Conscription: The Bane of Self-Ownership

It’s been a while since the United States implemented conscription–what we now call “The Draft” since we’ve turned it into the lottery that no one wants to win–and there remains a lot of negativity attached to it. The last time there was any serious talk about conscription was during George W. Bush’s presidency, and my father was so convinced that the draft was imminent that he routinely suggested that I go ahead and sign up. The high school had just required us to take the ASFAB, and I scored very highly, which caused Army Reserve recruiters to pester me pretty extensively. When the recruiter insisted twice that there were no reserve units deployed to Iraq, my father thankfully made him leave.

I don’t know whether my father ever served in the military or not. Through most of my life he insisted that he fought in the Vietnam War, and my sister and I realized as adults that this couldn’t possibly be true. He said that he had been drafted out of high school into the Navy. I don’t know enough about the draft to know whether conscripts served in other branches, and I don’t really care, but he asserts that his recruiter told him he would be able to choose a submarine as his assignment, only to ultimately not be able to. Who knows? Nothing my father says is ever really true. At best, it’s a lie with a bit of lean toward the truth.

When I went through a difficult patch around 20 years old, I contacted the Navy about recruiting. Much to my dismay, I had to again take the stupid ASFAB, as well as a Navy-only code-breaking thing at the end, and it took all day even though I finished the test in about two hours. That’s the worst part of any standardized test. Just hand me the test and let me leave when I’m done. Don’t make me sit around for five hours waiting on other people to finish.

There were a few oddities, though. First, it was my intention to enter the nuclear research program. I hadn’t yet entered college, but one half-truth after the other led to the realization that, unless I had a BA, then I was going to enter the service at the lowest possible rank–which, not being arrogant, is a tremendous waste for someone of my talents. Handing me a gun and sending me to the frontline is probably the least effective way to put me to use–and yes, I realize that the Navy doesn’t really fight on the front. That’s not the point. However, I had a BA, then I would have no need or desire to enter the military.

The $5,000 signing bonus didn’t sound particularly appealing. That buys a ten year old car. I’m sorry, but if I’m signing my literal life over to you and essentially becoming your slave for a period of time, and if this gives you the right to basically tell me to go and die, then five grand isn’t going to cut it. Not by a long shot. Up that to fifty grand, and then we can talk.

It was hilarious, though, how the recruiter kept going on and on about how much money he makes by being in the service. In fact, he stopped by the bank while taking us to take the ASFAB, and made quite a show of transferring one thousand dollars from one account to another. I don’t know if the other kids bought it or not, but it was clearly a scripted piece of bullshit. After the test, he said he would treat us to lunch, at which point he began looking around the car for change, and then ordered us each two things from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. What a farce. I’ve taken clients to lunch before, and it has never crossed my mind to take them to McDonald’s, scrounge around for change, and then tell them to order from the dollar menu and drink a cup of free water. Coming after his display of how much money he has, it was really funny. No doubt, he had no more or less money than any average person–probably less, really–and the accounts he manipulated at the bank were official navy accounts for exactly that purpose: impressing impressionable teens.

The main killer, though, was when it turned out that I was qualified to join the nuclear program, but was told that I couldn’t apply to it until after I was in boot camp, at which point the decision would be made about whether I would be accepted.

Yeah, no. I’m not doing that.

They might fool people who aren’t qualified to join nuclear research programs with that sort of thing, but not me. I can tell you exactly how that would have played out. “You didn’t get accepted. Now march, maggot!”

At the moment, the American military is completely voluntary, and that’s a good thing–if there’s going to be a military, then at least it’s voluntary. I’m not particularly fond of the recruiting tactics, though. I hate that many young men and women just have no real options for making a better future for themselves than joining the military. I hate that recruiters know that and use it to their advantage by targeting poor and minority communities. One of the few Michael Moore documentaries worth a shit is the one where he confronts some recruiters on this sort of predatory behavior.

It’s voluntary at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Conscription, however, isn’t a tool to protect the country. This is common sense, and it takes only a moment to think about it. It’s common knowledge that, immediately after Pearl Harbor, countless people joined the military. This is exactly what we’d expect if the United States–or any country, actually–was attacked by a foreign power. Just imagine what would happen if Russia stormed the beaches of California. Conscription wouldn’t be necessary to fill the ranks. We’d have people rushing out to California with guns loaded in their trucks without even bothering to enlist, they’d be so willing and so anxious to protect their country.

Conscription only serves the purpose of making people go and fight wars they don’t want to fight.

While there are pacifists, cowards, and sympathizers in all countries, if people want to fight, then they will volunteer to. That’s what it means to want something, after all. It’s readily apparent, and historically documented, that one of the things that make people want to fight is a foreign attack against their homeland. So while pacifists, cowards, and sympathizers wouldn’t want to fight, most people would, and I’m not seeing much benefit from making pacifists, cowards, and sympathizers fight. In fact, they’d probably do more harm than good.

Arguing this point with a friend a few years ago, he replied, “Yeah, but then they’d have to be sent through boot camp and trained, so there would be a delay…”

What a remarkable thing to say. That delay will exist whether the enemy attacks and people volunteer, or whether the enemy attacks and people are drafted. The only way to prevent that is to have a perpetual conscription requirement, which some people have campaigned for, where every adult must spend 2 years in the military or Peace Corps or something. I’m obviously not a fan of such an idea.

The very idea is stomach-churning. By what right does the government kidnap me, put a gun in my hand, and tell me to go and die? Shouldn’t I be the person who gets to make the determination that a cause is worth fighting for? Why does the government get to make that decision for me? So let’s call it what it is: enslavement. Literal enslavement, at that.

If the government needs soldiers, then the government has two options. It can either enslave people against their will, or it can offer people more stuff to enlist. If the government really wanted my service, they could have upped their bonus to fifty thousand dollars. However, force is what people use when they don’t want to compete. So instead of competing with non-dangerous employment by offering me a better wage and better signing bonus, the government chooses instead to circumvent that whole process and simply kidnap and enslave me.

If it ever so happened that the government needed more soldiers, they wouldn’t take the obvious route of offering people more money and more perks. They may make some token effort of doing this–raising the signing bonus to $5500, for example, as though an extra $500 will entice many more people to risk their lives for Uncle Sam–but they wouldn’t put any serious effort into it. Why should they? They hold the ultimate trump card: force. They don’t have to compete with free market jobs if they don’t want to, and they don’t have to expend much effort trying to compete, because they can just force people to join.

It’s bad enough that the state enslaves us through taxation and steals a sizable chunk of the fruits of our labors for itself. Conscription, however, allows the state to take 100% of our labor and to dictate exactly what that labor is. Maybe it’s digging trenches in Europe and fighting people who haven’t done anything to you. Maybe it’s taking and abandoning one hill after another in Vietnam, where success is measured in body count rather than territory. With conscription, you belong to the state. Your life belongs to the state, and it can effectively order you to end your life.

Now American society is asking whether women and transgender people should be required to sign up for selective service. Obviously, the answer is “No.” Instead of asking whether this archaic vestige of state supremacy should be expanded, we should be pointing out that it has no place in anything that calls itself a free country. If the cause of a war is just to a person, then that person will enlist to fight it. If the cause is not just, then they won’t. We cannot steal this agency from people. Their lives don’t belong to us or to the government. We don’t get to tell them to go die for a cause they don’t think is just. We don’t get to kidnap and enslave them.

Sure, we have an all volunteer military right now. But we’re only one major terrorist attack away from throwing that away, and tradition won’t stop people when the cards are down. Other people generally have few qualms about throwing away other people’s lives. The draft isn’t just some idea. It’s an omnipresent threat to every American, that we are never more than a moment away from becoming slaves to the government, and being sent to die in other parts of the world. It must be abolished. We do not belong to the government, and our lives are not its to throw away.

2 thoughts on “Conscription: The Bane of Self-Ownership

  1. The Navy went after me hard for their nuclear power program. Fortunately, I knew another guy who had been similarly recruited and was one of the 80% who wash out of the school and then, per their contract, are assigned to whatever MOS the Navy wants to put them in.

    Things must have changed since then. My recollection is that in the 80s the bonus was $20k, not $5k, and that you were offered the program by contract — that is, offered the chance to go to the school and see if you could make it into the program — at signing, not after reporting for boot camp. My recollection from talking with another friend is also that IF you got into the school, and IF you passed the school, then when your first enlistment was up the bonus for re-enlisting was $100,000. And a lot of people turned down that bonus because if you can run a nuclear power plant on an aircraft carrier or a submarine, you can run a nuclear power plant anywhere, and make $100,000 or more every year (instead of just as a one-time bonus) doing so in the civilian nuclear industry, and get to go home at night as well instead of spending months at a stretch on or in a tin can.

    • I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they fed me incorrect info in an attempt to push me one direction or another, but I do remember the signing bonus being only $5k. The recruiter even said that most people use it to get a car, the lack of which was the reason I was in such a bad spot in the first place (my wife had totaled ours).

      They didn’t say “Until you’re in boot camp.” It was, however, that I couldn’t apply until after I’d signed the dotted line. I don’t remember how they phrased it, but it was clear that I wouldn’t get even the chance to do it until after I was already at their mercy and it was too late to do anything about it.

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