state building. Specialists in international relations and international political economy have certainly considered the importance of national defense and military power, but the state theorists among them have, on the whole, focused on civil vs. military domestic power, inter-national cooperation, and trade. Military theorists and historians, including such luminaries as Thucy-dides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Carl von Clausewitz, and John Mahon and a host of more contemporary scholars, have discussed the political and social importance of military format as well as the role of nationalism and voluntary compliance in increasing acquiescence with conscription. However, to the ex-tent there has been any systematic attention to the link between conscription and state building or citizen-ship, it has generally come from historically oriented political scientists, sociologists, and economists.

In addition to the investigations of conscription in state theory, there are two additional traditions of conscription scholarship. One focuses on contemporary policy issues: what role conscription should play in the recruitment of modern armies. The other deals with conscription data as a source of information about the population over time.

2. Conscription And State Theory

There are at least three strands to this literature. The first emphasizes the relationship between war, nation building, and state making. Here the major issues are the development of state capacity and the form of governance. The second emphasizes the relationship between conscription and citizenship. It, too, is a literature focused on the changing nature of the state, but the focus is on transformation of subjects into citizens. The third stresses the bases for and history of objection to conscription.

2.1 Nation And State Building

Otto Hintze (1994 [1906]), Samuel Finer (1975), Charles Tilly (1990), and Brian Downing (1991) capture the important role that military activity and institutions generally play in forging the infrastructure of governments. To wage war requires economic resources, including the ability to tax subjects for money and men. The way in which war is waged also has consequences for the form and power of the state. Joseph Schumpeter’s (1954 [1918]) initial insight, while obvious, remains important: war permits increased government expenditure, which is sustained in peace-time, and increased government expenditure implies increased taxation. Moreover, the emergence of constitutional democracies or authoritarian regimes can be affected by the processes of extracting resources during wartime.

Conscription played a crucial role historically in the development of state capacity, particularly since the French and American revolutions. Throughout the eighteenth century (and into the nineteenth), a single shilling pressed into the hand of a drunken man in a public house by a recruiting sergeant enlisted a soldier into the British army. In France, the dreaded Milice royale relied on a lottery to choose which peasants would be forced into the King’s service. The army was not a popular institution, at least not for those who had to serve in its rank and file. Some joined because they liked the life, but most did so because they were coerced or needed the work or were fleeing from something worse. Those who refused did so because being in the army was inconvenient or actively repugnant. National patriotism is a relatively modern basis for service. It requires a sense of one’s country as an entity that can legitimately demand contributions in the form of conscripts and taxes.

The use of coercion to compel young men to fight on behalf of a chief, a lord, or a king has long been a feature of human society. Modern conscription, how-ever, emerged in the late eighteenth century. According to the OECD, the origin of the term conscription was in 1798 during the French Republic. At that time and place, conscription referred to a very particular process of military enrollment in which lots were drawn among the young men deemed eligible for service and which permitted those whose names were drawn to provide substitutes.

In the nineteenth century the countries of Europe and North America developed modern national states, and those in the Antipodes began the process. State building involved the creation of a military adequate to the requirements of relatively centralized government and the exigencies of international politics. The mass mobilization of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars marked the beginning of the period in Europe; the American Revolution and the Civil War were critical moments for the United States. The governments of this period confronted the problems of turning feudal armies and local militias into national armies. A series of new institutions emerged to make orderly conscription possible: a census of eligible young men, rules of selection and eligibility, health examiners, and a bureaucratic apparatus capable of assigning, paying, and housing the recruits.

Historians have documented the creation of these new institutions and the problems they created for both legislators and the new bureaucrats (e.g., Chambers 1987, Schnapper 1968, Simkins 1988). Resistance to the census and to conscription was strong among those trying to avoid the reach of a centralizing state. Young men hid from the registrars, and they cut off fingers and toes to make themselves ineligible (e.g., Aron et al. 1972, Le Roy Ladurie 1979 [1973], Levi 1997). The long-term effect of the forms of conscription introduced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, was the construction of more centralized states, whose extractive reach goes deep into the population.

Conscription can contribute to nation building as well as state building. The French army, for example, played a key role in transforming a population drawn from diverse regional and linguistic backgrounds into a single people. The British Army, on the other hand, seems to have reinforced ethnic divides in both the British Isles and its colonies. Today the armies of the United States, South Africa, and other countries with historically disenfranchized minorities are important institutions for the upward mobility of precisely those minorities once prevented from being soldiers. In-vestigations of other polities, including more recently developed countries, suggest reasons for variation in ethnic integration that range from the demand for troops to the differences between a professional and politicized military (e.g., Enloe 1980, Peled 1998).

2.2 Conscription And Citizenship

The institutions of conscription extend the state’s social control of its people, but they can also lay the basis for the extension of citizenship. The exploration of the citizen-soldier has been the subject of considerable discussion, most notably in the work of Morris Janowitz, Samuel Stouffer, Charles Moskos, Elliot Cohen, and David Segal, but that literature has largely investigated civil–military relations and the motivations of soldiers to fight. Of more interest here is the ways in which the development of conscription interacts with the construction of the terms of citizenship.

Within the context of modern nationalism, someone who is willing to die for one’s country has a claim on recognition as a full citizen of that country. Historically, conscription is often linked with demands for the franchise, social services, and other rights of citizenship. There is considerable evidence that ethnic minorities who have been exempted from conscription will become eager volunteers in order to demonstrate their loyalty and thus earn the privilege of eligibility for conscription. This may explain why so many blacks and Nisei Japanese enthusiastically signed up for United States Army during World War II, why some Druse are so eager to participate in the Israeli army, and why other notable ethnic minorities have also enlisted in their country’s armies (Petersen 1989).

In France, Switzerland, several other continental European countries, and for many Israelis, citizenship, at least male citizenship, is closely tied to one’s service as a conscript. There is an expectation of some form of conscription, even during peacetime. It is a rite of passage to have served in the military, and it is often a form of bonding for the cohort that drills together. The Anglo-Saxon democracies of Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have a quite different tradition. Until World War I, conscription could be imposed only during war and, moreover, only during a war of defense—although the definition of ‘war of defense’ varies among these countries and among groups within these countries. Nearly all have had some extended period of conscription in the absence of major military conflagrations, but the draft remains controversial.

Conscription by democratic governments seems to succeed to the extent the policymakers design military service formats that, first, ensure relative equality of sacrifice and, second, provide a means for popular discussion and approval of the war and conscription policy. More often than not these more democratic moves are accomplished not through foresight but as revision of failed policies. With few exceptions, policymakers first introduced conscription that pro-vided discriminatory exemptions to powerful constituents and laid nearly the whole burden of warfare on those without the franchise or other form of political clout. Such policies changed only in response to legislative conflict, political protests, and actual draft riots, such as those in New York in 1863 or in Toulouse in 1868. These acts compelled policymakers to revise their beliefs about the acceptability of permitting some part of the population to literally buy their way out of military service.

The high degree of citizen support necessary for conscription hinges on the perception of an acceptable policy bargain whose terms government actors are likely to uphold. The minimal terms of the democratic conscription bargain are that government will con-script according to some legislated and relatively equitable formula.

The history of conscription in France throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century is one of ongoing negotiations between citizens and state officials over what makes for equitable rules governing conscription. Conscription was by lottery; a set number was chosen from the pool of eligible young men and constituted the cohort of that year. The registrars only went down the list if some of those chosen did not pass the medical examination. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, hiring a substitute was an acceptable practice. Indeed, many of those who received a ‘bad’ number in the lottery found substitution Pareto optimal. The unlucky recruit was generally covered by an insurance scheme his parents had bought and which provided the resources to pay the bonus or premium substitutes demanded. No one became newly eligible as a result, and young men accepted the substitution contract only if they found it sufficiently attractive—they were not compelled to serve. However, as France increasingly democratized and as the concept of equity altered in consequence, substitution was increasingly considered undemocratic and unfair.

In contrast, voluntary citizen soldiers had been the mark of the military format of the Anglo-Saxon democracies. The institution of conscription in Britain, the United States, Canada, and New Zealand during World War I represented a redesign of the democratic state and a redefinition of the obligations of citizenship. The Great War demonstrated the problems with voluntarism. It failed to produce enough enlistees or permit efficient mobilization of their labor. It led to unattractive and often inappropriate forms of moral suasion. It created bureaucratic mechanisms, such as the national registers, that may have discouraged as many volunteers as they encouraged. By publicizing the shortages in man-power, these censuses made evident the numbers who might be considered ‘shirkers.’ Such knowledge could make those who had enlisted as well as those who had not think twice about volunteering. If there were not to be enough men anyway, why make the sacrifice?

As states became more democratic, the relationship between conscription and citizenship changed. Conscription remained a basis for the demand for the vote and for social benefits, but it also came under more scrutiny as an obligation governments could impose, even in wartime. With increasing democratization came increasing questions of citizen approval of the wars being fought and the nature of the conscription system being imposed.

2.3 Objections To Conscription

Conscription solves manpower allocation problems during mass mobilization wars; it is a government tool for determining who fights and who works in essential industries. The institution of conscription creates as well as solves problems for democratic governments, however. There is one school of authors who object to conscription altogether as a form of unacceptable government compulsion, which abridges civil liberties and citizen choices and makes the state a Leviathan power. Others argue that conscription may be acceptable, but only during wars of defense recognized as such by the population. Finally, there are those who argue for exemptions from conscription based on conscientious objection; they make the case that individual rights here exceed the demands of universalism.

A major argument for conscription was—and is—its equity. Within democracies there develops a new standard by which to evaluate the implementation of conscription: equality of sacrifice. To the extent governments permit exemptions on nonuniversalistic grounds, they will experience an increase in refusal to consent. The pressure to offer exemptions is particularly strong during wars, such as Vietnam, that do not require total mobilization. Moreover, the fact that decisions about exemptions were made by decentralized draft boards in the United States, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere led to differential treatment of otherwise similar cases, thus confirming the sense of a discriminatory and inequitable process (e.g., Davis and Dolbeare 1968).

A related problem for democracies is the imposition of conscription without the approval of some of those it affects or despite the opposition of certain groups. There are numerous studies of resistance by particular ethnic, religious, racial, and class-based groups (see, e.g., Granatstein and Hitsman 1977, Karsten 1983, McKernan 1980). This, in the long run, is a problematic strategy for democracies, as the cases of the Irish in Britain, the francophones in Canada, the aboriginals in Australia, Canada, the United States, and South Africa, the blacks in the United States, among others, have demonstrated. Individuals who have lost or never possessed confidence that the playing field is level may be momentarily compliant due to coercion, but they are not in any sense consenting.

Principled refusal to comply with conscription dates at least from the early American militias. There are two primary grounds for refusal: religious and political. Religious objection to conscription, or what is generally called conscientious objection, requires membership of either a pacifist religion (Quakers, Mennonites) or one that denies the authority of the state over its members (Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain sects of Judaism). Conscientious objection is thus most prevalent where dissenting religions thrive, as in the American colonies. Politically-based objection depends on a belief that there are reciprocal obligations between citizens and their governments and that consent can be withdrawn when the government has failed to meet its obligations. This kind of objection is most likely to arise in response to popularly contested wars, such as Algeria or Vietnam. Such factors make conscription and various forms of objection to conscription popular topics of discussion throughout the liberal democracies among politicians and the general public. There is, in addition, a significant philosophical, historical, and public policy scholarship (see, e.g. Simmons 1979, Klosko 1992, Sibley and Jacob 1962, Moskos and Chambers 1993, Levi 1997).

3. Using Conscription Data

For economic historians and demographers, there is an additional use for conscription. It is an important source of data. The registration and examination of conscripts provides information about the population over time as well as about the relationships between recruits and the state. It is particularly useful in-formation for learning about height and health over history among different regions and classes (Aron et al. 1972, Floud et al. 1990, Mokyr and Grada 1996). However, it is also useful for inferring the relationship of different ethnic or religious groups to the state (Hanham 1973, Spiers 1980, Levi 1997).

What conscription data is not particularly useful for, however, is comparing the behavior of recruits across wars and countries. Most of the interesting studies are based on snapshots of a particular period in a specific place or rest very lightly on quantitative data. Despite the significant amount of data collected by armies, seldom is it collected the same way across time and/or across countries or aggregated in a way useful to social scientists. Moreover, much information has been lost or remains restricted.

4. Conscription And The Modern Army

France epitomizes a country in which conscription and citizenship are nearly synonymous. Conscription has been part of the French political landscape since the French Revolution, except for one brief interlude. There have been significant policy shifts. Substitution and commutation were eliminated, and lengths of service and exemptions changed. In 1962, the French finally permitted conscientious objection, subsequently offering a variety of means of completing one’s national service, including teaching in Africa, building bidonville in the South of France, and even working in a consul or bank outside of France. In the late 1990s, the greatest change of all occurred: the elimination of conscription altogether. This is largely for military reasons; the army is finding it costly to work with short-term recruits and prefers a highly trained, technologically sophisticated, and fully professional army. Belgium and The Netherlands abolished conscription prior to France, in the early 1990s, and for similar reasons. South Korea is another example from a very different continent and culture of the recent shift from a mass and conscripted army to a small and professional army.

The elimination of conscription in many contemporary states has raised a series of questions about the appropriate form of military service in democracies. One set of issues, played out largely in the pages of Armed Forces and Society, are the political and social implications for the civil–military relationship. Some scholars fear that increased reliance on a military elite and reduced dependence on the citizen soldier may dangerously enhance the power of the military. Others believe that the institutions of civilian government, at least in the advanced liberal democracies, will be sufficient as a countervailing power.

A related development is reflected in the all-volunteer armies of the United States and Britain. There are two issues here. The first, discussed primarily by economists and military sociologists, is the choice between conscription and volunteerism as the most efficient means for supplying manpower. Sophisticated econometric models (e.g., Ross 1994) are often developed to disentangle the costs and benefits of the different policy options. A second set of issues reflects the concern that the democracies are returning to armies unrepresentative of the population, armies composed disproportionately of the poor, the un-educated, and the minorities. There are advantages, of course. By relying fundamentally on volunteers, more armies than the past are beginning the process of integrating women without facing issues of con-scripting women, and they are enhancing the citizenship status of homosexuals as well as ethnic, religious, and racial minorities. The cost of this strategy may be high, however. Even when the army provides a means of upward advancement to such groups, participation in its ranks no longer constitutes an obligation of general citizenship and the distance between citizen and army increases.

There is no question that conscription, closely linked to citizenship in the liberal democracies during most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is no longer part of the national consciousness in these countries. It is, however, a fact of life—and death—for the peoples of countries embroiled in some of the worst conflicts of the late twentieth century. The conscription of children into the armies fighting the racial and tribal conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa is a nightmare reversion to the impressment of the European past.

Conscription appears to have come nearly full circle in approximately 200 years. Modern, legitimate, and rule-bound conscription commenced with the French Republic, and it was part of the process of trans-forming subjects into democratic citizens. By the late twentieth century, the liberal democracies are returning to mercenary and professional armies, although severely altered from their eighteenth century forms. Countries without a tradition of democracy and without strong government institutions are using conscription solely as a tool of social control and particularistic power.


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