Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Required Military Service: Damaging Freedom in Order to Preserve It?

A variety of words are used to name the process of requiring men to enlist in the armed forces of a country: draft, impressment, conscription. These words may have slight differences in meaning, which also vary over the decades and centuries, but they essentially all refer to ignoring the will of the individual and requiring him to bear arms for the nation.

The terms ‘impressment’ and ‘conscription’ can also, at times, refer to the forced requisitioning of material objects and supplies as well as manpower.

This practice is never popular, but nowhere meets with more resistance than in the United States. Because the USA is explicitly founded on the notion of individual political liberty, conscription is especially ironic, inasmuch as it violates the individual’s freedom in the name of protecting the individual’s freedom.

The most recent example of such impressment happened during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, but the practice dates back to times even before the nation’s founding. There were examples of the ‘draft’ during colonial times in the 1600s.

Studying particular instances of the impressment of supplies in North Carolina during the Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1781, historian John Maass notes that it was so unpopular that it even fostered sentiments in support of the enemy.

In this way, the draft was truly counterproductive.

Likewise, John Maass writes, the conscription of men began to nudge some residents of the area to support, in thoughts if not in deeds, the adversary:

For similar reasons, conscription also raised the ire of men forced to perform compulsory military service through the process of a draft. In all theaters of the war, Revolutionary authorities relied heavily upon conscription, a practice several American provinces used as far back as the seventeenth century. Despite historical precedents, involuntary military service was certainly an imposition upon many male Carolinians (and their families), and often met stiff resistance. Just as men and women directed their ire toward governing officials and their agents over impressment, so too did the draft cause similar disaffection and hostility among men compelled to serve in the ranks. Opposition to conscription and impressment created significant difficulties for Britain’s former American colonies in building allegiance to the new Revolutionary governments, and in defending themselves from British and Tory enemies.

The practice of conscription is a perpetual thorn in the side of military leaders. Soldiers who did not voluntarily enlist are perhaps more likely to desert or cause other disciplinary problems.

Yet, over the centuries, some form of the draft has repeatedly shown itself to be necessary.

In the impressment of material supplies, there is a need to watch the ethics of the conscripting officers and men, because there is a temptation to take more than one needs. A thoughtfully-organized impressment of supplies can minimize the damage to goodwill among the populace.

Likewise, the humane treatment of draftees can reduce personnel problems among the soldiers.