Chomsky and Conscription
Jacob Levich
CounterPunch, February 4, 2005
Noam Chomsky is so rarely wrong about anything that it feels impertinent to correct him. But his recent remarks on the draft, printed in CounterPunch (Feb. 2), are in need of scrutiny, especially since they might give false comfort to people who rightly worry that a revival of conscription is in the cards.

Chomsky says the US is unlikely to reinstate the draft because of "the Vietnam experience," which was "the first time in the history of European imperialism [sic; he must have meant to include North America] that an imperial power tried to fight a colonial war with a citizens' army." He continues:

"I mean the British didn't do it, and the French had the Foreign Legion in colonial wars, civilians are just no good at it. Colonial wars are too brutal and vicious and murderous. You just can't take kids off the street and have them fight that kind of war. You need trained killers, like the French Foreign Legion."

Chomsky has been saying this a lot lately, and consequently the notion that conscripts can't fight dirty wars has taken its place among the Top Ten left-of-center myths about the draft, right alongside "the draft is fairer to the poor and minorities" and (don't laugh) "the Establishment wouldn't support wars of aggression if they thought their children might get drafted." Because Chomsky is usually so reliable, a lot of good people seem to be swallowing his argument uncritically, which is why it calls for correction.

I won't dwell on Chomsky's use of the term "citizens' army," a pleasant-sounding euphemism for forced military service that is gaining popularity among apologists for the draft. But it's worth noting that the US force now in Iraq is already a citizens' army, consisting mostly of Guardsmen and Reservists who have been wrenched away from their families to spend 24 months in hell. It's probably true that some draftees would shrink from the brutal realities of war against the people of Iraq, but no more than the thoroughly demoralized civilians who are there now. From Washington's point of view, a draft could hardly make things worse.

What really puzzles me is Chomsky's bald assertion that the Vietnam War was the first time a European power tried to fight a colonial war using draftees. That's just not so.

To begin with, it's mysterious why Chomsky limits himself to European powers. Surely his argument should apply equally to imperialists on other continents, unless he thinks Europeans are especially sensitive about colonial slaughter -- and he can't possibly think that. At any rate, he's mistaken even in the case of Europe. Just to name one counterexample, the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-36, a murderous colonial war by any standard, was fought with conscripted troops.

What's significant here is that fascist Italy introduced universal conscription precisely for the purpose of facilitating colonial expansion. So did imperial Japan. And once you let Asia into the equation, Chomsky's argument truly collapses. The 1930s and 1940s saw several of the most brutal colonial wars in history, including the Rape of Nanking and comparably horrific episodes during Japanese invasions of Southeast Asia and Korea. Throughout WWII numerous sideshow conflicts were conducted across the globe as the big powers vied to pick off colonial assets. All this was accomplished with draft armies.

Typically during the modern era, the draft has not hindered but aided imperialist designs. Universal conscription originated in Europe with the French Revolution, but it was Napoleon who first saw how a "citizen's army" could be exploited as an overwhelming military asset -- one which he put to use in conquering most of the European continent. His colonial war in Spain -- the original guerilla war -- was fought, with relentless brutality, by conscripted troops.

Although Napoleon lost his empire to the Russian winter, the advantages of conscription were not lost on the other European powers, which followed suit during the late 19th Century as they sparred over colonial prizes in Africa and Asia. The sole exception was Britain, which didn't need the draft, since it enjoyed use of the Indian Army as a virtually limitless reserve force.

Following WWII, the great powers variously used proxies, mercenaries, volunteers, UN "peacekeepers," and conscripts to fight their colonial wars. Results were mixed. In general, all categories of soldier proved capable of producing the kinds of atrocities required by their masters -- the My Lai massacre, for instance, was perpetrated by draftees. On the other hand, Chomsky's exemplary "trained killers" -- the French Foreign Legion -- botched both the Algerian and Vietnam Wars, and their supposedly exceptional morale is a myth. (See Bernard Fall on the deserters and defeatists at Dien Bien Phu.)

In the end, "volunteers vs. draftees" is the wrong way of looking at the problem. What history actually shows is that imperialist powers will eventually use whatever type and size of force they believe to be necessary from a military point of view, regardless of morale issues and political cost. LBJ was well aware that expanding the draft would be a risky proposition; he did it anyway because he saw no other way of winning the war. There's a good chance Bush will do the same.

If any further example is needed, remember that the most vicious, brutal, murderous, and protracted colonial war in the world today is being fought -- at tremendous cost to military and domestic morale -- by draftees. I'm talking, of course, about Israel's war on the Palestinian people. Given Chomsky's tireless truth-telling about Palestine, it's an inexplicable oversight. Even Homer nods.