War and Its Discontents

Of late, sundry elevated Neo-Conservatives have been facing up to the implications of their demands on History’s Muse. In passing, I note that for a movement said, "not to exist," they have been all over the place with their latest cogitations. Have their recent cogitations led them to draw back from their program of world empire and universal philanthropy-by-cruise-missile? No indeed.

No, instead of any rethinking, their present ratiocinative trajectory has driven them to look at what "we" might have on our hands, once all the famous future victories roll in. Mind you, they assure us once a day that all will go well – smashingly, old chap – we shall pulverize, level, and conquer (and the Devil take the hindmost, I guess). They are great prospective levellers.

Alas, there is one fly in the ointment of universal democratic "capitalist" reform through warfare. It is this: upon completion of these famous victories, "we" shall have to occupy militarily "one, two, three, many Vietnams" – oh, I’m sorry, one, two, three, many… Middle Eastern satrapies. Well, no skin off the Neo-Cons’ noses; they’re up for it. But where, oh where, to get the manpower?


With their expected unerring logic and insane zeal, the Neo-Cons are floating the idea of bringing back one of their favorite institutions: mass conscription; well, maybe not their very favorite, but they’ll ask for it, if it seems at all necessary to their Big Plans. I don’t expect any of them will be caught up in it – I mean the draft, not the mere advocacy of it – any more than they have personally volunteered for the new crusades.

Far better to emulate Walter Lippman, who whooped it up for World War I, but explained in a letter to Felix Frankfurter at the War Department that he was the sole support of his dear old mother, and, anyway, his talents were better spent writing memos on war strategy in Washington rather than at the battle front.(1)

I well recall an agonized essay in the early seventies by a fellow who later emerged as a certified defense expert. The essay brought us up to speed on the Liberal, Harvard-educated guilt he felt at not having been drafted into LBJ’s big adventure. Poor chap, he was quite overwrought about remaining unkilled and unmaimed, while the sons of the working class went to Vietnam for their senior trip.

We need not worry that Neo-Cons will write many such essays.


As for mass conscription itself, why is it even brought up at all? How can it be treated as non-controversial? When did we sign on to the notion that such an institution is compatible with liberty?

Well, rather briefly, no state successfully imposed mass conscription until the French Revolution. In response to the Jacobins’ success in this endeavor, neighboring states took up conscription, modifying their existing social structure where needed, so as to be able to put mass armies in the field against the new menace. By erasing the distinction between citizen and soldier, French liberals adopted one of the more problematic points of republican theory, but justified it on its results.

What were the results? One, to be sure, was the ability to put larger armies in motion than ever before. Why this is regarded as a worthwhile achievement, I cannot say. That ability drowned Europe in blood for over two decades.

Napoleon’s famous wastefulness with his men stemmed precisely from the fact that soldiers were cheaper than before, because of conscription.

Conclusion: If you wish to overturn civilized society, multiply state power tenfold, and make every war into a colossal bloodbath, you should adopt mass conscription. Hence the strong appeal of this method of recruitment to those who like that sort of thing. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, there was much reluctance to adopt, or submit to, this innovation.

Historian Michael Geyer writes: "Only radical egalitarians and radical proponents of the state were unequivocally inclined to dissolve the premodern system of exemptions or ‘liberties’ that sheltered large segments of society from conscription."(2) Both types of radical were to be found in the leaders of the French Revolution. French radical republicanism, based on "a schoolboy’s vague but over-heated notion of ‘ancient liberty,’"(3) was the seedbed of modern integral nationalism.

By the end of the 19th century, conservative social classes all over Europe frightened by socialism (and rightly so) had adopted the originally leftist cause of nationalism, and the institutions that went with it, including mass conscription. I cannot report that conscription was any more "conservative" or less socially disruptive in their hands than in the hands of Jacobins. The great bout of organized insanity known as World War I was made possible, in great measure, by the institution under discussion.

I shouldn’t say any of this, really, because all the worthy Neo-Cons, whether they exist or not, have ordered us to believe than World War I was, at least on the Allied side, a good and virtuous enterprise. The only good points I can find in the war are these: 1) The Christmas fraternization of December 1915, 2) the French mutiny, and 3) the fact that the damned exercise finally ended.


The connection between citizenship, as defined by European liberals, and conscription suggests that the sell-out of liberty by liberals began very early. As a mistake, it matches the liberals’ frontal assault on religion. Whatever the role of churches in the Old Regime, this liberal policy was wrong both in principle and as a tactic.(4)

The point is simply that liberal mistakes in key areas left us with sundry disasters which libertarianism arose to redress. Now that new pretexts have arisen for enhancing state power, we shall see which libertarians can keep their bearings. We already have some idea.

Ah, but will any of our virtue-flogging liberventionists endorse conscription? – that will be interesting.

Meanwhile, in pursuit of their Neo-Jacobin world-revolutionary vision, the Neo-Cons have begun to speak of drafting this generation. Good luck! It is hard enough trying to get them to do a term paper.

There is another piece of evidence for an intimate relationship between Jacobinism and militarism. During the Algerian War, advanced thinkers in the French Army began preaching a doctrine of "revolutionary war." To compete with the Algerian rebels, these French theorists argued that France had to uplift Algerian women, improve the lot of the poor, and offer full-scale integration of Algerians into a Greater France.(5) That program is now a museum piece, but its proper home is the Museum of Military Jacobinism.

I close by admitting that the objections to conscription given above have only involved consequences. There is a case against conscription to be made on the basis of individual rights. But that argument can wait for another time, if the threat draws nearer.