Conscription is slavery

Editor’s note: This article is also available in Romanian.

Quite possibly the single biggest injustice that has been committed and is still being committed against men is military slavery, also known as conscription or compulsory military service. This involves a person (almost always a man) being forced to live in a place his masters choose, usually a cramped room he has to share with fellow slaves. He has to eat what his masters give him and has to obey their orders, even if doing so causes him discomfort, pain, or humiliation. He even has to obey when he is ordered to kill other human beings or to risk his own life. For these services he is paid only a pittance.

Unlike chattel slavery, this servitude is temporary. There are also certain limits to what superior officers may order a military servant to do. But these are differences of degree, not of kind. Conscription and military service are still forced labour, which is a form of slavery.

The Forced Labour Convention of 1930[1], which has been ratified by 177 countries[2], gives the following definition:

For the purposes of this Convention the term forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.

Thus, conscription is clearly forced labour. Labour services are exacted from men, who have not volunteered for them, under the threat of imprisonment (or in some cases even execution). But of course governments don’t like it if they are limited in exploiting male labour. And so the convention hastens to add a list of exceptions that are not be considered compulsory labour. The first of which reads,

any work or service exacted in virtue of compulsory military service laws for work of a purely military character;

In other words, the authors of the convention are fully aware that military service fulfils all the characteristics of forced labour as they have laid them out, but they want to exempt military service. No justification is given for this. No justification is possible.

Many attempts have been made to provide a justification for military service, but none of them stand up to scrutiny. One argument states that protection against foreign invasion is so important a task that it cannot be left to volunteers. Everyone has the duty to to defend his homeland, so every able-bodied man should be compelled to do his part.

While protection against invasion is certainly important, there are a great many goods and services which are of much greater importance, but still get done by voluntary labour. No one has to be conscripted for baking bread or building houses, and yet there is no shortage of bread or houses.

If the army does not find enough volunteers, it can do what any employer does when faced with the same problem: offer higher wages or better working conditions. If more important industries such as agriculture and construction can do without slave labour, then so can the army.

Another popular argument asserts that conscription improves the moral character of the army since a conscript army is based on the principles of solidarity, equality, and brotherhood. Because everyone is conscripted regardless of education and class, the army gets access to the brightest and most talented young individuals the country has to offer. In contrast, a professional army is a band of mercenaries and will attract primarily uneducated and unsavoury people.

But this is complete nonsense. One could advance the same argument for slavery in any industry. (“If we free plantation slaves, only dumb brutes will pick our cotton. Slavery is important to foster a spirit of equality and camaraderie!”) Any industry wants to have bright and talented employees and there’s no good reason to privilege the army in this way. A professional army has the massive advantage that only those people join who actually want to be soldiers. Conscripting everyone not only causes tremendous suffering, but also pulls people away from other occupations for which they have greater talents and are more motivated to excel in.

The last refuge of the supporters of conscription is practicality. Maintaining a large professional army during peacetime is prohibitively expensive. To solve this problem, they propose a small standing army of professionals supplemented by a large reserve of conscripts who receive a few months or years of basic training, after which they return to civil life and can be called upon in case of war.

It is indeed inefficient to have a large standing army, but that is not actually an argument in favour of conscription. It is perfectly possible to achieve the same result with voluntary contracts. The army can hire reservists, i.e. people who receive basic training and then go back to civil life. They are paid a small annual or monthly sum in exchange for being obligated to work as soldiers in case of war. Such a scheme would mean that the army is forced to pay market prices for labour, which is of course more expensive than slave wages.

This cost must always be paid, but in a war fought with conscripts, a disproportionate amount of that cost is borne by the involuntary soldiers. So rather than fostering solidarity and equality, conscription actually generates inequality. Conversely, having the army pay this price is less unequal because the full cost is spread out over all tax payers. This may still be unjust because people who are opposed to the war are forced to pay for it, but at any rate it is less unjust than forcing millions of men to donate their labour and risk their lives.

Moreover, massive armies of barely trained infantry are a relic of the past. Today’s wars don’t require large numbers of warm bodies, but highly trained specialists using advanced equipment. Missiles, bombers and carriers don’t require very many people to operate, but those people need to actually be well-trained. The only real use for large infantry regiments is the occupation of foreign countries and the suppression of domestic rebellions. And improving the army’s ability to do that seems to me a big negative.

Thus, we can see that conscription is not only immoral, but also economically inefficient. You may have noticed that I did not stress the one fact that most MRAs bring up first: gender equality. The reason for my neglect is that it is merely a side issue. The important point is that conscription is reprehensible and would be no less so if women were also conscripted.

Two wrongs do not make a right. Unfortunately, many MRAs are so blinded by the slippery concept of equality that they endorse the idea that conscription should be either abolished or extended to women, as though both were an acceptable outcome. For example, the National Coalition for Men (NCFM) has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Selective Service system[3]. In it, the NCFM is,

calling for the Selective Service to stop discriminating against men and women by requiring both men and women to register for the draft, or by requiring neither to register for the draft.

This view is abominable. Slavery doesn’t suddenly become acceptable because everyone is equally enslaved. Our case must rest on a general opposition to conscription. Bringing about gender equality in this area by also forcing conscription upon women would be more unjust than the current systems because it extends the injustice of conscription on an even greater part of the population. Someone who prefers a state of universal conscription to one of male-only conscription is not a supporter of men’s rights, but rather an enemy of women’s rights.

Aside from being morally reprehensible, it is also questionable whether demanding equality in regard to conscription (i.e. the view that either both or none of the sexes should be conscripted) makes sense from a strategic point of view. A popular view asserts that demanding equality is merely a ploy to achieve the abolition of conscription and that faced with the two choices, governments will opt to get rid of conscription to avoid the public outcry over women being forced into military service.

But this is a spurious objection. The very fact that there exist countries where women are also conscripted is a strong indicator that female conscription is not necessarily abhorrent to the general public. There is a very real chance that this ploy will backfire and lead to extending conscription rather than abolishing it. One also has to take into account that female conscripts will most likely do easier and less dangerous work than their male counterparts, so there won’t be many women returning in body bags who might spark public outrage.

Appealing to gender equality instead of liberty and justice is a dangerous path to take because most people still believe that women are disadvantaged. By focussing on equality, this becomes a matter of men versus women. In this arena, it is very difficult to sway public opinion in favour of men. Supporters of conscription can argue that this inequality is compensated by other disadvantages women supposedly have, such as lower income, doing unpaid domestic work, and generally living in a patriarchal world. The limited success that the MRM has had so far shows how difficult it is to convince the public of the errors of these arguments.

The more promising approach is a principled and general opposition to conscription. The general public is much more receptive to appeals for justice and freedom than to appeals against misandry. It is a sad fact that most people are only concerned with male suffering if it isn’t explicitly male, but just general suffering. Under the influence of the MRM, this will hopefully change one day. But until then, millions of men around the world are being kept in military slavery. For their sakes, we must use the most effective ways of swaying public opinion.







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