Friday, January 3, 2014

A Clausewitzian View of the Current Conscription Debate in the US - Part I

Conscription is defined as "compulsory enlistment of citizens or residents of a political body for national service". It dates back to the Babylonian Empire but the modern variant traces back to revolutionary France of the 1790s, and thus has a significant political element regardless of the political system employing it. Most modern wars have required some sort of conscription by one side or both in order to procure the necessary manpower to wage the war in question.
In this essay I would like to first present the state of conscription in Europe prior 1793, followed by French mobilization to form the Grand Armee. Clausewitz's view on conscription as well as Prussian reforms will follow. Finally I will present some recent examples in the current debate in the US regarding the reimplementation of conscription. I think this will show that Clausewitz's views are pertinent to the discussion and even explain the motives/thinking of some of the current proponents. This is due to the fact in my view that regarding conscription we are dealing with basic political questions, that in the US context are long overdue in airing.
France under the monarchy relied on a professional army as did the majority of the states on Europe in the 18th Century. The French Royal Army also had a large number of foreigners serving (approximately 25% in 1789). The militia was meant to serve as a trained reserve for the regular army providing additional recruits as necessary, that is what could not be supplied by the free market. France under the monarchy was a state with many graduations of privilege and those at the bottom, the poor, were those most likely to be inducted into the militia and serve in the army. In 1791 the militia was abolished to popular acclaim across France.
In Britain, the militia was seen by the conservatives as useless and a waste of funds, while for the Whigs it was seen as a useful means to counter the political influence of the standing forces. Counties faced the prospect of riots whenever lists of those to do service with the local militia were publicly read and militia insurance societies prospered by paying the insured the sum needed to procure a substitute should his name be called. Patriotism was one thing, military service was another.
Conscription in the German states had a varied history prior to the 1790s. While there had been some support for militia among rulers, many found it an unnecessary risk to arm a large number of their citizenry when a reliable standing army was more in their interest. Conscription policies in the fragmented Germany of the time ranged from the absolute but limited form of conscription in Prussia to no militia at all in the German lands to the west not under French domination. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the establishment of conscription in the German lands was the unwillingness of the populace to serve. There was simply little interest in military service among the broad mass of the German people at the time, to the point that Peter Paret in his excellent essay on the topic concludes:
It was not alone the technical difficulties and the political and social risks attendant on militias, nor mercantilist theories, nor their drive towards absolutism that led the German princes to develop long-serving professional armies as their favored military instrument, but also the unwillingness of their subjects to take up arms. By the eighteenth century the militia had become a discredited concept in the German states, leading only the most shadowy of existences beside the mercenaries and the forcibly enrolled peasants who made up the armed power of the state. Peter Paret, Understanding War, p 43
With Revolutionary France under pressure, conscription quickly became a necessity. The Constitution of 1793 proclaimed the army not the instrument of a monarch, but the very embodiment of national will, representing and comprising the nation as a whole. Along with the vote every Frenchman was also obligated to military service. This is the first instance where "the army as the school of the nation" is mentioned and that by the radical left. Between 1800 and 1815 over two million Frenchmen were conscripted, while only 52,000 volunteered. After a time, those with means were again allowed to provide a substitute of course, and there was the National Guard for internal policing, membership in which favored the middle class. There was also resistance/desertion as Clausewitz knew having seen shackled French conscripts being led through the streets during his time as a prisoner of war.
Still the French experience during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars is a turning point in not only the history of citizen/state relations, but in state cohesion as well as military affairs. Popular participation (if not wholely enthusiastic) in warfare had helped to create a new dynamic. This would probably not have been apparent to say a French administrator in a medium-sized French town as he experienced some of the daily details, but the cumulative effect, as experienced say by a Prussian officer having been on the receiving end of what this had ushered forth would see it all quite differently:
By this participation of the people in war, instead of a cabinet and an army, a whole nation with its natural weight entered the scale. Henceforward, the means available - the efforts which might be called forth - had no longer any definite limits; the energy with which the war itself could be conducted had no longer any counterpoise, and and consequently the danger for the adversary had risen to the extreme. If the whole war of the Revolution ran its course without all this making itself felt in its full force and becoming quite evident; if the generals of the Revolution did not advance irresistibly up the final aim and lay in ruins the monarchies of Europe; if German armies now and again had the opportunity of resisting with success and checking the torrent of victory - the cause really lay in that technical imperfection with which the French had to contend, which showed itself first among the common soldiers, then in the generals, lastly, at the time of the Directory, in the government itself. After everything had been perfected by the hand of Bonaparte, this military power, based on the strength of the whole nation, marched shattering over Europe with such confidence and certainty that wherever it only encountered the old-fashioned armies the result was never even for a moment doubtful. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII Chapter 3B (Jolles translation)
From this quote we can see that this new dynamic required three interrelated elements: First an ideologically inspired population, a mass of citizenry willing to serve what they saw as the common interests of the state to the point of offering their lives in their attainment. Second, a functioning administrative apparatus to control the entire enterprise along with the ability to implement reforms and corrections. Third and finally, the military genius who recognizes the new possibilities and is able to exploit them to the fullest.
Let's expand a bit on this first element. Attempt to initiate our string of ideal types . . . Fundamentally we are talking about an "ideologically inspired population", that is a moral cohesion of the modern world, what Clausewitz saw as corresponding to the conditions of early 19th Century Europe, rather than earlier forms of moral cohesion which we'll label as "tribalism" or simply what holds a pre-modern community together. In the earlier paper linked at the beginning of this paragraph, I made the distinction between two types of moral cohesion and a single type of material cohesion. There is the moral cohesion of the pre-modern political community (remember when dealing with ideal types we attempt to extenuate existing conditions/circumstances theoretically assuming that they could either expand or contract without assuming that there is no mixture in reality with other ideal types). A strategic theorist must continuously push the boundaries, given the fluid nature of our domestic political relations. More on that later.
So the existing pre-modern moral cohesion of the community (religion, tradition, guild associations, clan affinities, "tribalism") form the basis of political relations. It is these existing political relations that have to confront the second type of moral cohesion, or not. The second type of moral cohesion is that specifically associated with modern ideologies, and further what Jacques Ellul refers to as the Technological Society. In terms of conscription, the main distinction between the two is that modern moral cohesion allows for mass mobilization, the mobilization of the nation in service of the state, which is not possible to anything like the same degree with pre-modern moral cohesion, since the various elements of pre-modern cohesion, religion, family, tradition, and the rest tend to dilute and dissipate support of the nation/state.
The basic distinction between moral and material cohesion, although there is naturally a good bit of overlap, is that while the former satisfies values, the latter satisfies interest.
Material cohesion consists of institutions, constitutions, codes of rational law, various administrative apparatuses that allow political communities to harness resources and create power. It is important here to keep in mind that we are no talking about "material" things at all. Not buildings, weapons, factories or ships, but rather motivations, habits and belief systems that orientate and spur social action, that is human activity oriented towards other people.
I will end part I here with the mass mobilization of revolutionary France. Clausewitz's view will follow in part II and finally part III will delve into the current US debate . . . it's going to be fun.


  1. Excellent, I look forward to more.

    Don't forget about religion in the modern world.
    It has important influences on cohesion.

  2. Very nice Part 1 - this is a topic that interests me and I appreciate the historical background. Can't wait to read the next two parts.

  3. Thanks for the kind words gentlemen. It's good to know that there are thoughtful people reading what I post.

    Religion can be dealt with here since it as social action can be adequately covered for our purposes by the two ideal types of moral cohesion, as well as that of material cohesion.

    Religion in pre-modern communities exists as an "absolute ethic" in this ideal type of moral cohesion. Religion would influence all other realms of social activity: economic (for instance, usury) , familial, traditional, erotic, working life . . . Even to the point of who one could share meals with, marry, socialize with, types of food that could be eaten, etc. Very much all encompassing with these precepts obviously conflicting with any deep ideological commitment to the state. Consider religion here as "monotheistic".

    With the transition to modern moral cohesion, religion becomes just another sphere of values (the "spiritual") in conflict with other equally respected values (family, economic, erotic, etc). The ideology becomes in effect the "absolute ethic" but its very abstract nature allows it to be manipulated by political power represented by and through the organized state. Religion plays a supporting role to the ideology used to maintain the established structures of power and domination. Consider religion here as "polytheistic".

    Consider too that as ideal types both can exist at the same time, but with the rise of modern moral cohesion effective mobilization of the masses becomes possible. In fact it is the very lack of the cohesiveness of these pre-modern communities that creates "the masses" . . .

    Where does material cohesion fit in? Religions also go through a process of rationalization and bureaucratization as do all institutions . . . the more efficient their institutional organization becomes the less attuned to pre-modern moral cohesion they become. Material cohesion is very much a sliding scale of development as Clausewitz presents the concept in Chapter 3B of Book VIII in On War.

  4. I agree that religion is co-opted into maintaining established structures. However, it gets complicated in polytheistic countries where religion also preserves cleavage lines.

    Look at Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria. These countries were all "secular" nations aiming towards a single "national" moral cohesion. However, when circumstances changed, they were blown apart and the main fault lines were religious ones (even though the religious establishments were thoroughly co-opted by the establishment (at least in the beginning).

  5. Oh, and while I'm nattering on about limits on cohesion, there is an even greater one: language. It is so powerful that very few political entities can maintain themselves in the face language barriers (and in fact, many of the techniques of maintaining cohesion break down, i.e. you can't ideologically inspire people if you can't communicate with them).

    Looking at the conscription crisis in Canada in WWII shows the problems associated with different language groups in national emergencies.

  6. Ael-

    You are going to see religion come up in the next part.

    Interesting comments. Would only say that there is a big difference between former Yugoslavia and Iraq/Syria. Yugoslavia was always more about Pan-Serbian ambitions than a united south slav nation. Tito was able to hold things together after the massive bloodletting of 1941-45, but the unity was unable to survive his death. Iraq on the other hand was able to stay together more or less even with massive sanctions and the loss of control of their own airspace up until Bush's invasion of 2003 destroyed the Baath state. Would the Syrian civil war have lasted as long as it has without foreign (including US) intervention on the rebel side?

    The Austro-Hungarian Empire was able to fight WWI for four years even with the linguistic challenges they faced. Modern moral cohesion was one of the main reasons for their dissolution, which would indicate that language as a factor is linked with the rise of modern moral cohesion in the form of nationalism . . .

  7. Seydlitz - Interesting post. I for one am on the side of bringing back the draft. But I realize it will not happen in my lifetime. Whenever I go to the Post Office though I see a poster and info pamphlets asking 18 year olds to register. So we still have some sort of administrative apparatus even if it has no teeth. If I recall my American History 101 correctly, many of the Ellis Island immigrants were fleeing conscription for their sons in the senseless wars of Europe. There seems to be a built-in enmity to it by many.

    I wonder if there were earlier instances of conscription than those imposed by Hammurabi as quoted in that wiki link? Surely the more ancient Egyptians who had corvee labor also had some system of military impressment when needed; or maybe slave soldiers (although many consider that the same thing). And perhaps the Xia in China circa 2000BC had something similar.

    Ael - Concur on your comments on religion and language. Two examples come to mind (sticking to Seydlitz's point on modern conscription starting with the French Revolution). That "levee en masse" signed by the French Republic sparked the Revolt in the Vendee which was religious based and ended up with 170 thousand KIA. At about the same time the Chouans of Brittany (who did not speak French) also revolted against conscription.

  8. I have wrestled with the idea of bringing back the Draft, from both the viewpoint of (1) reintegrating the military with the general population, and (2) bringing down the astronomical personnel costs of the AVF.

    However, we require far too few warm bodies in the current force structure to make a draft accomplish (1) without some serious change in the nature of the draft, e.g.- making the conscripts a set and significant proportion of all new accessions, and only allowing voluntary enlistment to pick up the remainder.

    As to (2), it would take a significant amount of time to wean the military away from their current wage and benefit levels.

  9. Wait, what, there's an actual debate in the US over reviving the draft army? I thought this was a topic they just dragged out for biennial op-eds when local news ran thin.
    Never Happen, my friends... unless it's something extremely limited and selective as Aviator47 above suggests. If you can speak Arabic and snap-shoot on the pistol range while doing one-handed push-ups, Uncle Sam wants you... but he will come and get you when it suits him.

  10. Brian-

    Well I suppose as much as any other "debate" going on in the US at present. To me it's been an on-going topic since the brittle social nature of the AVF became apparent around 2006 . . .

    The original inspiration for this set of posts came from this recent post by Adam Elkus . . .

    An earlier inspiration, which seems to ask many similar questions as posed by proponents of a return to some sort of conscription is here . . .

    I am NOT an expert on military manpower issues. I'm sure that Al and FD Chief have studied this issue much more than I have. Still, I'm a Clausewitzian strategic theorist and can provide an analysis from a social action/strategic theory perspective . . . which I hope this audience finds interesting and adequate . . . it's going to be fun.

  11. mike, Al-

    I think ya'll are going to like Part III . . .

  12. seydlitz-

    I am doing some gathering on Force Structure and peoplepower issues as this progresses. (The use of "people" vs "man" is a hint as to one aspect, but not as most would expect). Having done my grad work in labor market theory, as dash of that will be included. And, just for fun, I'm wrestling with some sociological aspects.

    Brian- Yes, the Rubicon has been crossed. The question is whether we are on the most advantageous side of that river. All kinds of material has been put forward to claim we are, but that material is primarily based upon the Rubicon being crossed, not which side is the better.

  13. Al-

    Something tells me we are going along the same lines. The question of conscription in the current US would have to be based on an accurate threat assessment . . . the definition of "conscription" I've introduced would not be limited to military service . . . expect part III this weekend . . . started teaching again this week so up through Saturday will be busy . . . Hope to get something out on Sunday/Monday (my "weekend") . . . I'm looking forward to much interesting commentary from this august group . . .

  14. I'd simply say that calling any sort of discussion going on about this issue a "debate" would be giving it WAY more respect that it rates. There's no real political powerbase for the bring-back-the-draft side of the discussion. None of the Usual Suspects wants it and We the People can't be arsed enough to give a rat's ass one way or the other.

    Generally speaking I'd say that, first, that the current system has produced some undesirable social and political effects and that, second, broadening the accession base would be socially beneficial for both the Army and the U.S.

    The current system has produced a highly compartmentalized professional Army isolated from both the general public and the civilian leadership.

    Fewer politicians have to care about the potential impact of deploying armed forces. Fewer citizens actually have to care about said deployments. The armed forces have earned a (to my mind) wholly inappropriate degree of adulation and respect from a public and a civilian "leadership" unfamiliar with the actual workings of military organizations. The workings of the military-industrial-congressional complex have become even more incestuous.

    I should note that we tend to forget as we move further from the draft era that one thing the draft did was drag talented people into the services who then discovered that they a) liked soldiering and b) were good at it. We've lost a large part of that talent base, and that's never good.

    The other problem this produces is that we've become a very insular Army, and insular organizations often become self-licking ice cream cones; they tend to reinforce their own self-perceptions and validate their own conclusions. That, in turn, often tends to reduce innovation and stifle outside-the-box thinking.

    So, would bringing fresh meat in every recruiting cycle be a not-bad idea? Probably.

    Will it happen? Not that I can see for the immediate and medium-term future.

    Who's going to fight for it? The services sure won't, the foreign policy and defense policy wonks won't, the Left won't and the Right won't.

    So while this is a hell of an interesting discussion of concepts, I don't see any actual chance of an actual draft returning...

  15. Chief-

    Who said we were discussing bringing back the Draft of if it can be brought back? It appears to me that seydlitz has sparked a discussion on conscription's pros and cons. Since that is a discussion lacking in the US since 1969, let's fill that void. Your cons are duly noted and appreciated.

  16. FD Chief-

    After a long detour, you seem to have finally come around to accepting my perspective . . . we really are dealing with different times, different political circumstances in our country . . . aren't we? Not "some-ole, same-ole" at all . . .

    Recall that I am not looking at this from a materialist perspective, as I think you are, but that of what Liah Greenfield refers to as a "mentalist" perspective following Weber and Clausewitz . . . ideas . . . social action. Not the institutions themselves, the structures as rigid monuments, physical metaphors of power . . . soooo impressive, but for how long?

    Since for instance, suddenly . . .

    Consider the immoral words of Erich Honecker . . .

    "The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years, if the reasons for it are not yet removed." ("Die Mauer wird in 50 und auch in 100 Jahren noch bestehen bleiben, wenn die dazu vorhandenen Gründe noch nicht beseitigt sind.")19 January 1989.

  17. In a sense we're still looking at a nation with a lot of "same-old" similarities, among them being the American facility for looking at history as "what happened last week" and "ancient history" as "some time back in the Eighties, right?".

    The common factor here is the massive inertia of the U.S. public, which is usually so poorly informed as to be functionally decerebrate and can barely be motivated to get off it's own ass if it were on fire.

    So re: the draft - there was no real reason to continue a full-scale draft after WW2. We did...because we did, and it was cheap and easy to fill the ranks. Plus we had Korea and then Vietnam, and it was easier to draft than to fully mobilize the RC.

    But really, the U.S. could have ended the draft in 1946 - the inertia was just there and moving against a change.

    It took the immense socio-political implosion of Vietnam to stop the draft. But then the same-ol-same-ol inertia set in; since 1972 was instant-ancient-history the idea of a draft went from accepted wisdom to impossible within a couple of years...

    So - I'm not saying that we haven't entered a different time; we have. But just that I don't think that we've entered a different country; a lot of the same political and ideological forces are still in place, pushing public policy in similar ways. A lot of the rules of the game are the same - but we have different players, especially including a very active anti-government Right that has been dormant since the late Forties. And that DOES make a difference...just I don't agree with you on the degree to which it makes a difference...

    So I'm also thinking of this as an intellectual exercise, just doubting whether the U.S. public, or even any significant segment of the U.S. political and pundit classes, has given or is going to give this much thought. I tend to agree with you that:

    - this IS an important issue for societies and polities to consider and

    - the social and political effects of having a large participatory republic (democracy, whatever...) with a small professional military - especially as the small size and self-selection of that military makes it increasingly out-of-touch with the remainder of the society it is supposed to serve - are problematic, in ways that don't seem to be being addressed or, as I said, really even discussed.

    I'm glad we're discussing them here (Al, that's addressed to you, too!) but I wish I thought that people at echelons above our pay grade were having that discussion, too..!

  18. That said, I think Al touches on the crux of the practical biscuit here; the size of the armed forces versus the size of the nation they serve.

    When the U.S. needed a national Army conscription was the natural solution, the "received wisdom" of industrial nations since 1789. If we still had the large infantry-heavy force we had in 1968 it'd make sense again.

    But the current force structure IMO makes conscription a much more difficult task to manage; how do you design a "fair" draft when the number of draftees you need is relatively tiny compared to the number of MAMs (and a portion of your MAFs, I suppose...)?

    This doesn't invalidate the philosophical and socio-political issues inherent in conscription, but it makes actually turning that into a practical reality a little trickier...

    Al, sounds like you've done some thinking on this; any ideas to throw in the mixer?

  19. Chief

    I am presently working on a "technocratic" evaluation of the AVF. Kind of a Myth Busters" exercise.

    The AVF is a done deal. We have been doing it for 30 years now, and have developed metrics that make it appear that it "works". Of course, the definition of "works" is open to a lot of debate. The so called "Hollow Army" was "working" until we decided to say it wasn't.

    My musings on the AVF have grown to the point where they will require the space capability of a new thread. But that will allow focued discussion, if it is worthy of such. Meanwhile, they are still in the "draft stage" (shudder at that word) until seydlitz posts Part III so that I can be sure to be responding to the total hypothesis he is positing.

    Later on, I will offer a socio-technocratic notion (like that term?) of what I would consider a workable form of "National Service" for the relatively small military we field. IIRC, I may have posted a simple version of it before. Could it be adopted? Not without a major shock to our culture to make it seem necessary.

  20. Also, there is nothing sacred about the military being close to and representative of a given society. The "citizen soldier" does have a romantic ring, and smacks of universal patriotism, but is such a societal norm sustainable? Particularly in a culture where "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" is seen as individual interest trumping the collective well being?

  21. To all,
    Maybe the real question here is not about the draft , but rather about our concept of war.
    The key to me happens to be=do we need to be a nation constantly at war.
    The horse and the cart thing.
    The assumption that i'm feeling from reading this thread is that we accept the centrality of war to our national ethos.

  22. jim

    You are in the right neighborhood. The draft is only a major political force when it poses, of itself, a threat to the population, and such a threat does indeed come from an ill-advised, or ill-prosecuted war. I have said it before and will say it again, Nixon made a huge mistake in embracing the Draft as the "bad thing" in terms of the Viet Nam War. Rather, he should have quickly brought the war to a conclusion as his first priority. Once all the troops were safe at home, it would be far less of an issue as to how the ranks were filled. His "End the Draft" campaign pledge was effectively a smoke screen to enable him to have more time try to end the war on his terms while enjoying popular support. While hindsight is always 20-20 as to the final outcome, no hindsight is necessary to see that he over-politicized the Draft to reduce political pressure on the War itself.

    Whether or not "war is central to our national ethos", how we man the force that we use or do not use is a totally different issue. Unfortunately, I do think that one unintended consequence of the AVF is that it makes military adventurism easier. War is more easily a "constant state" when relatively few have any skin in the game.

  23. Al,
    to depoliticize the draft i'd suggest replacing it with national service choices for the drasftees. They could go Americorps, vista , peace corps,or even community service, or they could do the military service.
    I'd stand behind this type of a program.
    We need skin in the game as you say.

  24. Problem arises when all the draftees choose community service and none choose the military. :-)