No, We Don’t Need Conscript Armies

The head of the British Army and Germany’s defense minister have each recently called for their countries to prepare to be on a war footing. Their call for mass mobilization is deeply unpopular — and at odds with the realities of modern warfare.

US soldiers salute the flag at US Army Camp Walker on February 4, 2005, in Daegu, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)

Early in January, Britain’s Telegraph revealed that the once-mighty Royal Navy was running out of sailors and would have to decommission two recently refurbished frigates to staff its new ships.

Reporting on a naval “recruitment crisis” exploded. The alleged posting on LinkedIn of a senior submarine job was widely ridiculed. Right-wing reporters blamed shortages on a “woke generation” not wanting to join — yet somehow also blamed the Navy’s inclusion staff for appealing to diverse recruits.

This was mostly a media circus — until another branch of the armed forces escalated it. General Sir Patrick Sanders, head of the British Army, warned that Britons would need to prepare to “place society on a war footing,” even hinting at the possibility of a return to conscription in the event of war with Russia.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak swiftly ruled out a draft, but the general’s speech already had media and politicians at fever pitch. “Gen Z has had it too easy for too long,” thundered one Independent column.

Several Tory MPs lined up to welcome a draft, with Boris Johnson laughably claiming he’d happily report for frontline service. Outrage met a poll claiming that over a third of under-forties would refuse to serve in a hypothetical world war.

The culture wars had begun colliding with real wars. Yet what the controversy really showed was Western elites’ increasing obsession with using jingoistic rhetoric to cover for structural decline.

Unwilling Soldiers

Western militaries are suffering from personnel shortages well beyond Britain, and many commentators see some form of draft as a solution. It’s not just a confected media row; since the Ukraine war, states across Europe are considering hardening their draft laws.

Draft armies today are unpopular outside extreme situations. But even setting aside the ethics of coercing teenagers to fight, it’s simply bad policy. General Sanders aside, most mainstream military opinion does not view conscript armies as effective in most circumstances — perhaps helping to explain why so few NATO countries have them. Unwilling soldiers rarely make good ones.

Israel’s war in Gaza offers a grim contemporary example. The Israel Defense Forces’ devastating firepower has been highly effective at razing homes and infrastructure — with a death toll sufficient for the International Court of Justice to hear a “plausible” case of genocide. But its ground forces, reliant on small elite units bulked out by conscripts for mass, have struggled to achieve their objectives.

Israel’s reliance on conscription is usually framed as a response to operational needs, but in fact reflects the outsized centrality of the armed forces in public life, with immense power over land, business, politics, and society. It is “an army with a state rather than a state with an army,” as Israeli scholar and former air force pilot Haim Bresheeth-Zabner and others have persuasively argued.

This demonstrates a further point: that military doctrine is produced by social and political conditions. While militaries retain significant cultural power and popularity, notably in the United States, the relative unpopularity of service itself reflects deeper political realities.

From what we know, soldiers do not sign up solely for either cultural or material reasons. But the personnel shortage issue does have material roots as much as cultural ones.

Enlisted service ranks still recruit disproportionately from working-class backgrounds, and still face charges of exploitative practices in doing so, while US forces exploit the student debt crisis to boost their numbers. But issues like stagnating pay, substandard living conditions, and veteran homelessness are both common and commonly reported, further increasing the unattractiveness of service careers.

But above all the decline of the mass army has limited its role as a means of working-class income maximization. Despite post 9/11 rearmament, there are still a million fewer US service personnel than in the 1980s.

In 2015, the German army was a quarter of the size of West Germany’s 1990 numbers alone, with Italian forces shrinking by 67 percent in the same period and British ones by half. This tracks the deindustrialization of the late twentieth century as much as it does a post–Cold War “peace dividend.”

Even these shrunken armies, though, still struggled to recruit. The US military, for example, has been at pains to shake off a reputation gained in the 1990s and 2000s for lowering standards in order to encourage people through the door.

This is where a truth may lurk in the right-wing carping about “woke millennials not wanting to fight” (even if neoliberalism has probably done more than the antiwar left to erode the sense of communal obligation that states use to compel service).

Service has limited appeal to a generation that is not only generally less nationalistic but has grown up with wars that were self-evidently stupid, vicious, counterproductive, and undertaken largely without public consent. Afghanistan and Iraq hardly made good advertisements for service.

The demand for conscription in this context is reminiscent of pandemic-era moral panics about people quitting jobs and demanding better pay, responding to the reality of shrinking desire with coercion. This also contextualizes the other mooted solution to recruitment shortages, where US forces are mulling offering citizenship for service to migrants.

The glaring ethical issues of militarizing a group with limited rights, in an army where racial minorities already disproportionately bear the consequences of war, do not need too much expounding. In any case, its likely political unpopularity and inefficiency makes such a plan difficult to implement at a large scale.

Conversations about conscription do not persist as realistic discussions of national strategy. They are a salve applied by warmonger columnists who do not wish to admit that we are simply not capable of wielding the force we once did. Interrogating the reasons why is far less attractive to highly online war hawks than rooting for a quick fix that satisfies their desire to make young people suffer more.

Shrunken Power

US military spending surged throughout the Global Financial Crisis, while British forces were shrunk but insulated from the worst of austerity; there is always more money for hypothetical foreign threats than for education, health, or welfare. This did not, however, make armies completely immune from the cancerous effects of a neoliberal model that has seen public services auctioned off and short-termist profit chasing infect government and business alike, with disastrous results.

Another factor in the British Army’s recruitment shortage is probably that outsourcing giant Capita, renowned for its public sector screwups, took over recruitment just before it dramatically fell. Both UK and US forces have faced scandals from price inflation to the provision of dangerously substandard equipment under a regime of outsourcing and corporate incursion.

As Western societies have become less labor-intensive and more service-based, military doctrine and procurement have followed reform in other public services. States have sought to project global power with less manpower, more tech, and lower budgets. This involves retaining deployments around the world, but with smaller ground forces reliant on a high-tech network of surveillance, airpower, and smart munitions that act as force multipliers.

Small-unit operations save on political as well as financial costs. The smallest ones don’t need to be accountable at all — hence Western states’ increasing reliance on special forces acting under a blanket of national security secrecy. The UK’s 2021 Defence Review called for more forces stationed around the world, in a show of neoimperial bravura, but the size of the deployments made many little more than Potemkin units — there for show.

Even larger wars like Afghanistan and Iraq had a much less intense footprint than their antecedents, allowing for American and British imperial commitments while minimizing public outcry over casualties. This was not entirely successful, and Donald Trump’s (cynical) antiwar stance played an often-underrated role in his success.

The “budget imperialism” model came apart for Russia in Ukraine in the early months of its 2022 invasion. Operating under systems constructed for sweeping defense cuts earlier in Vladimir Putin’s presidency, Russian formations quickly became degraded. They survived only by reorganizing in ways analogous to older Soviet structures, mobilizing reservists, and increasing arms production.

This probably also helped reenergize the conscription discourse in the West, as defense apparatchiks looked to counter Russia’s recovery. But even assuming that public consent could be acquired for assembling the personnel required to sustain brutal attritional warfare like that in Ukraine, that would also require the industry to back it.

The US military-industrial complex is huge, and those of the UK and European Union are also competitive. They supply the world’s most expensive armies (although as discussed, neoliberal capitalism plays a role in vastly inflating those costs relative to output) as well as exporting them around the world, sometimes to both sides of the same conflicts.

It has, however, become clear that they cannot sustain war production to the degree that manufacturing-intensive economies like Russia and China do. Attempting to supply Israel and Ukraine with ammunition simultaneously short-circuited US abilities. Huge rearmament programs are underway across the West to compensate. But such work takes a long time, tacks against the prevailing winds of modern economies, and saps resources from other investment-starved areas.

And with new technologies exerting complex effects on the nature of war, it is not entirely clear what battlefield we are supposedly preparing for.

Damaged Prestige

This wider malaise provides a backdrop to Operation Prosperity Guardian, the US-led attempt to prevent Yemen’s de facto government from seizing Israel-bound shipping in the Red Sea.

The operation was launched in January to great fanfare, and promptly came apart as US allies refused to send ships under American command. Two British warships colliding in port, and the reported deaths of two US Navy SEALs by falling from a ladder while seizing a boat, did not help perceptions that the operation was floundering.

The United States and UK escalated with dozens of air strikes on positions across Yemen. Asked if they were working, Joe Biden replied “No,” but then added, “Are they going to continue? Yes.”

The United States and Europe spent a decade arming and backing a Saudi-led war in Yemen that brought an already desperately poor and troubled country to its knees, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. For forces operating from such a country to deal such blows to US prestige is remarkable.

Days later, Islamic Resistance in Iraq militia took credit for a drone attack at a US base near the Jordan-Iraq border that killed three US soldiers. The White House blamed Iran and vowed a “very consequential response.” Senator Lindsey Graham was among those calling to “hit Iran hard, now.”

Reporters once again leaped on and fueled rumors that the Biden administration planned to reinstate a draft, even though it had signaled no such thing. Again, calls for conscription and rearmament serve as a quick fix to avoid serious questions.

This is not the only motivation, though. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, arms CEOs were celebrating a world in chaos. These firms in turn pour funding into the circuit of security and defense think tanks that fan the flames of war in the media.

War Drums

Seemingly everywhere, the war drums are beating. Germany’s Social Democratic defense minister recently called for the German armed forces to become war ready, amid a €100 billion rearmament program. France last year began rehearsing its first high-intensity war drills. The European Union recently held its first live military exercise, and is now cutting climate spending and foreign aid to finance war and border control.

A return to the era of mass mobilization is not yet here and not entirely viable. Britain, for instance, recently dispatched an aircraft carrier with no aircraft to signal its much-vaunted “pivot to the Asia-Pacific,” yet the ghosts of past glory are no substitute for serious engagement with the challenges of the present.

But a deliberate attempt to mobilize public opinion behind military adventurism is underway, and in some places may even be working. It is also inextricable from attempts by the United States and allies to tear apart the very international order they set up to defend their own interests and security.

The “rules-based international order” of the United Nations (UN) system, international law, and multilateral institutions is often weak or lenient on great powers, but it remains a significant guarantor of an (in relative terms) long peace that has endured since 1945.

The United States and its allies are busy tearing such bulwarks apart. Whether it is defunding UN agencies, arming allies as they carpet bomb civilians, maintaining the right to unlimited extrajudicial drone strikes or special operations, or dismantling the Refugee Convention, a new strain of militarism across the Western mainstream political spectrum is scorning the international order in full view of the world.

This is an international corollary of a domestic politics that demands the return of draft armies, unlimited funding for weaponry in a period of soaring inequality and collapsing social safety nets, the gearing of economies towards war production, the creeping militarization of civilian functions like policing and borders, and the placing of a cordon sanitaire around dissenters to such an approach.

We are not yet at war. But hawks around the world are trying very hard to push us closer. And as they do, the real threats to our security — climate change, gaping inequality, and resource depletion, all of which also help drive conflict — go neglected.

As Biden’s comments on the Yemen air strikes encapsulated, the “security” circuit is unyielding in its claim to be acting in the “national interest” — regardless of whether their military initiatives work.