Rat's Nest
Bloggage, rants, and occasional notes of despair

National service? Or national servitude?

The blogosphere echoes with the reverberations of Rangel’s call to reinstate the draft. Sgt. Stryker is opposed to it, as is Mike Hendrix of Cold Fury (others undoubtedly are as well, but these happen to be the two that I know about). Their commentators (with rare exceptions) range from being dismissive of the idea to being hostile towards it.

They’re all wrong. Some more seriously so than others, but they’re still wrong.

Let us look at the arguments against the idea. These arguments are not legion; rather, there seem (to me, at least) to be only two.

The first is the U.S. military is now a well-trained and highly professional force, and that adding short-term conscripts to it can only screw it up. I will agree with that; I would support legislation (with some specificity and teeth in it, not the feel-good pablum to be interpreted by the Bureau of Whatever that too often comes out of Congress these days) to keep draftees out of the Navy, the Marines, and the Air Force. But not the Army.

Way back in the beginning of things (for this country), the military services were divided between the Department of War (the Army) and the Department of the Navy. The reason for this was not a momentary lapse of judgment by the designers of the Federal government, but a recognition of a much deeper principle. The Navy is the President’s; it’s his "rapid reaction force", his tool to be used where a formal declaration of war would take too long or be overkill. The Marines, of course, go with the Navy. We might argue what role the Air Force should play, or even (at least on the level of Platonic ideals) if there should be an independent Air Force, as opposed to an Army Air Corps and a Naval Air Corps, but certainly some of its assets must be viewed as being in the Naval camp, to come when the President sayeth "Come!", and to go when he sayeth "Go!"

But not the Army. The Army is the Congress’, and through the Congress the nation’s. It was not intended to be used in brush fights, in small colonial wars, but rather in conflicts where we perceive (even if wrongly) that it is Them or Us, that we’re fighting war to the knife and, after the knives break, will go on with teeth and fists and boots.

World War II was such a conflict. We decided that we must have the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, that the fight must go on until they had no choice but to bend to our will. Certainly, there were draft dodgers and draft resisters in World War II, but on so small a scale that we have essentially forgotten about them sixty years later.

Vietnam was not such a conflict. Johnson hubristically assumed that he could use a conscript army just as he could the Marines, as an instrument of his will, and paid the political price for it. Nixon pursued a strategy of "Vietnamization" – let ARVN provide the cannon fodder, whilst we fly the bombers – and that strategy proved quite sound; it destroyed an NVA invasion in 1972. It almost certainly would have kept working, had not Congress decided in 1975 that it was more important to entrench its members with phony "reforms" than to fund South Vietnam’s resistance to the North.

(On the other hand, supplying North Vietnam with the armor that we and the South Vietnamese destroyed – a few times more than the Wehrmacht had in WWII – strained the economy of the XSSR to the breaking point. Reagan’s insistence on pursuing SDI "merely" finished it off.)

There are very good arguments for having a large professional Navy. There are even very good arguments for having a small professional Army, backed by reservists, National Guardsmen, and every kind of organized and unorganized militia down to the guy with a duck gun and some punji sticks in the decorative plantings. There are no good arguments for a large professional Army – unless you assume that we are headed irreversibly down the slope from Republic to Empire, a thought that ought to give libertarians pause.

That is the second argument against the draft: that the U.S. is (or ought to be) the Land of the Free, that conscription is incompatible with true freedom, and that to re-institute it would be vile.

Sorry, but I’m unimpressed. There are some serious libertarian thinkers out there (and some serious thinker about libertarianism), but most so-called libertarian thought is on the level of college freshmen whining that they’re not allowed to get drunk at the titty bar. So is this.

I am not a libertarian, and have said so on several occasions. Let me repeat that for emphasis: I am not a libertarian. This means that, whilst I will listen to libertarian arguments, and can even be convinced by them, merely saying "This policy is inconsistent with libertarianism" means nothing to me.

Some libertarians (and others) will point out that the U.S. survived its first eighty-odd years without a draft. This is, in my view, true but irrelevant. The "republican isolationism" of this period, I have said before, was a delusion allowed by the fact that the U.S. was sheltered from serious challenges by the British Navy – this, it should be noted, for British reasons, not for American ones. The occasions when we were not so sheltered – the Old Northwest conflicts and the War of 1812 – we did not do at all well against those same British.

There has never been a libertarian society. The two quasi-anarchist societies most often cited by the anarcho-capitalist wing of the libertarian movement – pre-Norman Ireland and Iceland before its submission – were both destroyed. In the case of Ireland, it was by independent Norman barons; Henry II interfered largely because he feared that independent Norman-Irish kingdoms would allow their rulers to do to him what he (king of England and duke of, inter alia, Normandy) was trying to do to the Capets in France. In the case of Iceland, it was destroyed internally; feuds between wealthy chieftain grew so destructive that the population at large decided that submission to the Norwegian king was better than remaining independent at the cost of perpetual feuding and civil war.

I am a Machiavellian – and a Spenglerian, where I find that Machiavelli is silent. Machiavelli had a considerable amount to say about the connection between military and civil society. He advocated the citizen militia, not merely because he thought them militarily superior to the condottieri of Renaissance Italy, but because he thought that such a militia would necessarily be imbued by civic virtù, which would then be reflected in their handling of civic affairs.

Machiavelli was a pundit, not a philosopher. He had no overarching ideology, except perhaps his fervent republicanism. Even there, he considered that some people were not capable of sustaining a republic, not through congenital lack of ability, but because the culture in which they had grown and with which they were imbued caused them to be unwilling or unable to make the sacrifices which he saw necessary for republicanism.

Machiavelli did not try to predict the future, except in the most general sense of the political theory that he adopted from Aristotle (a given state will cycle through good and corrupt forms of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy). Even there, he believed that the "prince", a man of personal ability, could arise and short-circuit that cycle, reviving or corrupting the population as his interest dictated.

Spengler, on the other hand, did try to predict the future, or at least considered that human endeavor was bound by unelucidated (by him) laws of nature that caused every culture to develop in essentially the same way and at the same rate. In his opus magnum, The Decline of the West, written at the time of the First World War, he asserted that a cycle of wars was beginning comparable to the consolidation of Roman control over the Mediterranean, the Era of Warring States in China, or the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt. These wars, he warned, would end in the same way: with the establishment of a Universal Empire (even if not called that) that would reject modernity and democracy for pre-modern and bureaucratic models.

Nearly a century of history has shown that Spengler has been correct in his predictions to date. He held out no hope that the historical forces could be turned aside; like or not, we were on our way. Machiavelli, though, does hold out a hope, that a "prince" (il principe; not necessarily a dictator or even a officer of state) can arise and help reform civic society.

But Machiavelli also thought that society would be the raw material with which the prince had to work; that a corrupt society could only lead to corrupt men gaining power and effectively destroying republicanism, even if, like the Julio-Claudians and the de’ Medici, they allowed the decaying institutions to serve as the increasingly threadbare velvet glove in which they concealed the iron fist of their despotism.

Shall national service provide that raw material? Or shall it even make a prince unnecessary?

John "Akatsukami" Braue Saturday, January 04, 2003