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Free Minds and Free Militaries

Free Minds and Free Militaries

5 Mins
April 29, 2011

March 31, 2003 -- Among the perennial themes in American political life, one of the most crucial is the contest between individualism and collectivism. It appears in many forms but stands out very plainly in a recent spate of proposals—from both the Left and the Right—to revive the military draft.

One of the proposals was put forward by Congressman Charles Rangel (Democrat of New York) on the op-ed page of the New York Times (December 31, 2002) and seconded later the same week by Congressman John Conyers Jr. (Democrat of Michigan).  Conyers and Rangel claim that the voluntary military institutionalizes a kind of racism by putting minorities disproportionately in harm's way. Further, they charge, it exempts the children of the elite from the dangers of war, allowing American political leaders to make war without concern for the human cost. Reviving the draft, in their view, would strike blows both for greater equality and for the cause of peace.


This proposal has not been well received, despite following on the heels of a similar Republican bill from 2001. As former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger pointed out in aWall Street Journal op-ed (January 10, 2003), no minority group is facing disproportionate risk. In the case of Latinos this is obvious, because Latinos make up only about 10 percent of Department of Defense enlistees, while taking up a rather larger proportion of the military-age population. Blacks, on the other hand, are disproportionately represented in the armed forces, forming about 20 percent of enlistees, compared with a 13 percent share of the military-age population. But this disproportion is largely accounted for by the higher number of blacks who choose the military, and particularly the Army, as a long-term career. Indeed, that they do so is a tribute to the attractiveness of the military's aggressively color-blind meritocracy. Since most of these careerists work in "rear-echelon" tasks such as logistics, it turns out that as a proportion of United States combat troops, blacks make up about the same share as they do of the relevant population at large. So much for the issue of racism.

Nor would reviving the draft obviously do anything to promote peace (except perhaps by degrading the U.S. military and making it less able to effectively fight wars). Far from blithely sending the hoi polloi into harm's way, the pols have no intention of supporting high-body-count foreign adventures. This was not changed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The "war on terrorism" has broadened the public's perception of needful military action, but opinion polls consistently show that support for combat falls sharply when projected casualties mount into the thousands. Indeed, the very willingness of U.S. politicians to support military action in such places as Iraq relies heavily on their confidence that not many U.S. casualties are likely—and what else could they imagine after the United States's high-tech, walkover victories in the Gulf War, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. The truth is, the wars currently in view bear directly on the security of Americans in America but nevertheless are not expected to kill many American soldiers. Allied fatalities in the Gulf War amounted approximately 250 of the roughly 500,000 military personnel deployed. Projecting that rate into the future may be wrong, but it reflects the current conventional wisdom.

Replacing Service with Serfdom

Our volunteer military works well, and the public knows it. Since the early 1980s, polls have consistently shown that a substantial majority of Americans oppose any return to a draft. So it isn't the popularity of a draft that elicits proposals like Rangel's. Being pro-draft doesn't earn anyone political mileage, but it is a way to score moral points. What the draft advocates want to cash in on is an assumption about what it means to be a good citizen. We, the citizens, are a collective, they assume, a body politic—and they want us to march in step.

The advocates of the draft see citizenship as membership in a kind of over-being: Society or the Country. To be fully part of Society one must take part in government and its functions, because it is through government and its functions that the societal will is formed and expressed, and the State is where societal action takes place. The classic metaphor for this view is the fasces, the bound staves that symbolized the unity of the Roman people and the power of the state. The fasces were used as a symbol of the republican state in France and the United States, but were used most prominently by the Italian Fascist regime of Mussolini, which embraced the symbol, its name, and its philosophical essence: collectivism.

Of course, the soft-pedaled ideologies of the twenty- first-century West do not baldly advance the brute totalitarianism of a Mussolini. They stir in a respect for democracy, admix the whole concoction with pragmatism and self-contradiction. Still, the collectivist ideal exerts its inertia on contemporary thought. We can see this quite clearly in some of the right-wing advocates of the draft. Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos, writing withWashington Monthly editor-in-chief Paul Glastris in that magazine (November 2001), has proposed a return to the draft in the form of a practical response to the demands of the "war on terrorism." But like Rangel's proposal, the real purpose of the Moskos/Glastris draft is social unity. What a draft it is! It would take in both women and men as part of a broad national-service requirement, and draftees would do social work in the broadest sense, having the option of serving as "volunteers" on community projects or working as homeland security guards, in addition to traditional military service.

At least it can be said for Moskos and Glastris that they have taken their views to their logical conclusion. Commenting in these pages on a more modest scheme for government funding of "volunteerism" ("You Will Volunteer," June 2002), Edward Hudgins has pointed out that compelling donations through taxation destroys genuine benevolence, replacing it with resentment. Coercing the youth of the country, through a draft, to labor in soup kitchens and subsidized-housing projects, would replace generosity with serfdom, completing this substitution of slavery for freedom. But for advocates like Moskos, as for left-wing pundit Robin Gerber (who at the time proposed a parallel scheme in the Christian Science Monitor), it offers a way to bring a new generation together in a unified great purpose and inculcate the values of citizenship in them. If implemented without exceptions, it would "bring the country together" by forcing young people "to bunk with others of very different backgrounds and races." Moskos even proposes that by wasting a couple of years in a course of life they would not have chosen—doing low-skill, low-income social work that satisfies a bureaucracy rather than the marketplace—the draftees will learn the skills they need to flourish in life. Thus will the youth be bound together into a bundle of staves, one that is wielded by the will of the state.

In place of the dead, bound rods of the fasces, we might do better to think of the ideal society as an open stand of flowering trees. Bees pollinate the flowers and the flowers, in turn, may feed the bees, but each organism lives by its own lights. A forester may be needed, from time to time, to keep an eye out for blight, but the trees are independent living things in their own right.

This image of the citizens as independent, diverse individuals is one way of reading the motto of the Great Seal of the United States: E pluribus unum ("out of many, one"). A civilized society, as Ayn Rand noted, is one that respects our individuality and our natural freedom to live as we choose. Society is multi-dimensional, consisting of all the strands of culture and mutual intercourse, from business and trade to art, spirituality, and love. Government is a necessary institution, to be sure, and it has a proper role of providing law and securing our freedom. But by no means is government the sum of what we are. Nor does making the law somehow unify us into a single organism.


A military draft is repugnant to the moral foundations of a "flowering-tree" society, one based in respect for human beings as ends in themselves. Our most basic right, morally and politically, is the right to life. A law that compels an innocent person into harm's way not only violates that political right, it tramples morally on the respect that each of us deserves as a rational, independent being who can bear the burdens of personal responsibility and moral choice. Ultimately, individuals in a free society must take responsibility for maintaining and defending their freedom. But each must choose, as an individual, when and how to do so.

A draft is a policy for oppressive regimes that cannot be bothered to justify their need for troops to their citizens. With a volunteer military we know, if nothing else, that no one is being sent into harm's way who does not choose it. And with a volunteer military we know that each soldier is being properly compensated for his service, both by the standards of the marketplace and, most crucially, by his own lights. When military service is subject to choice, we know that in any grave crisis the government will need to demonstrate to each and every potential soldier the justice and necessity of its cause.

The volunteer military is the linchpin of our national respect for the plurality that makes up our unity, the signal policy of a free people. But as long as that ideal of individualism is not well respected or fully understood, politicians and pundits will keep trying to score points by supporting coercive forms of social unity, and those who love freedom will need to remain vigilant.

This article was originally published in the March 2003 issue of Navigator Magazine, the Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

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