Would conscription make the problems of today’s US/ NATO wars more visible and repulsive to populations who seem to have no grasp of the destruction their military wreaks on the world?
There are many who have argued that conscription would promote war by providing a steady flow of cheap human flesh to spoil in battle. Yet there is no denying that universal conscription has often fanned protest and opposition to wars throughout history– even modern wars fought with sophisticated psychological weapons.
Not only has the US had an “all volunteer” military for some 40 years, other NATO members, like France and Germany recently ended universal conscription in favour of professional volunteer armies. Has this made military intervention for France and Germany (within NATO) easier? Has it immunised the population against the most basic form of anti-war feeling– the anger at a lost or disabled life from military action?
Although there are some problematic aspects of military indoctrination which should not be underestimated. Arguments that compulsory military service– and hence its abolition— are directly related to a society’s militarism ignore the extent to which e.g. the US is subjected to saturation militarism in nearly every aspect of consumer life (that which substitutes for political life today). So while the number of standard issue cannon fodder produced by factories like Fort Jackson has been reduced by the end of the draft, the militarisation of the society as a whole has been severely enhanced– especially through the mass media. The proliferation of US war products– video and computer games and films– throughout Europe has certainly done nothing to promote anti-war sentiment here.
I think we can also recall that Selective Service only became an issue when it meant too many white folks without special exemptions were also getting sent to death, disability or drug addiction in Southeast Asia. If I am not mistaken the “all volunteer army” became an employer of last resort for many Americans who are the first to be denied work in the civilian sector. This may not be the case in Europe but a stagnant employment market will certainly lead many youth to consider the relative security of a job under arms.
But does the new warfare is even need the large battalions of expendable troops? Just as financial “engineering” has replaced industrial production as a means of wealth extraction, remote-control weapons deployment and mercenary subcontracting have replaced largely replaced the mass armies that characterised US and UK warfare in Korea and Vietnam. In this sense warfare has become even more “corporate”. The fiction that wars of invasion and conquest are the result of State action is obsolete. The entire “national security” process has been fully de-politicised, in other words, the State is more clearly than ever a mere conduit for policies and practices whose origin and essential characteristics are those of boardroom strategic planning and marketing. The difference between global business and global warfare has in fact dissolved.
This presents a serious cognitive problem for anyone trying to find the root of this poisonous plant in order to tear it from the ground that nurtures it. The military sustained by the draft was mimetic of the steel mill in Gary or the cotton plantation. Today’s military operates like the headquarters of Microsoft or USX– the actual physical violence has been outsourced.
However, another point to consider when recommending reinstatement of the Draft is the summation of a historical fact– something to which Pilger also alluded in his Vietnam reporting. No mass movement has ever produced revolutionary change without a mutiny in the armed forces. The corporations that rule the US know this very well. That was an essential reason for disbanding conscription– a process now completed in Germany and France.
At the same time as NATO contingent units are now drawn from volunteer (career and mercenary) forces, covert action has focussed on turning the military of target countries against their State in favor of corporate invaders. Foreign military assistance has never had any other goal than to create a segment of the host military willing to betray its own country in favour of the US and NATO. However, this is not always enough, esp. in countries where the military has a strong popular component (e.g. through conscription).
In the 60s the US developed and propagated the overarching “national security doctrine” based on corporate-industrial ideology as an antidote to the nationalism of emerging countries and those who had developed their nationalism in the course of 19th century struggles (e.g. Latin America). A whole generation of military cadre were trained to see the US corporation as the model for national interest and not the population– the Nation. The 1964 Brazilian coup was paradigmatic.
There is considerable confusion among many about how this approach– the corporate security model– can be reconciled with the events in North Africa and the Near East. I think the key to understanding this lies in two particular aspects: the corporation’s religious character and therefore its compatibility with reactionary religious movements (despite all the noise made about secularism) and the consolidation of the financial/ drug trade sector to provide the “central committee” of the entire global economy.
While the USG and NATO all complain that the Great War On Terror (GWOT) is a campaign against movements like “Islamic fundamentalism”, the reverse has been true (going back to Carter). The GWOT is a battle against all forms of populism and populism from Casablanca to Kabul has always had some Islamic components to the extent that US-backed regimes effectively eliminated secular political movements (the actual aim of the Brzezinski organised insurgency against the Kabul government in the late 70s). Qaddafi’s murder marked the end of the war against African secular populism that began with Nkrumah. The problem for corporations struggling to expand and maintain power is not Islam per se but the control of the State and popular institutions. Backing reactionary religious leaders and groups is one of the oldest tactics of Euro-American colonialism. Corporate management and religious reactionaries are structurally and ideologically very similar.
When the US with the help of France succeeded in replacing the 1979 secular Iranian revolution with Khomeini’s reactionary faction, it seemed like the sovereignty question could be suppressed in Iran in favour of a preoccupation with religious repression. The “Khomeini” solution was for his reactionary Islamic organisation to crush the Iranian nationalists because of their “secularism”. US corporations clearly underestimated the depth of Iranian nationalism. Ahmadinejad is a thorn in the side of US empire because he represents Iranian nationalism even as he appears to sustain the extreme form of Islam upon which the US had relied since 1980 to subdue the Iranian population. The fake “green revolution” was an attempt to introduce someone who appeared entirely secularised and Western on the assumption that Iranian youth are more easily seduced by mobile telephony than patriotism. To date this strategy has failed to produce either an entirely compliant pseudo-secular regime or an entirely “autistic” reactionary religious regime (like that of Khomeini). Apparently the Kermit Roosevelt strategy does not work either– there has been little success in penetrating the Iranian military so as to induce a coup. In Syria it appears that the ability of Russia and China to satisfy the vanities of Syrian military leaders has been sufficient to immunize them against US subversion. Hence the need for more outright terror– from Turkey and Israel.
These are not mass military strategies of the type applied in WWII, Korea or Vietnam. They are global marketing strategies as designed in the boardrooms and staff offices of the major US and European corporations. Just as Apple contrives to launch products in such a way that customers have to stand for hours to compete for an item or Walmart announces potential shortages before major “shopping days” thus inducing masses of fanatical consumers willing to trample each other. Thus the wars the US corporations have been waging against the world all follow marketing stages which can be found in the voluminous literature from the academic exhaust pipes of inter alia Harvard Business School: boycotts/ sanctions or financial manipulation to create shortages or distortions in supply, followed by psychological operations to create tension in the population and international media campaigns to market the “problem/ product”, if this does not work or if the profit targets change, then the State itself is attacked covertly. When this kind of marketing does not work, then the slow escalation of military and political intervention begins until something breaks. The rash of wars we have seen in the past twelve years are simply the extreme expressions of endless war by US and European corporations called euphemistically “trade”. Trade for profit is all that remains of politics– and to paraphrase the ever-useful Clausiewitz– war is trade by other means.
This has been the universal strategy of what corporations call “globalisation” but in fact is just the euphemism for conquest. Paradigmatic was certainly the US/ UK success in Indonesia (too many people focus on the failures of Vietnam but thereby miss the bigger picture). None of the “success” stories required US intervention with ground troops. But as can be seen the US corporate landscape is populated with a wide variety of vermin and not everyone functions like a rat, hence there have always been competing or even contradictory strategies. The importance of the 2008 coup by the banking/ drug/ weapons cartel is that it has led to a coherence in strategy and a consensus among the financial elite as to the means and ends of corporate domination. The archaic industrialists have been marginalized. People whether as cannon fodder or as consumers have always been critical for industrialists. Bankers have never been seriously interested in people– but in cash flows. It is also a mistake to see the current world war as directed toward a “new order” or a final strategic position. That is the main fallacy of the “US will overextend itself” argument. This is not a war for stability in any sense of the word. It is a war for war’s sake– trade for trade’s sake, profit for profit’s sake– in that sense a fanatically nihilistic approach to human existence.
With this strategy and this concentration of power in the hands of the misanthropists and nihilists, the last thing any of them want is popular institutions and organisations– not even mass armies. That is why liberals are utterly useless today as are most of the faux gauche. They abandoned mass organisation after 1989 in favour of enhanced individualism (really political egotism). They abandoned mass education in favour of allegedly “tailored” learning (really autistic dependence on electronic devices). If any one doubts this, one only has to listen to all those who insist that freedom depends on access to and by Google or the ability to own and use personal digital devices, if only to listen to one’s preferred music.
At the same time very few of these “digital liberators” seem to ask the question “what human freedom means if it is reduced to the consumer prerogatives of digital life?” Those who have been induced with the years to rave over the Internet and all its appurtenances seem to have utterly forgotten that man (and conscripted armies) cannot live by data alone.
T. P. WILKINSON writes and teaches politics and literature in Heinrich Heine’s birthplace, Düsseldorf. He is also the author of Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa (Maisonneuve Press, 2003). Currently he is working on a book called: 1959: Unbecoming American. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.