Conscription Ad Infinitum

"Some one, I see, is lifting up his sweet voice in praise of Conscription," wrote George Gissing nearly half a century ago. A threat of peacetime military training in England alarmed Gissing; the lapse of more than four decades has been required to enable the American advocates of a permanent draft to become so numerous and influential that the national administration is urging enactment of a sweeping policy of conscripting boys in their teens. "If now there were. . . a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, . . . the military ideals of hardihood and discipline would be wrought into the growing fiber of the people. . . . We should be owned, as soldiers are by the army, and our pride would rise accordingly." These phrases, which have the ring of Adolf Hitler’s, were written by William James in 1910; they are echoed in this troubled year by enthusiasts for discipline who are recommending conscription, not only as a military measure, but as a social objective. The anxiety of the proponents of this system to obtain its adoption before postwar excitement subsides is obvious. We need to reflect deeply before we decide upon a policy which so deeply concerns the general happiness; we reflected very little three decades ago before adopting national prohibition.

There are two parallel, but separable, arguments in favor of peacetime conscription: that it is a military necessity and that it is a tool for forging a Brave New World – James’s "moral equivalent of war." For nearly four years the writer was a conscript soldier, and military life has aroused in him an interest in the draft more than abstract.

The military excuse for the measure is being debated by persons better fitted than this writer to talk of it, but it is amusing to observe the embarrassed vehemence with which the Chief Executive and a parade of officers endeavor to convince us by a species of ex post facto reasoning that there is some intimate connection between the atomic bomb and the conscription project. The argument of military necessity is probably not convincing to the average soldier, who knows what his basic training amounted to. When General Eisenhower’s declaration that every enlisted man with whom he had conversed was eager for permanent military training was read in this soldier’s barracks, the laughter appeared to be derisive: a private does not bandy words with a general of the armies, but among his own kind. True, the question of military necessity must be decided upon its own merits, but if a hard fate should compel us to adopt the proposal, we should face the fact that conscription is advantageous only as a means of raising troops; otherwise, it is a cruel detriment. It is time we quashed the folderol that military training will "solve our juvenile-delinquency problem" and that a year of life in cantonments will build heroic muscles and minds. Any common soldier knows better. Not long ago the writer rode with a naval commander, a surgeon, who wanted a permanent draft so that his impetuous sixteen-year-old son would be taught to obey. One could not, without grave discourtesy, reply that if parental authority failed of beneficial effect, impersonal military authority could not be expected to accomplish more. It is a curious notion, that teaching a boy to make a bed and fire a Garand under compulsion will make him sober, self-reliant, and stable. If we are to believe the ubiquitous Dr. Gallup, this fancy is popular. Probably the first thought that comes to the mind of a citizen quizzed on the topic is that the draft would improve someone else’s offspring. This topic will bear a little reflection.

To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dish-washing, clothes-making, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come bad into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Thus wrote William James; and thus today some people are declaring that we need conscription to make young men the pure and lovely creatures their ancestors "are alleged to have been – to teach them, among other things, to brush their teeth, scrub their faces, and cook their suppers. Abstract humanitarianism has come to regard servitude – so long as it be to the state – as a privilege. Greater self-love has no government than this: that all men must wear khaki so that some men may be taught to brush their teeth. Apologists for Negro slavery claimed for their peculiar institution, the virtue which humanitarians now ascribe to the draft: that it instilled a healthful discipline. A humanitarianism which believes that boys can be filled with sweetness and light, strength and joy, through living communally under military force in training camps or work camps is very abstract indeed. Few will deny that the humanitarianism of Fascism was nothing if not abstract; such were the premises upon which Fascist youth organizations were established. Most interesting is the ignorance of the motives and desires of the common man displayed by academic psychologists, and William James was no exception. When a man can maintain that the basis of morality lies in the satisfaction of desire and remark, according to Hutchins Hapgood, "So long as one poor cockroach feels the pangs of unrequited love, this world is not a moral world," it is not surprising that he can think the nation requires conscription to satisfy its soul. Only under a thoroughly muddled system of ethics could the drafting of young people be called a moral measure.

The claims of enthusiasts for conscription are numerous. They may be consolidated under three heads: conscription builds character, it improves health, it educates youth to play its part in the world. The writer, who has been on the inside of conscription looking out, has not found himself ennobled, strengthened, or educated thereby. He is not aware that being ordered about has made him tread the earth more proudly or even, alas, more highly valued by the women. The tendency of every movement to swing full cycle has brought some of us to the absurdity of believing that strength of will, private morality, courage, fidelity, and resolution can be nurtured by a military discipline so crushing to self-reliance that it prescribes the moment a man may shave his jowls, and by a communal existence that places in a lower bunk a boy from a Mississippi farm and in the upper bunk one from the San Pedro wharfs. The Progressivists in education have made so thorough a failure of their method of forming character through a neglect, allegedly salutary, that a half-conscious reaction has set in, as much a fallacy as the Progressivist notion. Kipling hit upon a profound truth: single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints. Military discipline effects no more than the repression of disorder in camp; it does not attempt to shape men anew.

In military life, distant from home and most of the forces of social opinion, there is every inducement for an average young man to sink into indolence and indulgence and every reason for him to rely increasingly upon the state for very existence. Had James made the rounds with the military police on a Saturday night, he might have been a trifle startled. Independence and initiative often are stifled by rigid discipline; the army is no school for inner strength. Sudden precipitation into the rough comradeship of barracks often leaves its mark upon a boy; and it is to be hoped the time has not come when we are such fierce Spartans as to sneer at sensitivity of character. The necessities of war have forced us to introduce young men to such a life; but only great emergency can excuse it. It is common enough to see and hear a half-dozen foul-mouthed young sailors or soldiers, fancying themselves drunken on a few bottles of 3.2; this picture is natural enough, there being little in their life to make them otherwise and military existence being essentially rough; but the education they receive is no more admirable than is their public conduct.

As for health, military life offers no peculiar facilities for muscle-building, tooth-brushing, or bath-taking. Much of the strenuous training which soldiers undergo to harden them for combat would be unwise if utilized for any other purpose; the long-run physical effect is often quite the contrary of the ideal of sound and long life. "Damn you, be healthy!" might well be the slogan of those who think army life makes a man a Greek god. One is tempted to ask if he owns his own body. A society which looks upon the citizen as a unit of human energy, a cog in the wheel of the state, may well applaud this program, which sacrifices a great deal of liberty for a very small increase in health; but that is not yet our society.

What of the educational benefits of military existence? We are told that the boy and the state are to profit: Young men are to be made carpenters and cooks; they are also to learn how to create the good society. Sufficient manual labor is performed in the army; but, contrary to the supposition of James, it does not appear to "knock the childishness" out of "gi1ded youth," or to send them "back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas." The man with the hoe is, not apt to become a philosopher. More often the men who toil most strenuously during the week drink the most whiskey on Saturday night. James’s freight trains and fishing fleets have not played a conspicuous part in making better fathers and teachers. This is like the hoary nonsense about the virtues of working one’s way through college; but military life does not inculcate even the frugality necessitated by self-support in school: the army guarantees a man three meals, clothing, shelter, and pay even though he be a sluggard. Let him who will call this training for social responsibility. There is no ennoblement in any sort of labor per se; the formation of mind and character are apart from the sort of work done. A soldier who has spent a year digging trenches is a better father only in the sense that he has learned to prize, by contrast, the pleasures of his own fireside – supposing him not to have acquired tastes anything but domestic. Nor is military discipline a means of teaching men to live with men. One wishing to learn how men behave unto each other should go not into the army, under the artificial restraints of military law, but into Ford’s Rouge Plant, with its polyglot multitude. The only way really to learn how to live with men is by living with them in the common ways of society. In the army a man is at once sheltered and bullied.

Just why boys should join the armed forces to learn carpentry or any other skill is a mystery to this soldier. Probably enough boys already are learning carpentry – chiefly from carpenters. Proposals that a part of the training of conscripts be in industrial plants appear to be based on the notion that there is a shortage of factory workers. But during the war, shortage of labor never seriously retarded military production and would not have been a factor at all worth considering had not many young workers been drafted into the army. Would not young men be conscripted out of the factories again in case of war? What point in industrial training? It is difficult to discern any advantage of the camp over classroom and workshop. Our schools are poor enough all too – often, but they are not yet so low as to do homage to the military method of instruction. The army classroom is distinguished for its deadly dullness, its narrowness of scope, and the ineptitude of its average unhappy, involuntary soldier instructor. The army is no school for life and no substitute for school. The army is not calculated to make youth virtuous, healthy, or sagacious. It is a sorry makeshift to replace the influences of home and school. It can teach well only one thing – how to fight; and there are said to be higher accomplishments than that.

In addition to the alleged military and social values of a peace-time draft, there is one more reason for its proposal – one from which the draft’s champions generally shrink, but which, very probably, is at the back of the mind of many who would like to see youth in uniform. The specter of unemployment is haunting every politician, economist, industrialist, and labor leader. Mr. Dewey said that he saw the solution in heroic production of gadgets, but as to the immediate means, was silent. Mr. Roosevelt announced that everything was planned and that no one need worry, but his details were nebulous. Mr. Truman thinks that there is magic in the phrase "full employment," but one suspects that his disappointment at Congressional refusal to put his whole program to the test is not unmixed with relief. That the problem is not hopeless should be obvious: when there are millions of appetites to be satisfied and hundreds of thousands of houses to be built, no one need be idle were it not that the wheels of the social machine have jammed and the frantic operators have embraced the economics of despair. Subsidies and counter-subsidies, planned shortages, limitations on production, diversion of labor to profitless channels are a few aspects of the fallacy of beneficial want. One of the most obvious palliatives for unemployment is to push a large number of young men into an expanded CCC or an expanded army on a subsistence basis and so make room for others in regular employment – one of the obvious palliatives and one of the worst.

It is one of the worst because it is a fleeting and insufficient remedy; it is one of the worst because it is a negation of the principles of liberty and hope which the nation has been trumpeting. If modern society can provide no better way of existence than crowding young people together like so many ants and keeping them in a state of servitude in return for sustenance, there is little reason for modern society to continue to exist. We are already painfully bound by the intricate system of law and life that must govern any close-knit economy, and need not add to our social miseries by concentrating boys behind M.P. gates.

The War Department is conscientiously urging peacetime training because it would be of some military utility. A man who has been taught to fire a Springfield is a slightly more valuable recruit than one who has never before squeezed a trigger. Whether this military advantage be outweighed by disadvantages of another nature, it is not the business of the War Department to judge; that is the concern of the people and of Congress; it is incumbent upon the War Department to recommend measures that may increase military power. The Secretary of War and the Chief of Staff are not social architects. They are not employed to calculate costs other than military. But there are games not worth the candle. Jew-baiting was contributory in some degree to German military prowess, for it hardened the mind and conscience of the average man, and, as Napoleon is said to have put it, "The worse the man, the better the soldier." We do not believe the moral cost of intolerance to be worth the military gain. The question of conscription may be parallel. Would the wasting of men in the unproductive field of military training and the disruption of the life of millions of young men be too high a price for a possible increase in armed strength? A builder may tell you truthfully that a house of stone is the most durable sort of house; it is not his business to judge whether you can afford a house of stone. Just so far is the War Department a judge of the desirability of conscription. In matters of social welfare, there can be no satisfactory authority but society en masse.

Not long ago no policy of the Nazis was more decried than their regimentation of young men and women. And yet, now that the Nazi is dead, there are those among us who would make of him an image, and, in defiance of the Decalogue, worship him. For the mass of men there is no tyranny more onerous than that of military life.