Military Conscription Is a Crime Against Humanity

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that military conscription remains foundational to modern warfare. It is a reckless, self-defeating, and criminal practice that makes us all less safe — and it should have been abolished long ago.

A young Russian conscript receives a military uniform ahead of departing for service in November 2021. (Kirill Kukhmar / TASS via Getty Images)

The shocking and massively destructive Russian assault on Ukraine, still ongoing at the time of this writing, is conducted by a military that includes an estimated 260,000 conscripted soldiers in its ranks.

Many of the conscripts come from areas of the vast Russian landmass so remote that, in a less polite era, geographers would not have hesitated to call them hinterlands. These include places so distant from the symbolic seats of national power that many of their residents emphatically refuse to consider themselves Russian; in the first four years of occupation, an estimated eighteen thousand Crimeans, for example, were conscripted into the occupying Russian armed forces. Wherever they hail from, the conscripts are overwhelmingly poor, having proven unable to procure an exemption to mandatory military service, as is the well-established practice for their countrymen of higher social status. And all of them are young — unthinkably and hauntingly young. Most are around twenty years old.

Soldiers’ mothers are a traditional base for antiwar politics in Russia, and they began raising the alarm even before the invasion, posting on social media that their sons had fallen out of contact after being suddenly transported to military bases near the border. Some claim their sons weren’t even told where they were headed until they arrived at a hot war in Ukraine; others say they were forced to sign so-called war contracts under the threat of physical abuse by superiors (Russian law requires such contracts before conscripts can be deployed to war zones). The leader of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers in Volgograd says she has received ten calls a day from soldiers’ distraught family members since the invasion began. Meanwhile, officials at the Ukrainian interior ministry have taken it upon themselves to publicize the war’s grisly results to the Russian public, publishing photographs of killed Russian soldiers on a website titled “Look for Yours.”

Like Russia’s, Ukraine’s standing military also includes conscripts. This is despite the fact that Ukrainian political leaders have taken steps toward limiting, and even phasing out, mandatory military service in recent years. But, in a predictable pattern, Ukraine’s attempted transition to a US- or UK-style all-volunteer force was full of fits and starts, with contradictory policies accumulating year over year as the country chased the panacea of a professionalized military while also trying to maintain, and indeed increase, the manpower of its existing armed forces.

In 2013, for example, conscription was discontinued in Ukraine, only to be reimposed the next year amid renewed fears of Russian intervention. More recently, in the final months of 2021, the Ukrainian defense ministry imposed a new policy requiring all adult women to register for the draft, greatly expanding the pool of possible conscripts. But in February of this year, just weeks before the Russian invasion, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky — lately something of an international folk hero — announced an ambitious plan to simultaneously end conscription and increase the size of the standing army by one hundred thousand soldiers. Now, of course, with Ukrainian cities encircled and bombarded by Russian artillery, the country has called an emergency draft to compel reservists and others to report for combat.

Meanwhile, the weeks-old war has already prompted discussion about the renewal of national conscription programs elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, for example, which discontinued the draft in 2011, Social Democratic Party legislators now call for the reinstatement of mandatory military service, to go along with a proposed €100 billion influx for the Bundeswehr.

The abolition of conscription worldwide is a historic demand of the internationalist left, and yet it has been curiously absent from many of today’s progressive and left-wing responses to the invasion of Ukraine. This omission is especially striking considering the invasion might not have been feasible without Russia’s policy of mandatory military service for young men — which provides about a quarter of the country’s standing military, including, apparently, a number of the boots currently on the ground in Ukraine.

Especially in the United States and United Kingdom, where professionalized soldiering is so entrenched as to make the draft’s reintroduction profoundly unlikely, opposition to mandatory military service might no longer seem an intuitive basis on which to build support for antiwar or internationalist politics. Surely, too, this is a symptom of the general disorientation of the contemporary antiwar milieu in Europe and the United States, which has not yet fully recovered from its perception, generated through the collision of the alter-globalization movement and the Iraq War, that “interstate rivalries were a thing of the past” and wars “merely police operations undertaken on behalf of a networked and neoliberalized global capitalist class,” as Leandros Fischer recently diagnosed.

But conscription still deserves internationalists’ fierce and uncompromising opposition. It is a reckless, criminal, and self-defeating practice that makes us all less safe. It should have been universally abolished long ago.

A Tax in Blood

Modern military conscription is typically traced to the levée en masse imposed by the National Convention after the French Revolution in 1793. But the practice’s origins are more accurately located in the Prussian and Napoleonic armies amassed during the early nineteenth century, whose activities would help determine the political geography of modern Europe and, to an extent, the entire world.

Beginning in the early nineteenth century, mass conscription programs were decisive for the emergence of nationally oriented (and diplomatically mediated) interstate wars — which, in the context of nineteenth century Europe, also meant interimperial wars. And this novel kind of war-making was itself decisive, not only for the consolidation of the nation-state as a political form, but also for the formation of an international order based in theory on the absolute territorial sovereignty of states and in practice on the continued exertion of imperial power by the historic hegemons. These things, taken together, remain the foundations on which geopolitics operates today.

Admittedly, I’m compressing a set of complex historical processes into a series of pithy kernels here. Still, it’s not far-fetched to characterize the draft as the inaugural atrocity of the modern era, the atrocity that made all the others possible. Since its origins in the Napoleonic period, mass national conscription has been a prerequisite to modern warfare as we know it.

Once established, the draft persisted through the full course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cemented as it was in the political repertoire of modern nation-building. In Europe, of course, the most consequential nation-building projects were also imperial projects, tethered tightly to forced labor regimes that unspooled from the metropoles to ensnare colonies throughout the world. But even as other forms of labor conscription were abolished one by one, stripping public authorities and private entities alike of their enslaved and indentured workers, the use of involuntary labor remained legal and commonplace in a single area of activity: war fighting in the national interest.

The US military was only about forty-thousand-strong during the Spanish-American War at the turn of the twentieth century, but a mass national conscription program delivered more than a million additional soldiers to the Great War in 1917. During the “age of extremes,” the scale and scope of interstate warfare intensified dramatically worldwide. As political economists Panu Poutvaara and Andreas Wagener put it, “The industrialized, high-intensity mass wars of the late 19th and 20th centuries were only feasible because compulsory military service made available millions of young men as soldiers.”

The mass conscriptions of the World War I era had significant effects on the polities of the belligerent countries, and veterans, many of them disabled by wartime injuries, continued to impact European and US politics for years after the end of the war. In the United States, the Bonus Army movement challenged the legitimacy of the US political system during the Great Depression, with some dissident veterans even condemning the entire project of overseas empire-building. In France and Germany, organizations of aggrieved veterans, such as the Croix de Feu, delivered both popular legitimacy and coercive muscle to larger fascist movements.

The armies that fought World War II were also populated in large part by conscripts. In Great Britain and the Commonwealth, the conscription regimes established in the 1930s “became a web that entangled every aspect of wartime life,” historian David Littlewood writes. In this period, the draft “was not simply a tool of military recruitment or of labour direction, but the mechanism through which entire war efforts were mobilised and sustained.”

In Britain, Parliament allowed mandatory National Service to expire after the defeat of Nazi Germany. The final National Service conscripts in the British armed forces were gone by 1960 — but, tellingly, conscription continued in overseas colonies like Bermuda, which only ended mandatory military service in 2018.

The United States maintained the draft for decades after World War II, using conscript soldiers in Korea and Vietnam. Famously, it was the Vietnam War–era draft that proved too taxing for the American public to tolerate; massive waves of civil disobedience, not only among prospective conscripts but also within the ranks of the armed forces, forced US military planners to shelve the practice in 1973. Today Britain and the United States have apparently no need for the draft, having successfully transitioned to all-volunteer armies, which present their own dire social problems but do not depend on conscription to reproduce themselves.

It must be said that these countries have been able to maintain the voluntary character of their armed forces, at least in part, because they’ve effectively outsourced key elements of their foreign policy to client militaries situated in key geopolitical theaters. For example, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are conscripted each year into a military that secures the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal. And Israel, the lynchpin of US security policy in the Middle East, famously conscripts both men and women for multiyear terms of service in the Israeli Defense Forces.

For many of those who refuse conscription, the consequences can be severe. In Israel, where fewer than 1 percent of conscripts defy mandatory service, refuseniks are hounded by state officials and often repeatedly incarcerated. Just this month, in fact, a judge overturned a Home Office decision about one refusenik seeking asylum in the UK, saying that to return the twenty-two-year-old Orthodox Jewish man to Israel “would be subjecting the appellant to inhuman and degrading treatment.” And in Egypt, objectors to conscription report harassment, threats of criminal prosecution, and the stripping away of basic rights, including the right to travel or pursue employment abroad.

History demands we dismantle the institutional mechanisms of interstate warfare generated during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And while it has lately fallen out of favor in some of the world’s richest countries, military conscription nonetheless remains a central component of that fearsome and archaic machinery. How might such a practice, so entrenched as to be central to the format of modern geopolitics, be overcome?

Neither Washington nor Moscow, but Global Disarmament

As Ukraine’s own stutter-stepped efforts to eliminate the draft over recent years have demonstrated, the universal abolition of conscription is profoundly unlikely in a world still dominated by inter-power competition. So long as Russia was free to amass its own armies right next door, unmolested by international pressure and motivated at least in part by the United States’ and EU’s own military buildups, Ukraine could not eliminate the draft while also satisfying its population’s demand for the perception of military security.

The same is true of Cuba, which is nearly as near to the North American imperial hegemon as Ukraine is to Russia, and which has maintained a policy of mandatory military service, in various forms, since at least 1976. Cuba, of course, is perpetually threatened by a US military that stands apart from Russia’s in that it has no need for conscripts — the United States’ all-volunteer force has arguably been the most destructive military of the twenty-first century so far.

Just as the world urgently needs unprecedented levels of international cooperation to address climate change, it also needs such cooperation to facilitate a mutual and permanent drawdown of military capacity across the globe. (In many ways, in fact, those two tasks are one and the same.) This would necessarily involve a coordinated worldwide program intended to collectively diminish not only military arsenals but also standing armies according to internationally agreed-upon benchmarks.

This kind of multilateral cooperation, while certainly ambitious, is not as outlandish as it may seem on first blush. As a matter of fact, the world has tried this before — consider, for example, the landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, which sought not only to freeze countries’ acquisition of new nuclear weapons but also to mandate the gradual permanent disarmament of all existing nuclear arsenals worldwide.

Predictably, however, that treaty was scuttled by the United States, which habitually refuses to submit to any multilateral agreement that would limit its own military ambitions.

What History Demands of Us

In the United States, at least, public discourse about the political significance of Russia’s invasion has so far been trapped in a series of maddening scripts. In one such script, the mere suggestion that NATO’s generations-long buildup of military capacity could have contributed to Vladimir Putin’s nihilistic decision to invade Ukraine is treated as inexcusable apologia for Russian despotism. Our liberal opponents say we have the story exactly backward: the West had to enhance its military capacities, they tell us. Why? Because Putin planned on waging war.

This back-and-forth is so maddening — and so revealing — because, despite each side’s appeal to history, neither side is capable of winning the argument with historical explanations alone. That’s because what’s at stake in the exchange is not the past at all, but the future. The disagreement is about what kind of limits to place on what we imagine to be possible. It’s about how we choose to understand the purpose of international cooperation, not to mention the nature of geopolitical security.

Coming out of the Cold War, at the end of two centuries of near-constant war-making, during which the human and environmental stakes of military conflict were ratcheted continually up and up and up, the victors of the twentieth century chose to create NATO, a military alliance. Fools that they were, it seems they felt this was enough to ensure the permanent survival of a unipolar world order under US hegemony.

But under different — and better — political leadership, those victors could have taken another road. They could have followed through on the promise of existing nuclear nonproliferation treaties, for one thing. Removing the specter of nuclear apocalypse from the horizon of human possibility was probably the most important political responsibility of their generation, after all. And from there they could have established different kinds of alliances — alliances that were not NATO; alliances that reached across lines of geopolitical rivalry instead of cementing them — and committed themselves to a worldwide program of mutual disarmament.

This was what history demanded of our political leadership at that moment. But they did not do it. They didn’t even try.

Today we live in an emergent multipolar world order, with American unipolarity revealing itself, at last, to be an undeniably temporary phenomenon. In this context, our best hope for a secure global future is the establishment of an international diplomatic regime committed to enforcing the mutual diminishment of arsenals and standing armies across the world.

This is the daunting task history demands of socialists in the United States and Europe, not to mention in Russia and China — to restrain our own countries’ militarist appetites in the short-term, and, in the longer-term, to install political leadership capable of coordinating the permanent reduction of worldwide military capacity across lines of geopolitical rivalry.

Only if we can accomplish that, I suspect, will the world be able to finally turn the page on our era’s inaugural atrocity and end military conscription for good.