Wars are truly horrendous occurrences that can kill huge numbers of soldiers and civilians. Here are conservative estimates of the number of deaths caused by major wars of recent times: Iraq War (2003-2011) over 600,000; American Civil War (1861-65) over 800,000; Korean War (1950-53) over 1.2 million; Afghanistan War (1978-present) 1.6 million; Vietnam War (1955-75) 3 million; Russian Civil War (1917-22) 7 million; World War I (1914-18) 14 million; World War II (1939-45) 70 million. Wars ruin agriculture, demolish industry, traumatize children, devastate families, scramble the minds of warriors and cast a grim pall on society long afterward. We must do everything possible to avoid wars!
The political elites who initiate wars, and the social classes they represent, are often shielded from the terrible consequences of warfare. This separation is particularly blatant in the case of imperialist wars fought by a volunteer army (a combination that characterizes U.S. martial endeavors since 1973), and this split can be a significant inducement to violent military aggression. One way of curbing such inducement to warfare is via universal conscription, which, at least in principle, would compel all sectors of society to share the dreadful costs of violent combat. In practice, privileged classes often can escape conscription, but it spreads the pain of warfare more widely. In the face of universal conscription, political elites and their supporters must decide whether they are personally willing to tolerate the inevitable dangers caused by significant military action.
The history of the Vietnam War supports the claim that conscription increases opposition to warfare. During the ’60s, young Americans faced with the possibility of being drafted could not ignore U.S. military engagement in Vietnam. And after considering arguments pro and con, many young Americans (plus their friends and families) became dedicated opponents to United States’ presence in Vietnam. When the draft ended in 1973, active opposition to the war among college students and others moderated considerably. The horror of warfare combined with the Vietnam experience shape my own attitude toward conscription: In times of warfare, I favor a universal draft (both men and women).
I acknowledge, however, that arguments for universal conscription are not entirely compelling. Many thoughtful people regard conscription as a form of slavery entirely inappropriate in a democratic society. Nor is it certain that a draft actually reduces the occurrence of warfare. Military experience tends to make people more conservative: e.g., veterans consistently support Donald Trump more than nonveterans. The notion that a volunteer army constitutes a “poverty draft” is also open to criticism. Current American military forces are recruited from the middle-income sectors of society: both the top and the bottom income quintiles are underrepresented. Moreover, United States casualties in the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars were not biased toward people of color.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center is currently discussing the issue of conscription. Some of our people (such as myself) favor a draft during wartime. Others are strongly opposed. Thoughtful input from persons sympathetic to our goals of peace and justice would be welcome and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” usually runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily. This column failed to print last week, so it is running today.