January 19, 2000

Were we wrong about the draft?
Fighting against your will saps the will for fighting


The draft, in Britain known as National Service, is wrong. Most of the readers of antiwar.com will agree on that whether libertarians, conservatives or left wing radicals. The idea of taking unwilling kids to fight and very possibly die for causes they don’t believe in is repellent, at least when the wars involve no threat of invasion. However, have we lopped off one head of this big state hydra to see another more sinister one come in its place? Has the end of the draft made foreign wars that much easier?


One of the most watchful constituencies against ill advised foreign adventures have often been the relatives of army men, or the veterans themselves. This could be seen particularly in the case of Vietnam. How many of the anti-Vietnam protestors were Ho Chi Minh fans, small government conservatives or foreign policy wonks who just thought that this was the wrong war? And how many were those about to go to Vietnam, whose sons or brothers were either in Vietnam or a cemetery, or who were wounded in the war? Although a minority of veterans and relatives were opposed (as a minority of Americans were), they made up a vital part of the anti war coalition. One of the reasons why war is more popular than before, or is less repellent to its opponents, is because outside certain communities and certain parts of the country, army life no longer has the potential to reach every family. If the voters don’t care, the politicians won’t do it for them.


One of the consequences of the full professionalisation of the army is the way in which the media now treats war. The media has now sanitised war. The Gulf war showed the way. The fireworks shows that were ever present on the BBC and CNN showed no inkling of the misery within Iraq, or the very real – and happily insubstantial – fears for our soldiers. It may be possible to blame the governments for their heavy-handed censorship. However the media were not prepared to rebel on this, because the public were not demanding to know what was going on in the camps were their sons could very soon be. We must remember that in a free society, the media are our creation. We get the mirror that we deserve. The only reason why the media is so bad is not the press barons – they would provide decent media if it made them a decent profit – or the government, but us. In the end if we don’t demand to know what’s going on they aren’t going to tell us for our own good. If we demand film star romances and football scores, this is what they will provide us. The war in Vietnam was covered well by American television networks precisely because John and Martha Doe’s oldest son was over there. There was in short a demand for factual news, and no amount of news management could stop the press trying to find that story.


Another defect of a totally professional army is that there are no prizes for peacetime. In war officers are created and promoted on merit, that is the necessity of war. In peacetime officers are created and promoted through connections and political correctness, that is the necessity of bureaucracy. Now, what do you think is going to be the natural bias of ambitious and talented officers who did not have the right father?

Where the officers are there as a distraction, before they pass back in to civilian life, this is less of a problem than when they see the services as their long-term career structure.

Text-only printable version of this article

Emmanuel Goldstein

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Emmanuel Goldstein is the pseudonym of a political drifter on the fringes of English classical liberal and Euro-sceptic activity. He is a former member of the Labour Party, who knows Blair and some of his closest buddies better than they realise, yet. He has a challenging job in the real world, working for a profit-making private company and not sponging off the taxpayer in politics, journalism or the civil service. "Airstrip One," appears Wednesdays at Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns

Were we wrong about the draft?

The Coming

The (ever so slow) awakening of the British Right

What is Blair Really Like?

The Belgian Empire. The Balkan Stability Pact and the European Army

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Because we do: A plea for Reaction

The Last Noble Cause: Euroscepticism and the Battle for Britain

Tony Blair: The Future’s Blight

Why the Second World War will always be popular in Britain

A Peace of Paper

The Old Fight of New Labour


If, like me, you believe that conscription is morally repugnant and believe that all the evidence points to professional armies as a main cause of foreign wars, this leaves a rather difficult position. Firstly a country, if it is to control its own destiny and make its own laws, needs an armed defence. Many Libertarians argue that the army should become a charity (although the Libertarian Party does not take that position), so that instead of paying for the army through your taxes, you pay for it through newspaper appeals and charity lotteries. While the idea of "$250 a month pays for a bomb to blow up a Belgrade nursery" appeals, I can not really see what protection we have if the "under-funded" army decides to re-impose its authority. The sad fact is that one of the last links between the citizenry and the standing army is that it is paid by taxes. If it were to become a private mercenary force, I see tremendous problems.


This is where one of the favourite bogeys of the left enters, the militias. By providing a method of defence that is both voluntary and truly defensive they meet the objections to the other two models. However, the problem I have with militias is the problem I have with anarchy, how are local minorities or the just plain cussed safe? Even if they violate no one’s rights and stay in their own property, how do we stop miniature Wacos up and down the country? I know that Waco happened under the government, but this is no guarantee that many more local tyrannies will not set themselves up.


A promising role model is that of strangely demonised Switzerland. The Swiss have a system of constant training and service in the reserve for almost all men. The system is compulsory, although it is purely defensive and neutral. There is a constant amount of military training and powerful guns are kept in every home (although there are very low levels of gun crime). It was this system, as well as the high mountains, which discouraged Hitler from invading the country in the Second World War, despite the fact that the country was surrounded. In fact, the German cantons of Switzerland were the only German areas not annexed by the Third Reich. The conscription is mitigated by the fact that the Swiss system is highly defensive. Would either America or the UK be able to guarantee this?


There I have to leave. I really have no idea of what we should do about our defence, except knowing what I don’t like – a standing army. It does seem mad that we are letting our defensive capabilities rot – in Britain the Territorial Army is being slashed by about a third – while vastly expanding our offensive capacity. It also puts gun control into a new light, the suppression of a national defensive asset. I cannot say what I want, but I most definitely know what I want not.

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