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Putin’s Belligerence Is No Excuse to Reinstate the Draft in Europe—and the War in Ukraine Is Proving It

Conscription is an explicit usurpation by the state of the power to send you against your will into the fire of enemy machine guns.

Image Credit: iStock

Since February 24, the dreadful day when Russia’s systemic destruction and depopulation of Ukraine began, a political change has occurred in countries unfortunate enough to be in close proximity to Russia. In Eastern Europe, a surge of fear was propagated. Fear that can hardly be called unfounded.

Putin’s motive remains a mystery, as it can range from a plan to create a buffer from NATO in Ukraine to a delusion about rebuilding the Russian Empire, or just some unknown function of twenty years of severe separation from reality in Kremlin palaces. At present European armies are going through detailed revisions of army strategies, as combat in Ukraine unveils the failure of many military precepts. The rise in fear also resulted in a vast increase in army funding throughout Europe.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz decided to double the army budget, with a proposal of spending $100 billion on the military. In the same vein, the Polish government plans a major reform of their army. Haphazardly drawn outlines suggest enlarging the current army of 120,000 to as high as 300,000. Baltic states are no less concerned with the Russian invasion, and Finland officially wants to join NATO.

The prevalent push to feed the ever-greedy military-industrial complex could not happen at a worse time. Europe faces rising inflation, food shortages, and supply chain issues as the Covid panic wanes, caused by two years of wasted productivity. Governmental budgets strained to their limits are hardly capable of military expenditure. Therefore politicians will likely do everything in their power to boost military power at the least possible cost.

Unfortunately, one simple way exists to convince the general population of safety at relatively little expense to the government: the draft. One of the most illiberal practices, which was successfully abolished across most of Europe and North America, is suddenly back in some countries—and back on the table in others, including Germany.

At Reason, J.D. Tuccille points out that some German lawmakers want to reinstate the draft, while others countries have already done so.

“This would be a dramatic reversal for [Germany], which dumped the draft just over a decade ago in favor of a smaller, professional force recruited from volunteers.

But some countries have already made the switch. After Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Lithuania reinstated conscription after just six years without compulsion, and foresees expanding the practice to make it universal. Sweden followed suit in 2018.

“The Russian illegal annexation of Crimea [in 2014], the conflict in Ukraine and the increased military activity in our neighbourhood are some of the reasons,” Swedish Defense Ministry spokeswoman Marinette Nyh Radebo told the BBC at the time.

Ukraine gave its own people a brief reprieve, abolishing the draft in 2013 only to bring it back after the following year’s invasion.”

Obligatory service of the younger generations is relatively cheap reform. After all, it is a literal enslavement of the youth that can be later presented as a necessary guarantee of safety to the masses. It’s far less expensive, since soldiers’ pay received by conscripts does not come close to the compensation received by career soldiers.

Of less concern will be the inadequate training, lack of equipment, and strategic deficiencies of the mass-produced soldiers. It is easier to force individuals to serve the state than to make meaningful reforms of the bloated administrative apparatus, a denizen parasite of many Eastern European armies. The stats will show a sudden increase in military capability that can be used by politicians as proof of national security. It’s no surprise, then, that already elected politicians throughout Europe are coming out in support of conscription.

What’s more, the risk of draft restoration is strengthened by electoral geography. For instance, in Poland or Hungary, ruling elites are entirely reliant on the votes of the elderly, who benefit from expanding the welfare state, even if consumption now might forsake the future of future generations who will carry the burden. Therefore, little support for the incumbent parties exists among the younger voters. Hence instituting the draft will not shrink the electorate of the ruling parties; the youth never supported them. At the same time, the older voters will gain a guarantee of safety with a sacrifice of an alien segment of the population. It generally will not be Orban supporters who will have to be yelled at by drill sergeants, crawl through mud, soak their uniforms with sweat and blood, and get prepared to be sacrificed by the state in military conflicts.

What could go wrong? Past experiences with conscription in Eastern Europe are evidently negative. Low training quality and rampant alcoholism were the least severe consequences of non-consensual military service. The imposition of the draft brought a massive wave of hazing and abuse of the younger conscripts. Such informal hierarchies are quite common in military troops, where recruits are kept against their will, resulting in all kinds of pathologies. The most disastrous subset of the observed process is dedovshchina, a Russian hazing ritual with violence so rampant it damaged entire generations. The most horrific cases include life-long injuries, violent rapes, and even forcing recruits into prostitution. For many the draft is hell so horrid that they find escape in suicide. (In the Russian army every year around 340 suicides occur, according to the BBC).

Such heinous practices are not specific only to Russia. In Poland, for instance, soldiers were paid large settlements for incurable injuries they received from their violent peers while being forced by the state apparatus to serve in the army. Though some modern armies might be able to limit some of the violence—Finland may be such an example—the mere risk of subjugating individuals to a tenth of what we have seen in the past cannot be worth taking.

But while the draft is an institution impossible to defend on practical grounds, it is also outright immoral from an ethical perspective. Conscription is an explicit usurpation by the state of the power to send you against your will into the fire of enemy machine guns.

With such a process, politicians claim the power to decide whether citizens should sacrifice their very lives for a particular cause. It is a breach of the most basic human rights. If we grant even the utmost limited idea of civil liberties, army service must be voluntary. If there is an ethical limit for government activity, then forcing individuals against their will to either kill or be killed is certainly a breach of such moral boundaries.

One can debate all government interventions, but this one is so fundamental because with such power the state can overcome all other basic rights. What use is freedom of speech if the government can send the journalist to attack enemy trenches until his critique of the government can no longer be heard? Property rights will be of little use once your spouse receives a box with your personal belongings and an urn with ashes. The dead have no rights. A state with the power to effectively render people lifeless can take away at its whim all their rights.

If there are no volunteers to fight for ideals underpinning a particular war, then indeed they might not be worth dying for. The fight in Ukraine demonstrates that in the case of a legitimate threat plenty of people will take up arms to fight the aggressors, with even the elderly producing Molotov cocktails down in the bomb shelters. The state does not seek recruits with the threat of violence, to die for just causes, but to die for the immoral schemes of particular politicians.

  • Jan Golan is a skeptic of the state, studying Economics in Maastricht.