Conscription: History and Realities of Conscripted Militaries

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Mon, Feb 22 - 8:00 am EDT | 2 years ago by
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    Conscription, Part I1

    “Political power grows from the barrel of a gun.”

    ~ The Great Helmsman2

    Lines of Departure - Conscripted Militaries

    There’s a lot of silliness floating around on the subject of conscription, a surprising amount considering we don’t have it and few Americans anymore have experience of it. This ranges from equating it to slavery, to thinking it can brainwash the young, to claims it leads to foreign military adventures, to claims (sometimes only implicit) that it absolutely prevents unnecessary foreign military adventures by making the armed forces less usable. It’s considered to be a useful tool of tyranny or a necessary precondition for creating and maintaining democratic or republican government. It’s also said to be useless, the armies it produces so inferior to professional armies in battle that it’s not worth using.

    Historically, that last comment is nonsense. Whether we’re talking hastily trained Israeli citizen soldier militia stomping professional Arab armies like narcs at a biker rally, in 1948, et seq., or conscripted French thrashing professional Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, or drafted Romans beating silly or wearing out through sheer numbers the professionals and professional mercenaries of, in turn, Pyrrhus of Epirus, Hamilcar Barca and his brilliant son, Hannibal, along with the professional soldiers of Macedon, the Successors of Alexander the Great, and any number of other ancient groups. The Athenians at Marathon? Conscript citizen-soldier militia facing Persian professionals. Note that the citizen soldiers won. The three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae? Conscripts to a man; even the king, Leonidas, had been drafted as a boy, as had the rest, when there was no particular reason to think he’d ever be king. They lost, of course, physically, but you’ll get that when you’re surrounded and outnumbered that badly. And then there’s Switzerland; both victorious Swiss citizen soldier conscript militia and defeated and butchered professional Austrian knights, could the shades of either be summoned, would be terribly surprised to be told that professionals are always better, what with the victories of the former at the Morgarten, at Laupen, and at Sempach. Lastly, though they ultimately lost, it is by no means clear that the Armies of the Confederacy were inferior on the battlefield to the armies of the Union, even in the interval between the South adopting a fairly effective conscription, in early 1862 on, and the North doing so, rather ineffectively in 1863. We won’t even bother with the great wars of the twentieth century; I think the burden of proof is on those against conscription to suggest how any of the combatant nations survive when faced with masses of well trained and led conscripts.

    Do those examples prove that conscription is always a war winner or that conscripted militaries are always superior to professional (or, at least volunteer) organizations? No, they do not, nor am I claiming so. Keeping with the Roman example, the Romans lost many battles, and usually quite wretchedly, to Pyrrhus and the Barcas before they finally triumphed. The short version is that sometimes conscription works better than volunteerism and professionalism, and sometimes it doesn’t. This is a far cry from claiming, as many do, that it doesn’t work.

    That “always a war winner” phrase, above, also deserves some explanation of the contrary example. Are professionalism and volunteerism always war winners? Obviously not, as the 1806 Prussian example and the 1948 Arab example show. Generally speaking, they’re not usually given the chance – and would be unlikely to rise to the opportunity – because when one side resorts to effective conscription, the other side must also or face being badly outnumbered, outgunned, and quite possibly outmaneuvered. Outmaneuvered? This presumably better trained professional force? Yes, often, if, for example it’s so small that it simply lacks the ability to guard or screen its entire front and must leave unfortunate gaps which the typically larger and more numerous conscript army can pass through and exploit.

    And then there’s the India-Pakistan example where neither uses conscription, and Pakistan, outnumbered about two (to two and a half) to one, always loses.3 They’ve nothing to be ashamed of; they fight well and with commendable courage, but they still always lose. Should Pakistan resort to conscription? No, India would, too, approximately the day after, and, being so much larger and wealthier, would still defeat the Pakistanis. Sometimes you just don’t have any great choices.

    We study the wars and battles of the ancients largely because in them the principles of war are seen in clearest and starkest form. We would do as well to study ancient politics and governance, because there we can also see examples and illustrations of what works, and how it works, and what fails, and how and why, in clear and stark form.

    I say, “we study,” but, of course, these days we, or our children, rarely study them. It’s a pity and a danger because that history does, indeed, illustrate important matters of which our progeny is dangerously ignorant, as are many of our peers. I don’t blame the kids, after all, their teachers are rarely fit to teach these subjects. Moreover, there’s only so much time in the school year for more important matters, like teaching the kids to hate their country, the civilization of which it is a part, their history, and, if the kids are white, themselves.

    So let’s take a little sojourn down memory lane, that memory lane our own academia denies our children permission to travel on.

    Begin with the question: Why, how and when did Rome become a republic and Athens a democracy, states wherein the lower classes had real political power? The answers are a lot more complex than we have space for here, involving any number of legislative and cultural forays in both places. One very simple thing stands out, though; in both places the need of the state for greater military power, a fleet for Athens and a large militia army for Rome, led to greater political power for those who made up the rowers for the fleet and foot for the army. It even opened up to them a considerable degree of control of the state by both coup and refusal to serve. For example, the office of Tribune of the Plebs, in Rome, arose circa 494/493 BC, because the plebeians, who made up the bulk of the army, simply decamped from Rome, refusing to provide military service, until the upper class patricians and the Senate they controlled knuckled under. The plebs used the same trick, or a close variant to it, four more times until they were satisfied with their position in Rome.

    So Mao Tse Tung, above, noted what Roman or Greek already knew, thousands of years prior – that political power and the capacity for violence in military power are inextricably linked. But mere possession of weapons is not enough. It’s a problem in multiplication, not addition. A people can have all the arms in the world, but without the training to use them, in groups, as part of a military force, the arms are nearly useless. However, multiply the arms by the training to use them and that by the numbers of those so trained; there you have the necessary precursor to political power and popular freedom.

    Whence the training? Whence the numbers? Well, traditionally, in history, via conscription. Yet still note that it takes both training and possession of arms to be an effective tool or threat. This is why the Soviet Union and other East Block countries remained essentially slave states despite conscription; the people lacked ready access to their own arms and ammunition.

    This whole train of thought, by the way, implicates one of my very few possibly original contributions to human philosophy, namely, that nothing good or bad can be measured merely by breadth, depth, scope, and intensity. Rather, everything, good or bad, must also be measured by duration. Thus, for example, the best orgasm in human history followed by an eternity in Hell is what we call, “a bad bargain.” So, too, freedom from conscription, followed by a lifetime – or a millennium – of oneself and one’s people in subject and abject slavery, whether to foreign or homegrown masters, is also a bad bargain.

    Note that the Roman Republic began to die when they abandoned conscription and citizen soldier militia armies, beholden to freedom, to the law, and to the country4, in favor of professional armies, beholden to generals, dictators, their units, and their pay checks.

    Having begun this entry with a quote from one communist, I’ll round us out for a week with a quote from another:

    “Competition among the individual states forces them, on the one hand, to spend more money each year on the army and navy, artillery, etc., thus more and more hastening their financial collapse; and on the other hand, to resort to universal compulsory military service more and more extensively, thus in the long run making the whole people familiar with the use of arms, and therefore enabling them at a given moment to make their will prevail against the warlords in command.”

    ~ Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duehring, II, III5

    Next week: Conscription, Part II


    1 I really wanted to do this one last week, but with the untimely death of Antonin Scalia, thought I should cover his replacement’s appointment, as being more timely.

    2 Why “The Great Helmsman”? To snidely remind our lefties that we know this truth, and know as well that their attempts to disarm us are also attempts to politically weaken us, as one of their own icons implied. The longer and more correct version runs, “Every communist must grasp this truth, political power grows…”

    3 Pakistani law authorizes conscription; they just don’t use it.

    4 The laws were kept on the books but not generally used.


    Photo by Getty Images

    Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through

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