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Monday, March 4, 2024

Myanmar Junta’s Decision to Impose a Draft Shows How Not to Run a Military

Conscription is forced labor, and a particularly egregious type of forced labor at that. It has no place in a free society.

Image Credit: Filip Andrejevic - Unsplash

Since the protests against the usurping military junta turned deadly three years ago, the brutal ethnic civil war in Myanmar has raged. In order to staunch the mounting manpower losses, the junta has opted for conscription.

Beginning in April, five thousand new recruits every month will be levied from across the country to serve the interests of the ruling generals. Men between the ages of 18–35, and women 18–27, are liable to be drafted, with the ages for specialists such as doctors even higher. Disobedience to the orders of the state will carry sentences of five years in prison.

Much as in Russia, where young people fled their country in droves to escape Putin’s draft and the prospect of more grinding offensives in eastern Ukraine, young people are looking to flee the country. To enforce the conscription orders, young people are being detained at airports, the borders are being tightened, and soldiers kidnap men off the streets in the dead of night.

It is a profound tragedy that young people in the prime of their lives should be compelled to choose between obeying the law—i.e., being forced to take part in invasions and brutal civil wars—and fleeing their homelands for their lives, being treated as common criminals.

Compelling Service and Compelling Labor

Conscription is everywhere and always the same, a declaration that the state has the ultimate discretion over the lives of its citizens, and that it can utilize them in any way it chooses. The business of militaries, despite any prattle about humanitarian missions and peacekeeping that Western states so promote, is destruction. Without war and the destruction of life and property, military forces lose their raison d’etre, so any discussion of compelling military service must revolve around the morality of being compelled to destroy, and the scope of state power.

Taking a step back, it is necessary to see what it means to compel labor of any sort, especially the most odious imposition of military regimentation. One could do no better than to define slavery as the forcible direction of a man’s labor towards the betterment of another and to the detriment of the enslaved. Long before it was abolished in the United States in 1865, it was quite clear to the friends of liberty that labor cannot be compelled. But while it was outlawed for private persons, it has persisted in the public sphere.

Military service is labor; it can hardly be called anything else. It requires remuneration, which means it is not a leisure activity, and it has a significant disutility which manifests itself in the most disagreeable ways, such as poor food and housing, and the non-negligible risk of serious injury or death. If military service is another form of labor, it is something which cannot legitimately be compelled, for to do so would be quite the same as compelling a man to labor as was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment.

Is Conscription Ever Admissible?

It is possible to argue that many things separate the compelling of a man to labor vs. compelling him to serve in a military force. Some of these differences do exist, but they only underscore the point that military service should not be compelled. As militaries are about destruction, they put the individual into the position of committing terrible acts which are detrimental not only to his targets, but also to himself. Forcibly putting a man in these sorts of situations constitutes a terrible offense to liberty.

This is no insult to the character of soldiers, but an acknowledgement of the haunting things which may be compelled of an individual placed in an unworkable situation. Indeed, the great memoirs of history’s soldiers, such as Nicolas Warr’s Phase Line Green or Erich Maria Remarque’s novelization All Quiet on the Western Front, are source enough to differentiate merely compelling a man to labor and compelling a man to fight. American society has recognized the immorality of compelling a man to labor, but it has not yet seen the immorality of compelling a man to fight.

National expediency is another reason sometimes floated, as in the case of great wars, for the use of conscription. Aside from the fact that grants of emergency powers do not evaporate after the crisis has passed—as Professor Robert Higgs has shown in his book Crisis and Leviathan—the question must be answered as to why the state can trample the rights of the individual merely because it is in distress. The true test of the strength of liberty comes in the hour of crisis when it may be expedient to cast it aside, but the price will be the permanent diminution of liberty. If conscription is truly a flagrant breach of the American ideal, it is equally inadmissible in peacetime as it is in wartime—the justness or unjustness of something does not morph into the other and the unacceptable become acceptable if the state simply declares that it is in distress. 

Further, if the liberty of the individual is truly at stake and conquest by a marauding foe bent on the extirpation of rights indeed looms, there will never be a shortage of freemen rising up to protect their liberty. If the threat is real and immediate, the state will not lack for volunteers to join with it to defeat the greater evil, but if the threat be distant, or be only tangentially dangerous to the individual, the state ought not even have volunteers to join with it, let alone the ability to shanghai men into joining with it.

There is one final conceit made in the sanctioning of conscription, and it is that the state has become omnipotent. Westerners being steeped in the ancient and noble ideals of human liberty are loath to grant explicitly that the state has omnipotent power over anything, let alone who shall live and who shall perish, but this is precisely what the draft entails—absolute power. A state that can compel men to destroy and be destroyed can compel men to do anything. Recognizing that conscription is an acknowledgement of power shorn of bounds, which is something not in keeping with the Lockean tradition of individual liberty vis a vis the state, from whence did this power justly arise, and how is this power made just? Answering these questions without repudiating liberty is a difficult task indeed.

It’s Time to Abolish the Draft

Liberty, being indivisible, is justly the possession of every man, regardless of what nation he hails from, and regardless of whether his liberty is recognized by his state. That which is unjust anywhere is a violation of justice anywhere. Conscription represents a grave and immediate threat in Myanmar, Russia, and elsewhere, and the people in those societies would do well to claim their rights against their states as best as they can.

In the United States, where there is the freedom to print articles such as this one, it would be well to claim American liberty is indivisible and abolish the draft, once and for all.

  • Cruz Marquis is a former US Marine, a current economics student, and the administrator of