by Jonathan Wen
In April of 2018, President Trump signed a defense bill which called for a significant expansion of the military. The goal was to recruit 80,000 new soldiers for the Army by the end of the year. As 2019 started, it became clear that this goal was not even close to being reached. In fact, Myers of ArmyTimes notes that the Army, Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard all did not meet their 2018 recruiting goals.
With France recently reviving compulsory national service, some are wondering: Should the U.S. institute mandatory military service? This article will go on to address the implementation of mandatory military service in the U.S. and the morality of conscription. The second article in this two-part series will address additional issues with mandatory military service.
It is likely that any mandatory military service would be similar to that of South Korea where men are required to serve for at least 20 months (it depends on which branch of the military they work in) while they are between the ages of 18 and 35 years old. This would include exceptions for those physically or psychologically unable to serve as active duty personnel.
One of the main objections of compulsory military service is that it directly conflicts with the free will of American citizens. This claim is mostly undisputed as the very definition of compulsory military service. This would force people to work in the military for some period during their lives. This means that people are required to work at a wage set by the government and in working conditions out of their control.
The dispute on the morality of mandatory military service is centered around the question: Is the restriction of liberty justified when done for the theoretical protection of liberty?
Firstly, it is important to remember that mandatory military service is not necessary to protect the country in the first place (this will be addressed in the second article in this series). However, even if it was, conscription is still not morally justified. Philosopher John Stuart Mill explains this in his book On Liberty through his “harm principle”. He states that “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community against his [or her] will, is to prevent harm to others.”
This statement asserts that the liberties of citizens can only be restricted when the exercising of their freedom directly restricts the ability of others to do the same. Because a citizen’s choice to not join the military does not directly prevent the exercising of freedom by another citizen, it cannot be justified to force someone to serve in the military.
Secondly, as former U.S. Representative Ron Paul said in 2003, “Justifying conscription to promote the cause of liberty is one of the most bizarre notions ever conceived by man! Forced servitude, with the risk of death and serious injury as a price to live free, makes no sense.”
This quote brings up the moral contradiction between the means and ends of military conscription. Because all violations of freedom are infinitely bad (there is no legitimate way to weigh violations of freedom against each other), you can never will a hindrance upon a hindrance.
The logic that supporters of conscription follow is that taking away the freedom of an 18 year old by forcing him to serve in the military is equivalent to the loss of freedom that may occur if there is no conscription and the U.S. loses a war. Thus, the loss of freedom would take place no matter which route was followed.
But this is not a fair comparison. There is no mechanism that can be used which weighs one loss of freedom over the other. Furthermore, the mere threat of the loss of liberty from a foreign entity is by no means a justification for the U.S. government to restrict liberty in the “defense” of freedom.
Military conscription should not be re-instituted again in the U.S. It is not necessary in order to provide sufficient defense in the U.S., deferred military service does not violate the “harm principle” and thus cannot morally be enforced, and conscription would be a moral contradiction.
Apart from these reasons, there are many other reasons why mandatory military service should not be implemented. They will be discussed in the second iteration of this two-part series. The United States government should look to other policy alternatives to fulfill the goal it has in raising the number of military recruits.
Jonathan Wen is a Policy Research Fellow at the American Freedom Institute