Thursday, February 01, 2007

The State Should Own You

So thinks Johann Hari, in a piece calling for the re-introduction of conscription, specifically apparently for middle-class 20 somethings. He provides two reasons for the overall control of the state over the freedom of the citizens. The first is that it would make armies more representative of society - stating that both the American and British armies are overly black and poor. I've read recent research on the American army, in the wake of John Kerry's unfortunate 'if you don't revise you'll get stuck in Iraq' comment, that showed that the average American volunteer was rather better educated than the average American, and that the biggest disparity was that they were significantly more rural.

I don't have figures for the British army, but I see no reason why this should be dramatically different here. In any case, the idea that the state should compel people to join the army in order to fulfil some arbitrary 'representation' quota strikes me as bizarre in the extreme. Conscript armies do not, shall we say, have a happy history - look at Russia's continuing problems if you want an illustration.

If I find Hari's first argument unconvincing, I find his second bizarre to the point of absurdity. One of the features of a conscript army is that it is not as good as a volunteer army. As Nelson said, 'better one volunteer than three pressed men.' The Americans in Vietnam suffered because its troops had not chosen to be there, knew their tour of duty was short and, as a result, got their heads down - to the point of mutiny when ordered into combat. The Tsarist army in the First World War mutinied and deserted in droves, allowing the Germans to advance all the way to Brest Litovsk. A conscript army isn't nearly as effective a fightig force a sa volunteer force. Even when conscript forces have become good combat forces (the BEF in 1916-1918 for example) they are still not as good as regulars (the BEF in 1914-1916 for example).

This, for Hari is a good thing. We should prioritise having an army that makes fighting wars more difficult over an army that makes winning wars more likely. I'm quite amazed at the stupidity of this - we should deliberately diminish the efficacy of our armed forces to make Hari and like-minded people feel better about themselves; we should re-introduce conscription in order to socially-engineer the army. Gah.

UPDATE: See also Tim and Chris.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that the British army is slightly more white than the general population. Some years ago I remember Gary Younge writing within the space of a few weeks that the over representatiion of ethnic minorities in the US army was evidence of racism, and then a few weeks later claiming that the under representation of ethnic minorites in the British army was evidence of racism.f

11:12 am  
Blogger Tim J said...

Damned if you do...

12:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...So let's see if I've got this right... We force young men into the army, whether they're willing or not (including the physically & mentally handicapped? After all, if our front line is to be truly representative...), in order to give our military the right profile and to decrease its effectiveness. This is presumably so that anyone who decides to pick a fight with Britain can do so safe in the knowledge that not only is the opposing force a genuinely diverse, representative cross-section of our society but that we capital fellows will tie one hand behind our backs and give them a sporting chance --- thus raising our casualty rates and prolonging wars (assuming our outright surrender isn't an option: a dodgy assumption if types like Hari are in charge).

You've got to admit it's brilliant. ...In a posturing, nihilistic sort of way.

4:29 pm  

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