Analysis / Conscription

The use of conscription was formalized in many western nations during the 19th and early 20th centuries, often together with the gradual introduction of democracy. The idea was that if a man had the right to have his say in the governance of the nation, he also had the duty to defend it. The heyday of conscription was from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 to The Vietnam War, when its popularity in the Western world began to wane. The Falklands War of 1982 was the first war in which a smaller but more capable and technologically advanced professional force defeated a larger conscription army. The population of Western Europe has increasingly viewed conscription as an anachronism since the 1990s, but some countries still cling to it. As conscription is a fairly efficient method of quickly raising numerically strong armies, some countries such as Sweden have planned on reinstating it.

Since conscription is based on coercion by definition, the line between conscription and chattel slavery is sometimes blurred. The armed forces of the Soviet Union were notorious for using conscripts as badly underpaid workers in civil projects, such as constructing railroads, harvesting crops, and demolishing buildings, and the quality of their work suffered from the expected corruption and lack of skill. Conscripts often have zero enthusiasm for the labor they are made to perform, causing damage through negligence and/or indifference. Conscript soldiers in Imperial Japan were subject to extreme abuse, as they grimly joked that their lives were worth only 1 sen 5 rin (the cost of a single postage stamp, for sending a draft notice), and were called upon to do all sorts of drudgery at their superiors' whim. Aside from their traditional roles, contemporary Egypt uses its conscripts as a labor pool for the military's large economic infrastructure, and Israel uses theirs in the role of auxiliary police. Conscription also heavily overlaps with press-ganging: several countries are known to use either the threat of heavy penalties or of considerable force to bring unwilling conscript recruits to barracks. In Finland it is not unusual for unwilling and drunken recruits to be escorted to their barracks by the police. Attempting to avoid service in peacetime may easily lead to imprisonment, and during the wartime, execution.

The quality of drafted armies varies greatly, from the borderline Slave Mooks of the most corrupt third-world dictatorships to the Elite Army of a nation such as Israel. It is often tied with the overall state of the nation. A rich, modern democracy can give their forces world-class training and equipment and indoctrinate their recruits with the idea that their tour of duty is both necessary and educational, if a tad onerous. On the other hand, lack of resources and inhumane treatment (often the symptoms of a corrupt, authoritarian government) lead to plummeting readiness and morale. But one should be careful about this generalization: even a brutalized conscript army can be an effective fighting force if properly equipped, motivated, and led, and historically such conscript armies have managed to achieve just as much as professional ones. Likewise in a war, the difference in capability between conscripts and professionals tends to lessen as a conflict drags on. Also, in many conscription armies, elite units such as paratroopers or marines consist of volunteers.

Therefore, despite the problems, conscript armies can be very effective because of the sheer numbers that can be raised and replaced as they are lost, and conscription is sometimes the only way for a small nation to raise enough troops for its defense.

While conscription had already been proposed by Machiavelli and the Enlightenment philosophers, the French were the first to set up a national conscription army. Conscription became the universal de facto method of raising armies after the The French Revolution. Mass production and railways for transportation made it possible to raise, equip, and feed enormous armies. Without conscription it would have been impossible to raise the humongous armies which participated in the mass battles of World War I and World War II.