The Myth of the Voluntary Military

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Ludwig von Mises summed up the essence
of government in words that are particularly vivid in wartime:

“Government interference always means either violent action
or the threat of such action. Government is in the last resort the
employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison
guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the
enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those
who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately
for more compulsion and less freedom.”

What about those who are called upon to enforce state edicts,
whether just or unjust? Every society includes people who are willing
to act as the coercive arm of the state, those who are willing to use
violence and freely risk their lives as they administer the law. The
state has no great trouble recruiting policemen and prison guards. Are
there enough such people to amass a huge army of hundreds of thousands
of people who are willing to risk their lives carrying out destructive
foreign wars of dubious merit?

When you see the pictures of American troops fighting their
way through sand storms, in a strange land with strange people, seeking
to overturn a government and transform a society that posed no credible
threat to the US, being shot at by average Iraqis who are clearly
motivated only by the desire to expel the invader, it is not hard to
imagine that US troops are wondering how it all came to this.

British defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, claims
that the coalition
armed forces are made up of “men and women who made a free choice to
serve their country,” whereas Iraqi forces “are motivated either by
fear or by hatred.” It’s hard to say what motivates Iraqi forces
(perhaps the desire to repel invasion?) but what he says about
coalition troops is simply not true.

The men and women now fighting initially agreed to be in the
employ of the military. The US is not yet conscripting people. And yet
how many of these would leave Iraq if they could? What if Donald
Rumsfeld announced that anyone now fighting in Iraq is free to leave
without penalty? What would become of the US armed forces now
attempting to bring about unconditional surrender in Iraq?

It’s an interesting question, as a pure mental experiment,
because it highlights the essentially forced nature of all modern
military service. To leave once the war begins would amount to what the
government calls desertion. This word sounds ominous but, in
fact, it merely describes what everyone in a civilized society takes
for granted: the right to quit.

Deuteronomy’s exhortation to encourage the Israelites into
battle includes an invitation to freely leave: “What man is there that
is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return unto his house.”
(20:8). But there is no such right in the modern US military. If you
try to leave, you face coercion, particularly if you try to leave in
wartime. In this way, the military differs from the police and the
ranks of prison guards, jobs from which people are free to walk away
without penalty.

Punishing people for attempting to leave the military — to
avoid killing and/or being killed — is not a new practice. Mises speaks
of the “barbarous” practices used in the 18th century to
keep soldiers from deserting their units. The more undesirable wartime
conditions become, the more necessary it is for the state to force
people to continue to endure them.

The scene that shocked me most in the movie “Gods and
Generals” — and it was clearly not intended to be shocking — occurs
when an assistant to Stonewall Jackson informs the general that some
soldiers have been discovered in an attempt to desert the army under
his command. The general orders them to be tried in a military court,
and, if found guilty of attempted desertion, to be shot. They were
indeed tried and shot. Thus did these men die for exercising their
God-given right to walk away.

One of those shot in the film was a young man recruited by
Jackson himself, the son of a friend who decided to return to the
North. The scene was included to demonstrate Jackson’s impartiality.
This general is no respecter of persons — or (more plausibly)
personhood. To me, the scene demonstrated the immorality of all modern
notions of military discipline.

As the movie shows, the South believed it was fighting for
the right of self-government, which required that the states be able to
exercise their right to leave an increasingly despotic Union. But the
military command would not allow their soldiers to secede. The
Confederate generals believed that the Union must be voluntary, but the
army itself must be kept together through coercion.

Of course Northern armies employed the same practice. Many
Union troops believed they were fighting against slavery, which amounts
to nothing more than forbidding people from exercising their right to
flee their alleged owners. But the imposition of the death penalty for
soldiers choosing not to fight, that is, to flee their military owners,
was assumed to be a
normal part of military discipline

Both North and South claimed they were fighting in order to
abolish a form of captivity — the right to self government in one case,
and the right to not be employed against one’s will in the other — but
the ability of the military to imprison and kill fleeing soldiers was
never questioned. It is not often questioned today.

The scene parallels the opening sequence in the movie “Enemy
at the Gates,” when Russian troops in boats are being bombed from the
air by German planes. Russian troops begin to jump in the water to get
away. Their Russian commander starts to unload his pistol as they leap.
The viewer is rightly shocked by this incredible display of
totalitarian brutality. Yet, in essence, what we are seeing is nothing
more than a fast-forwarded version of the court-martial, death penalty
scene in “Gods and Generals.”

Both scenes underscore a reality hardly ever discussed: all
modern armies are essentially totalitarian enterprises. Once you sign
up for them, or are drafted, you are a slave. The penalty for becoming
a fugitive is death. Even now, the enforcements against mutiny,
desertion, going AWOL, or what have you, are never questioned.

This is remarkable, if you think about it. Imagine that you
work for Wal-Mart but find the job too dangerous, and try to quit. You
are told that you may not, so you run away. The management catches up
to you, and jails you. You refuse to go and resist. Finally, you are
shot. We would all recognize that this is exploitation, an atrocity, a
crime, a clear example of the disregard that this company has for human
life. The public outrage would be palpable. The management, not the
fleeing employees, would be jailed or possibly executed.

Murray Rothbard frames the question nicely: “In what other
occupation in the country are there severe penalties, including prison
and in some cases execution, for ‘desertion,’ i.e., for quitting the
particular employment? If someone quits General Motors, is he shot at

The military has done a study (What We Know About AWOL and
Desertion: A Review of the Professional Literature for Policy Makers
and Commanders, by Peter F. Ramsberger and D. Bruce Bell
[Alexandria, VA: US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and
Social Sciences, ARI Special Report 51, August 2002]) of what causes
people to go AWOL, concluding that the practice “tends to increase in
magnitude during wartime” and when “the Army is attempting to restrict
the ways that soldiers can exit service through administrative

The same study profiles the deserters, as compared with
non-deserters, as less educated, having a lower aptitude, more likely
to be from broken homes, etc. — all the usual reasons why a person is
so dishonorably disinclined to want to be killed. Finally, this study
examined the effects of desertion on the individual, concluding that
choosing to be dis-employed from the ranks of the armed and dangerous
causes “loss of self esteem and confidence” as well as “embarrassment
and even shame.” Well, what else would you expect from someone who has
“chosen a certain path and failed to meet the necessary requirements
and/or sustain the fortitude to meet those requirements”?

Now comes the report
from Diwaniya, Iraq
, heavily cited by US military spokesman, that
“many Iraqi soldiers were fighting at gunpoint, threatened with death
by tough loyalists of President Saddam Hussein.” “‘The officers
threatened to shoot us unless we fought,’ said a wounded Iraqi from his
bed in the American field hospital here ‘They took out their guns and
pointed them and told us to fight.’”

It could be that the captured soldiers are only trying to win
sympathy. But it would hardly be surprising if it were true. To force
people to fight when they would rather not is the very essence of
modern military organization. In modern practice, there is no such
thing as a voluntary military. Whether you are forced into the machine
our not (via conscription or via payments in tax dollars), once you are
cog, you must stay in no matter how much grinding you do or how much
you are ground.

The slave-like nature of the military commitment has no
expiration date. Yes, there are contracts, but the military can void
them whenever it so desires. Predictably, it desires to void these
contracts (through
so-called stop-loss regulations
) when the enlisted most want to
leave: when they must kill and risk being killed. All branches of the
military have implemented these stop-loss regulations because of the
war on terror. This amounts to the nationalization of human beings.

Still, one wonders how much the ranks of the militarily
employed would shrink in absence of anti-desertion enforcement. If
modern presidents had to recruit the way barons and lords recruited,
and if they constantly faced the prospect of mass desertions, they
might be more careful about getting involved in unnecessary, unjust,
unwinnable wars, or going to war at all. Peace would take on new value
out of necessity. When going to war, they might be more careful to curb
their war aims, and match war strategies with those more limited aims.

In fact, we might discover through the study of the history of
anti-desertion statutes
the key to the transition from the limited
war and decentralized military of the medieval world to the mass murder
of the modern total war. The legalization of desertion might provide
the very key to bringing about a more humane world.

In the meantime, US officials would do well to stop
complaining that Iraqi soldiers are being forced to serve and forced to
kill. A press release from the Air
Force announcing its new stop-loss rule
says: “We understand the
individual sacrifices that our airmen and their families will be
making…. We appreciate their unwavering support and dedication to our

One might even have a greater appreciation for their
sacrifice (even if not their mission) if one knew that it were
undertaken willingly.

29, 2003

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editor of

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