The end of conscription and the transformation of war


In Europe, conscription has mostly disappeared and made place for professional armies with high-tech weaponry. This was caused by a transformation of military strategies and a change in the political objectives of defense policy after the end of the Cold War.

Conscription fitted in Cold War military strategies. Mass armies (made up mostly of conscripts) were meant to defend a state's territory. Although the arms race between the two blocks also involved high-tech weaponry, the mass strategy included a wide range of military tasks that didn't require a lot of technical knowledge. Soldiers did not need long training before being ready to deploy. Their role was potential cannon fodder in wars of attrition comparable to the world wars.

Such strategies only work in wars where the political aim is seen as sufficiently important to enable activities that result in many causalities to be presented as in interests of the general population.

Conscription has its origins in the marriage between nationalism and the state. The French revolution transformed the state into the carrier - at least in ideological terms - of political ideals and national identities. Ordinary people became citizens, and citizens could be asked to die for their country. Napoleon raised large conscript armies and transformed war into a battle between nations instead of kings. This transformation culminated in the horror of the 2 world wars. It was continued through the Cold War strategy in Europe, with large conscript armies pitched against each other and augmented by the nuclear blackmail of mutual destruction.

Alongside of this battle between nations, several European states had another military business as well: colonialism. In general, colonial warfare was not done with conscripts but with professional soldiers. States could convince their own population to fight as conscripts for the defense of their own nation, but convincing people to die at the other side of the world for some business interest is less easy. Contemporary military interventions are generally implemented by professionals or volunteers even if the army is a conscript one.

The decolonisation after the second world war taught the colonial powers another lesson. When people develop a common idea to get rid of the foreign occupier, and are willing to die for it in violent or nonviolent resistance, it is difficult to sustain the occupation. The occupier just has too few boots on the ground to keep suppressing the population. Most colonial regimes counted on colonial armies drawn from the local population, alongside a foreign officer corps. The development of national identities that could overcome local divisions, and anti-colonial sentiments made this method of control unsustainable. A lesson the West has now been learning again in Iraq and Afghanistan.

New military missions requiring new types of army

The end of the Cold War also meant that mass conscription armies lost the enemy for which they were designed for. The military bureaucracy looked for new reasons for its existence: in other words, new enemies. The Iraq war of 1991 provided a prototype for new military missions: peace enforcement and humanitarian interventions.

These missions were of a different character, and the existing conscription armies were less suited to them. The larger distance between the country of origin and the theatre of operation necessitates a greater use of technology with fewer people, as a mass conscription army is not very mobile. The swift victory in the 1991 Iraq war fueled the hubris that the technological turn in warfare made victory possible without politically costly body bags. The Kosovo war in 1999 strengthened this idea.

Lean and mobile armies with well-trained soldiers were needed for this new military task. The large conscription armies became a relic of the past. Professional armies were better suited for this job. In the new political situation after the Cold War, conscription was slowly abolished in Europe. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, conscription was still the rule in Europe, with some exceptions including the UK. Some countries abolished conscription quite early, like Belgium in 1994, while the majority followed after 2000. Now only some countries continue with conscription, like Finland and Greece. Specific circumstances explain the continuation of old defence postures in these nations: primarily large neighbours that are considered military threats (Russia and Turkey respectively).

The human rights and responsibility to protect rhetoric pretends to be new, but the military strategy behind peace keeping occupations in fact recycles colonial warfare practices. Occupations need boots on the ground and this is a costly affair, while it remains difficult to convince the homefront of the need for such effort. Military superiority through advanced technologies proved enough to beat the outdated armies of smaller countries. But the power to destroy does not provide the power to govern, as became clear in the Iraq and Afghanistan war. The barrel of a gun is not enough to provide legitimacy and the western powers had to relearn the lessons from the Vietnam and other decolonisation wars.

Remote control warfare

Slowly, the war strategies are changing again. Large scale military interventions, with military occupation and nation building ambitions, will become rare. The ambitions are lowered to keeping the terrorists down with remote control warfare – drones - keeping supply chains open by hunting pirates and, when the opportunity arises, through proxy wars or lending a high tech hand to the partners of choice in civil wars. It is difficult to defend these strategies with human rights rhetoric, so they remain more covert or are legitimated with other concerns (except in the last case, where 'humanitarian arms deliveries' will soon become the newest contradictio in terminis [contradiction in terms]).

Conscription has no role to play in these new military strategies and will not come back. It lost its function in these strategies, while the objectives of this warfare can not legitimate at home a lot of casualties.

For the antimilitarist movement conscription was a logical target through which it could annoy war politics. Its disappearance does not mean that the antimilitarist movement is out of business as well.

Military interventions still start from European bases. The technological turn gave the defense industry a boost and this defense industry is a major beneficiary of EU industrial policy. Also, the European arms trade is flourishing as never before. Conscription may disappear from Europe, but militarism is far from gone. The transformation of military strategies means that the antimilitarist movement also has to adapt its mode of action.

Hans Lammerant

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