Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Unpopular But Necessary: Involuntary Military Service

The word "draft" is, in American history, most commonly linked to the Vietnam War. Yet there are quite a few instances of involuntary military service in our nation's history. This practice is never without controversy and resistance; yet it seems also to be necessary in certain circumstances. It is perhaps the elected leader's worst nightmare.

In the very beginning of our nation, the draft was present. Forced military service began, at the latest, in early 1776. By 1778, it was "widespread" according historian John Maass.

Maass writes that conscription and impressment “produced antipathy and resistance to Patriot authorities, and undermined support for” the government. This may remind the reader of the draft’s effects during the Vietnam conflict. Maass defines ‘impressment’ as “the act of seizing property for public service or use,” although elsewhere it has been used to refer to something very similar to the draft or to conscription, i.e., to “compulsory military service,” as Maass defines ‘conscription.’ There may be some slight confusion about terminology here.

It is worth noting that twenty-first century nations, rather than the direct “impressment” of needed wartime supplies, prefer to tax citizens, and then buy the supplies. The net effect is the same, but perhaps citizens are less disturbed by taxes than by officials actually seizing property and goods. Maass points out that “the desperate situation” there “made the enforcement of taxation laws difficult.” Whether they were collecting taxes or goods, the primitive information technology and the difficulty of maintaining any long-distance communication would have created the “confusion that reigned within the state as authorities scrambled to procure the various needs of the army and the militia,” although both confusion and unscrupulous use of such authority are quite possible in our high-tech era as well.

The leaders of the U.S. military were aware of the problems, and “feared alienating the populace, and making the people reluctant” to support the cause of freedom. Although leaders of the Continental Army “regretted” the impressment of goods and property, there seemed to be no other course of action available to them.

Trying to limit the damage – i.e., worried that the public would reduce its support for the cause of liberty – some measures were taken to mitigate the harm done by such confiscations: owners were partially recompensed with vouchers, low-value paper currency, and tax exemptions. Some efforts were made to avoid impressing goods from the same areas more than once. Wisely, procurement agents were directed to take when possible from those who were already against the cause of independence – from whom there was no support to lose – rather than take from those whose support of independence might be lost to the bitterness of impressment.

The chaos of war created opportunities for abuse, and the practice of impressment was abused by military agents for personal gain, and sometimes for wanton destruction. Citizens resisted politically and physically, when possible. Even when impressment was conducted without corruption, it was often done undiplomatically. The practice reduced motivation for productive work, the fruit thereof being uncertain, and damped trade, inasmuch as import and export shipments could be impressed; this fulfilled a principle stated by Thomas Hobbes that productivity declines in warlike circumstances, and agricultural land will be underutilized. Citizens took to hiding their goods.

One North Carolina resident complained that the agents carrying out the impressments were “selected from the dregs of the people.” If impressment had become necessary, it would have been best to devote more attention, and better personnel, to seeing that it was carrying out as diplomatically as possible. It also became clear that counterfeit impressment agents – in no way connected to the Continental Army – were at work, confiscating property, but having no military authority to do so, and keeping it for themselves.

Some officers, like General Nathanael Greene and Thomas Burke, did a commendable job of policing their own soldiers to ensure than impressment did not turn into mere sacking and plunder.

Many of the problems encountered regarding conscription practices were analogues to those encountered regarding impressment practices. Both had a root in a lack of funding; the thirteen former colonies attempted to offer enticements to elicit volunteer troops, but simply weren’t able to offer enough cash to generate enthusiastic enlisters. The practice of hiring substitutes – men hired by draftees to go in their stead – was widespread and legally allowed. Drafting also led to a relatively high percentage of unfit men reporting for duty, only to be returned home. Local ‘draft boards’ – to use a term from a later era – were perhaps tempted to call upon those less fit, because local communities would object less, and because it was foreseeable that they would be returned home in short order. Draft dodgers were common, and those who did not evade the draft often deserted after showing up to be enlisted. Anti-draft riots occurred in a number of places.

We see that the government of North Carolina was placed into an uncomfortable situation. If the cause of liberty was to have even a chance at victory, large numbers of soldiers, and large quantities of supplies, had to be raised. Yet the infant government – both of the state of North Carolina and of the United States as whole – lacked the finances needed to accomplish this in a purely commercial manner. Impressment and conscription seemed then, and seem in hindsight, the only available route. Although necessary, these means undermined popular support for the cause of independence. Had the war lasted longer, it might have been lost due to conscription and impressment: the lesson is that if one must use these means, make sure that the war is over sooner rather than later, because it is a race against the clock as popular support starts to dwindle (cf. the first Gulf war of 1990, in which political planners worked to keep the war short for similar reasons). A second lesson is that if one must procure goods via impressment, keeping the process diplomatic and free of corruption must be a top priority. The feel of the matter is all to familiar, given the nation’s experiences during the Vietnam conflict.