We often hear emotional appeals from a big section of people that the best way to ensure India’s safety and to ‘’discipline’’ the youth, compulsory military service should be made mandatory.
Is that really the answer?
Conscription, or drafting, is the compulsory enlistment of people in a national service, most often a military service. This practice dates back to ancient times, and continues in a number of countries to date. Conscription is controversial for a range of reasons, ranging from religious to philosophical, to not supporting the government’s participation in the given conflict.
Compulsory military service is necessary in the following cases:-
- When a country has a very limited population. It could be a country like Israel which is surrounded by enemy states and hence needs every able bodied man or woman to serve in the army for a specific period. Or it could be a sparsely populated relatively peaceful country like Finland, which keeps a bare minimum personnel in the forces and fills the rest by conscription.
- Powerful countries like Russia and USA, which are apex powers with a gigantic military industrial complex. The military influence of these countries go well beyond their borders. In case of USA, it has been at war one way or another, for much of its existence as a nation. USA has more than 800 military bases across the world, and its weapons manufacturing lobby ensures that the govt has no other option but to buy what they produce.
- When a country is undergoing a civil war, or is under existential threat owing to both heavy internal disturbances and external aggression.
- When a country has the mechanism to reintegrate the discharged conscript into meaningful work in civilian life.
Even though Compulsory military service has to be used in such cases, it’s not always that it gives the desired results.
USA eliminated the draft system in the 1970s, after the Vietnam War where it got its hands bloodied, and as its military became more high tech. The US armed services found that they needed relatively fewer recruits to serve longer than conscription provided. As the numbers that were needed shrank, the unfairness of the draft became more prominent.
Contrary to the image portrayed, the youth always found ways to become “draft dodgers”, that included either decamping to Canada, making a nuisance of themselves to everyone in authority, in case of rich daddy’s kids straightaway buying their way out, and deriding those who served.
Russia too is no different in this regard, where besides the rich buying their way out of the draft, allegedly half (75000 out of the annual 150000) of eligible conscripts (ages18-27) dodge the draft by various means, may it be with PhD enrollment, allowing them to put off service until they age out of the draft, or by feigning illness by bribing the medical authorities or serving as policeman or fireguard. This in spite the fact that the conscription period has been brought down to 18 months.
A huge number of defense personnel find it exceedingly difficult to find employment after retirement in civilian life which matches the level of their service in the forces. Barring the technical people, most find that their skills cannot be used outside the forces, and hence, in a huge number of cases, they have to inevitably settle for something which is very less than what they are worth.
If this is the condition for people who have served all their working life in the military, it must be understood that there is absolutely no mechanism in process to absorb back a poorly skilled conscript who will be discharged after his compulsory service is over.
Today’s highly sophisticated and specialized militaries in the world have little or no use for short term soldiers, and today’s leaders have no interest in giving significant returns to conscripts and in many cases, talk about manpower reduction. In old days of foot infantry and cavalry warfare, with little mechanization, there was a need for just about every able bodied person as the theatre of the conflict expanded. Today, any competent military, high tech or otherwise, needs just a small fraction of its country’s population to operate. Even in case of an all-out war breaking out, conscripts trained for just a few weeks will fall like flies (The western front in WW I is one big example) and in case of non-combat guard duties, could turn into a case difficult to handle, owing to the lack of temperament that a regular soldier develops as a part of his training.
“If the object is fighting, a person trained only for a few months is useless. In a noncombat defense position, he would be worse than useless. He would be dangerous.” – Philip Gold, Against All Terrors: This Nation’s Next Defense
The example of our dear neighbor is very telling in case of military training for ‘’talented youth’’ gone wrong. It’s ruled by three A’s- Allah, Army and America. And it’s the Army that has the country. It got a boost when US money poured into it for the 1979-89 Soviet Afghan war. Thousands of Deobandi madrassas were established in Punjab province by CIA-ISI combine, and having madmen like General Zia ul Haq at helm only made things worse.
Thousands of recruits sprang out of these seminaries and were also sent to wreck mayhem in India, in Punjab and later in Kashmir. Today, the same set up survives, and has become a nightmare for Pakistan, as it has found out that not all the terrorist groups can be used against India, and many of them are openly attacking Pakistani forces and civilians. Pak army has been fighting a disastrous war in Waziristan since 2004, which has caused as per official figures more than 10000 deaths and casualties (real figures can be anybody’s guess). The terrorists that they are fighting come from the same establishment which their own military and intelligence had set up three decades earlier.
USA has the problem of discharged conscripts/servicemen facing various issues like homelessness, unemployment, drug abuse, suicide. And in their last two wars, they have mostly died for Halliburton and Blackwater than for stars and stripes.
What will happen in India if people of criminal tendencies and disturbed mindsets get compulsory military training, and after discharge are recruited by gangsters or political parties or jihadi organizations? And even without this scenario, how many cases of rage killing will we see?
Wastage of skills will be another issue. Not everyone is cut out to be a soldier. Not everyone carries the temperament to wield weapons and execute orders to the best. When labor is both free and abundant, it will be squandered and abused, and paid the least and this is what happens always.
The US government took advantage of its free supply of almost unlimited manpower by underpaying its servicemen, thereby losing many recruits who might have chosen a military career, and also getting killed/ruining many others who could have had developed necessary skills in civilian life. In case of US, the draft was abysmal, making the budding scientist clean trash in the base, giving the sickly guy meal delivering duties to field hospitals, or the budding sportsman to be sent out to be killed in action.
People with powerful parents got cushy positions, while the poor got the horrible tasks. If this was the case in days of raising mass armies, what can be the result today when the military is much more high tech and requires less manpower to run? Raising the pay happened when volunteer service was introduced and it eliminated the need for the draft in US.
The cost of compulsory military service will be astronomical as organized compulsion costs more than real volunteering. Direct costs would include assembling, sorting and training millions of youth, their deployment, mobilization. Indirect costs will include clothing, medical coverage, accommodation, leaves, and law enforcement needed for such huge numbers. Not even the richest country on earth can afford it, and it’s out of question for any country with a population of 200 million plus. Can one thousand conscripted youth be trusted with a task which is handled by twenty well trained soldiers? Forget about being a help, they will be a liability to the full time soldier, and might even compromise the safety of the unit.
India has no dearth of able bodied young men who can become good soldiers. The shortage is for officers to the rank of major, which cannot be filled by conscription. And the most important thing is that, India has no military industrial complex, and in spite of being the third largest army in the world, has negligible presence in global conflicts. We do not have any territorial ambitions, not do wish to be part of any international theatre, besides UN peacekeeping.
The people who make an appeal for conscription in India, need to understand that anything that is forced, ceases to be a ”service”, and does not ensure the personnel best suited for the job to be recruited in it. In fact it brings down the quality of the entire organization. The Indian armed forces are professional and voluntary, and that’s how they function the best. There are many noble ways to serve one’s country. Bearing arms happens to be one of them, but that’s not the only one.
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