A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the Unreal Liberal Argument for Conscription, which is basically that the U.S. would be less likely to engage in military adventurism if more people had skin in the game because their children could be drafted. My response was essentially that without the ability to force young men to be soldiers, the government would have to be far more careful about how it picked and fought its wars, an argument I backed up with some rough numbers indicating that we lose far fewer soldiers to war since conscription ended in 1973.
My tweet announcing this post was re-tweeted by Radley Balko (who is probably the most famous person who follows me) which lead to a few interesting responses:
Kevin Wilson tweeted:
There’s also the moral argument that conscription is basically slavery: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/05/how_could_the_d.html …
XM in Dallas tweeted along the same idea:
Great piece. But am I being obtuse by suggesting that we should keep saying out loud that slavery is wrong?
I think that conscription is slavery too, and I’ve said so before. I didn’t mention it explicitly this time because I didn’t think it was a useful response to David Sirota’s argument for conscription. Sirota’s presumably not an evil person, and if he were amenable to the idea that conscription is slavery, he probably would not have made the argument that he did. The people I wanted to reach, those who are swayed by his argument, probably don’t think “it’s slavery” is a compelling point.
But why don’t they? Why does the link between slavery and conscription — which seems practically self-evident to me and others — not seem sensible to so many other people? Bryan Caplan’s article that Kevin Wilson provided in his tweet offers one plausible explanation:
It’s tempting to dismiss all this as doublethink, but after many years of reflection I think I finally figured out what most people are thinking. Namely: They implicitly regard slavery not as mere involuntary servitude, but as low-status involuntary servitude. Since most of us honor, respect, and even adore all our soldiers, conscripts have high status – and therefore can’t be slaves. From this point of view, saying “conscription is slavery” isn’t righteously standing up for the rights of conscripts; it’s wickedly denying them their high status.
That strikes me as quite likely to explain some people’s reactions, perhaps especially on the right. It explains how people can express admiration for our soldiers while simultaneously arguing that we should take away their freedom.
When it comes to liberal advocates of conscription, however, I think that there’s a different dynamic at work. Consider part of an argument made by my (somewhat less libertarian) co-blogger Ken in the comments:
Markets made up of people can be influenced by more than just monetary costs. The all volunteer force is currently overwhelmingly made up of the poor and otherwise disadvantaged. Our recruitment efforts focus on this.
Parents will gladly pay extra money to send their kids to schools in better neighborhoods. They will also gladly pay extra for the poor of America to fight wars for them. I’m not convinced this added monetary expense will be enough to put a dent in warmongering.
To libertarians like me, there’s a world of moral difference between people stuck in an unhappy life because they are poor and people stuck in an unhappy life because a coercive force is keeping them there. Poor people who choose military service because it’s the best of a poor set of options are exercising a choice, whereas people drafted into the military under threat of imprisonment are the victims of state violence.
I don’t think progressives see it that way. They regard economic pressure and state violence as a continuum of forces that take away liberty. To them, forcing people into the military by conscription is on the same moral plane as allowing economic pressures to force people to take take shitty jobs or be unemployed unless they join the military. Looking at it this way, and taking into account their belief that the volunteer army encourages militarism, they may regard conscription as the lesser of two comparable evils.
The way us libertarians see it, however, is that poor people may choose military service as a possible way out of poverty. Conscription would take that choice away from them, and taking away choices is never good.
(Two quick caveats: People who are poor because they are victims of coercive government policies are a completely different matter. Also, if you don’t want poor people to choose military service, the solution is not to draft middle-class people but to give poor people better choices.)
Ken also questions my argument that the increased public cost of sending soldiers to war will discourage militarism:
Do we really choose our wars more carefully now? It seems we rushed headlong into the Iraq war with almost no legitimate justification. The monetary cost certainly didn’t seem to have had a detrimental impact on the decision to invade. Those costs weren’t even budgeted for at the time.
Even when the bill comes due, at a trillion or two dollars over ten or twenty years, most people can be convinced to foot the monetary bill for what they believe is a just war. Those same people may be more reticent to send their sons and daughters into combat where many will come home with terrible wounds, lost limbs, and emotionally scarred, despite the number of American deaths being lower than in past conflicts.
Will those large numbers of wounded vets be eager to send their children into a future conflict, no matter how well equipped with body armor and the latest in battle rifles?
400,000 American soldiers lost their lives in World War II, yet conscription didn’t stop the “greatest generation” from sending their children to Vietnam. At least the next generation will have some say in the matter.
I’m not convinced this added monetary expense will be enough to put a dent in warmongering. It certainly didn’t seem to diminish the momentum in our most recent invasion of Iraq.
Even if we don’t explicitly debate the benefit-cost calculations of wars explicitly, we have had extensive debates about the size and structure of our military forces. Our military may be larger than most of the rest of the world combined, but in terms of total soldiers under arms, it’s smaller than it used to be. As the cold war ended, we took the opportunity to stand down about 1/3 of our active duty personnel, and there was a lot of discussion of how this would limit our strategic options. The invasion of Iraq strained the limits of our ability to fight battles abroad. At the risk of invoking Donald Rumsfeld, we can only warmonger with the army we have.
A completely different criticism comes from Jon S, who tweeted,
Who knew that only American deaths count??
Every death counts, of course. But I was responding to the argument that re-instituting conscription would make Americans more likely to oppose rampant militarism because they or their loved ones could be drafted into a war. The death rates of our foreign opponents (or even our allies) wouldn’t figure into that argument, so I didn’t take them into account in mine.
Jon S may have been trolling me, because a little later he tweeted:
Witnessing/participating in horrific violence is cost of war,eg PTSD. If cost spread over whole pop, less likely 2 support it
It’s hard to see how conscription in the U.S. could spread around the cost incurred by people from other countries, so he’s clearly talking only about the affect of witnessing/participating in horrific violence as incurred by U.S. participants, which is what I was doing too, and for the same reason.
(It’s possible I misconstrued his tweet and he was really objecting to my only counting fatalities and excluding other harm. I used war deaths as a proxy for total social cost of historic and current wars because I don’t know where to find reliable estimates for those costs.)
I did give the issue of foreign cost some thought as I was writing my post, especially the part about how giving potential soldiers the option to refuse to serve was forcing the military to spend more money on equipment and training. That effect protects American lives, but foreign solders wouldn’t benefit from it. In fact, the enormous investment in American soldiers makes them more effective at killing the enemy, which could conceivably offset the beneficial effect of saving American lives and fighting fewer and smaller wars. If the volunteer military has saved 90,000 American lives but American soldiers have killed an extra, say, half-million of our enemy, then ending conscription has arguably increased the amount of misery in the world.
For purposes of my last post, however, I decided to count the cost of war only in American deaths because (1) as I said, the deaths of foreigners were not part of the argument I was countering, and (2) it’s a much more complicated question requiring a lot more work.
Nevertheless, it is a fair question, so let me give it a shot. Regarding the first problem, let’s use the basic rules of welfare calculations and assume that everybody counts, and everybody counts equally. Some people may very well think that the lives of American soldiers are worth more than the lives of a bunch of terrorists hiding in caves, but that would be rigging the analysis: If you assume American lives are worth more than anybody else’s, then why bother to do the analysis at all?
The second problem is trickier to solve. For one thing, we don’t have good estimates of how many of the enemy were killed in some of our wars. The estimates of the number of North Korean combat deaths apparently spans a range of many hundreds of thousands, as do the estimates of North Vietnamese dead. The numbers for Iraq and Afghanistan are apparently even murkier, especially since people with political interests have interests in understating or overstating the estimate.
Another problem is that I don’t know how many enemy deaths to attribute to American combat action. Lots of North Koreans were killed by South Koreans. And lots of Iraqis were killed by regional militants rather than American soldiers, so then you have to ask how many of those killings would have taken place if we hadn’t invaded. Some of these answers are knowable, but it would take a lot more historical research than I can do.
Yet another problem is that some of these wars arguably had a net benefit. The UN apparently estimates that Operation Restore Hope in Somalia helped support humanitarian intervention that saved 100,000 lives. After North Vietnamese forces conquered South Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of people were executed, died in concentration camps, or died trying to flee, and the Khmer Rouge killed over a million people in Cambodia. So how many lives did we save by not allowing North Korea to do the same thing to South Korea? How many lives, if any, did we save in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Yugoslavia by preventing some unknowable amount of ethnic cleansing? I have no clue how to account for lives saved by warfare, so I won’t. I’m only going to count the cost.
For the time period I was considering (World War II to the present) it’s not unreasonable to make the simplifying assumption that all our wars were wars of choice. We could have kept our troops at home instead of sending them to places like Korea and Vietnam and El Salvador and Afghanistan and Iraq. That means we can reasonably attribute all American combat deaths from those wars to decisions made as part of our national security policy. The same cannot be said of the deaths of our enemies, who may have been killed as a result of non-American action.
To avoid turning this into a life-long research project, I eventually settled on a simple methodology. I would visit Wikipedia’s page on United States military casualties of war and click through to the Wikipedia page for each war after World War II to look up the number of enemy casualties, choosing low or high estimates conservatively with respect to my hypothesis. I’ll fill in a few other numbers from other sources. (If you have better data handy, let me know.)
Counting only Korea and Vietnam, I get a low-bound estimate of 817,000 enemy dead before the United States ended conscription. (The high estimate is 1,915,000 dead, not including 1.5 million civilian deaths on both sides of the Korean conflict.)
In the post-conscription era, I’ll stick to the high-end estimates and include 20000 dead in the El Savadoran Civil war, 70 in our invasion of Grenada, 60 in the bombing of Libya, 3500 in our invasion of Panama, 29,600 in the first Gulf War, 1000 in Somalia (from Operation Irene, the Blackhawk Down incident), 25,000 in Bosnia-Herzgovina, 11,000 in Yugoslavia, and all 13,000 guerrilla soldiers killed in the Columbian conflict so far. I’ll assume all deaths were the result, directly or indirectly, of American involvement.
Wikipedia says there are no generally accepted numbers for the number of casualties from the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. For Afghanistan, I’ll use the estimate by Jonathon Steele of the Guardian (no shill for United States militarism) of 50,000 dead. Finally, for Iraq, I’ll use the death toll of 655,000 from the Lancet‘s survey of Iraq War casualties, which includes a large number of people killed by militant attacks against the population. (There was a higher estimate by another organization, but the Lancet‘s work was peer-reviewed.)
That brings the grand total to 818,000 non-U.S. dead, which is coincidentally only a thousand more than than during the conscription era. Since the post conscription period was about 1/3 longer (29 vs. 38 years) it ends up being about 25% less deadly for people outside the U.S.
This is not, of course, a very robust finding, and neither was my previous analysis of American war deaths, even though it found a much higher ratio. I have no idea how to determine significance. I’m pulling numbers from dubious sources and disregarding conflicting estimates. I’m using a proxy measurement for the total social cost, and I’m not controlling for other independent variables — most obviously, the end of the Cold War.
(A better approach to studying the subject would probably not rely on statistics. Instead, we should examine the actual historic decision making behind all conflicts entered into — and all conflicts avoided — during the period before and after the end of conscription. This is well beyond my capabilities, but I suppose historians have studied the process at various times and places.)
That said, I do have a plausible theory — that forcing the government to pay the full market price for military service (rather than allowing it to confiscate the labor, freedom, and lives of American soldiers) forces it to protect soldiers more thoroughly and use them more wisely. The numbers we have available seem to support my theory, and they don’t support the theory that eliminating the draft has caused an increase in militarism.
There’s also the question of whether conscription would really “work” by spreading the cost around. One of the criticisms of conscription during the Vietnam war was the ease with which non-disadvantaged people could get deferments or find other ways to avoid being drafted. What reason is there to believe it would be different this time? Unless you really think progressive forces would have the political power to establish a truly class-neutral conscription system. In which case, why not use that substantial political power to fight militarism directly?
Finally — and the only thing that matters to some of us — an all-volunteer army avoids the moral blight of slavery. Seriously, when has slavery ever been the solution to a progressive social problem? Should we encourage higher wages by randomly forcing hundreds of thousands of Americans to work in factory assembly lines or serve in battalions of migrant farm workers? Could we end the sexual exploitation of women by forcing everyone to sell sex? Maybe we could get better healthcare by forcing a larger percentage of the population to become doctors and nurses? And who would get to make those decisions?
I think the all-volunteer system is an important way to ensure that those who serve in our county’s military have a strong say in their conditions and terms of service. And I think that in turn will discourage the use of our military forces for dubious adventurism. Which is, I think, something we should all want.