Front Page Titles (by Subject) RICHARD FLACKS, Conscription in a Democratic Society - New Individualist Review
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RICHARD FLACKS, Conscription in a Democratic Society - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Conscription in a Democratic Society
I DO NOT SEE HOW it can be denied that the institution of conscription is by definition alien to a genuinely free society. Therefore, I want to stress at the outset my view that the abolition of this institution ought to be a very high priority for Americans. This goal is, however, utopian so long as the United States continues to follow a policy based on the assumption that the status quo in every part of the world must be maintained by American military power. Thus, the only really worthwhile question to ask about conscription—how we can get rid of it—cannot be answered without debating the whole scope of American foreign policy.
It is, however, not entirely fruitless to raise some questions about the way in which conscription is used by our society, given the assumption that some form of Selective Service is going to be with us for the indefinite future. This may be particularly necessary for those of us who oppose the draft altogether, since much of the present discussion concerns how best to extend the scope of military training institutions, and how better to integrate them into the fabric of American life. My concern here, then, will be not with the many inequities of the present draft system, but with discussing ways of limiting the impact of this alien system and of preventing or diluting some of its more pernicious effects.
In my view, a fundamental flaw in the current draft system is that it reinforces and exacerbates a serious constitutional weakness in American political life, namely, the enormous delegation to the President of power in international commitments, to wage war and mobilize national resources and public consent, which is not substantially checked or limited by private power. The institution of permanent, compulsory military service facilitates the freedom of the President in this regard and enables him to deploy military forces on a very large scale without achieving prior popular consent. Such built-in Presidential irresponsibility is intrinsically repugnant; from a pragmatic point of view, its consequences can be read in Viet Nam.
It is my hope that serious study will be given to ways in which Presidents can be made responsible for their international policies, and to mechanisms by which the Presidential ability to mobilize for war can be balanced and checked. Many of the most important considerations in this regard lie outside the scope of this paper; but, it seems to me, there are ways in which the contribution of the Selective Service System to Presidential irresponsibility can be reduced or reversed.
First, it seems to me inadmissible that those most likely to be compelled to kill and die for often highly questionable policies do not even have the right to vote. If we are going to draft eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year-old men, then we ought to allow them access to the ballot box. This, I think, would not be merely a formalistic reform, permitting young men to ratify their own induction, although it might turn out to be only that. Rather, it seems plausible that the introduction of large numbers of young people into the political arena would create a substantial new constituency for policies of restraint and internationalism—a constituency which might provide some check on the patriotic hawking of elderly politicians.
Second, it seems to me that we ought to adopt the notion, which prevails in some other countries such as Canada, that conscripts ought not to be used indiscriminately in foreign wars. The only legitimate use for draftees ought to be for the defense of the nation’s most vital interests. Senator Gruening’s proposal to prevent the President from using conscripts involuntarily in combat without specific Congressional mandate seems to me to be a reasonable, if minimal, way to insure some Congressional check on Presidential power. A stronger, and in my view more legitimate, proposal would be to prevent the use of draftees in combat (who do not subsequently volunteer for such duty) without a specific declaration of war. In any case, some mechanism of this sort would be a desirable way of bringing the power of the President to escalate conflicts under some degree of democratic control, while establishing conscription as an institution for national defense rather than an instrument for imperial adventure.
Third, it seems to me necessary to increase the freedom of citizens to resist being mobilized for wars of questionable justification. One way to do this is to broaden the grounds for conscientious objection. Conscientious objection can be founded on philosophical and political grounds as well as religious ones. Moreover, if there is any sense to the distinction between just and unjust wars, then it is improper to deny the possibility of conscientious objection to particular wars. There is, as far as I can tell, no practical difficulty in establishing whether a young man is a sincere objector on non-religious grounds, which is not present under the present definition of conscientious objection. It seems to me inconsistent with our best traditions to compel a young man to fight a war against his conscience, even if his basic values have been shaped by philosophical or political rather than religious influences; and it would seem to me desirable from the point of view of limiting Presidential power, if each inductee had the freedom to test whether his conscience would be violated by serving or fighting in behalf of current policy.
FINALLY, I WOULD argue that the traditional view of the draft as an alien institution must be preserved, and all attempts to make conscription a permanent, integral feature of American society must be firmly resisted. The common goal of liberals and democrats in the coming period ought to be to reduce rather than enhance areas of compulsion in American life. On this view, there is serious danger in some of the proposals now being offered to reduce the inequities of Selective Service. I refer here not only to attempts to revive universal military training, but to well-intentioned suggestions of universal conscription for “national service.” The idea of national service for youth is an exciting one, but the notion that it should be compulsory or tied to conscription is literally totalitarian. Similarly, the proposals to expand the scope of induction to include unqualified youth, so that they may receive the educational benefits of the armed services, is highly reminiscent of the procedures of a garrison state. It is not a matter for pride that the best opportunities of self-improvement for underprivileged youth are offered by the military, or that the only fully integrated educational institution in our society is the army. This situation is a measure of the default of the larger society; the war on poverty is not going to be won by giving the military even more control over the lives of young men.
The only really worthwhile goal of an affluent society as regards its youth is to promote the maximum possible freedom and opportunity for self-development. At present upper status youth have enormous opportunity for years of higher education, and many avenues open for cultural enrichment and personal fulfillment. These opportunities are widely buttressed by public subsidies in the form of free tuition, scholarships, fellowships, loans, etc. In the long run, the only way to reduce the inequities of the draft and to offset present trends toward a quasi-caste system among youth, is to extend these privileges, opportunities, and subsidies (where necessary) to all youth. What appears to be needed is a massive opening-up of the range of choices for youth so that each has a chance to select experiences of service, of education and training, of cultural enhancement and self-realization.
I want to conclude by indicating an important problem posed by these suggestions for limiting the uses of conscription. The present system has the apparent virtue of permitting a partial mobilization for wars as large as Viet Nam, without substantially increasing the militancy of the population, without developing major war fever, and without very widespread suppression of dissent. It may well be that mechanisms such as those proposed here which would limit the Executive’s freedom of action in this regard will “back-fire,” and produce more systematic efforts to engineer full popular support for war efforts. This situation would be dangerous domestically; it could also lead to more rapid escalation of conflicts. Such considerations should be given due weight; but on the other hand, we need to ask whether the costs added by these constraints might not make Presidents more cautious and rational when they make decisions about the deployment of military forces.
At any rate, these proposals to limit the uses of conscription and to resist its integration into American society seem to run counter to the drift of present policy. The likelihood of their adoption by Congress in the near future seems very small. In this situation, it is heartening that a significant number of inductees have decided to risk jail by undertaking legal tests of the current definition of conscientious objection, by refusing induction during a war which they perceive as unjust and illegal, by emigrating to Canada, and by publicly refusing to report for combat duty in such a war. These men may well be speaking for a sizeable portion of their generation in questioning the legitimacy of conscription. They deserve the highest degree of support from those concerned to preserve and extend democratic values.
[* ] Richard Flacks is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He is author of a number of articles, and has actively supported the Students for a Democratic Society and other New Left organizations. This article is adapted from the paper presented to the Conference on the Draft held at the University of Chicago in December 1966.