The Myth of the Voluntary Military
Jeffrey A. Tucker
by Jeffrey A. Tucker: Scurvy,
Among Other Problems, Went Away
a Jetsons World (2011). An MP3 audio file of this article,
narrated by Steven Ng, is available
Mises summed up the essence of government in words that are particularly
vivid in wartime:
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.
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 United States, 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 United States 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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 Walmart 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.
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 sunrise?"
has done a study
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 nondeserters, 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 disemployed
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 a US military spokesman,
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 or not (via conscription
or via payments in tax dollars), once you are a cog, you must stay
in no matter how much grinding you do or how much you are ground.
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.
wonders how much the ranks of the militarily employed would shrink
in absence of antidesertion 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 antidesertion
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.
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 nation."
One might even
have a greater appreciation for their sacrifice (even if not their
mission) if one knew that it were undertaken willingly.
We Know about AWOL and Desertion: A Review of the Professional Literature
for Policy Makers and Commanders, 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).
Tucker [send him mail]
is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.
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