Growing up with Christian Right influences all around me, I became quite familiar with the view that Christian patriotism included supporting the U.S. government’s foreign military adventures. If the government needed troops for a war, it was the duty of every male American of military age to consent to the draft. To most of those around me, the draft-card burners of the Vietnam War, and those who fled to Canada to evade the draft, were just contemptible pinko liberal pacifists with no defensible grounds to object to military service.
Over time, my own position changed. As I became a non-interventionist, I recognized that Biblical patriotism does not imply giving the government ownership over our lives and property. I considered that a time of national emergency was a time to guard against further government encroachment on personal freedoms; it was then that the state could most easily seize powers that it might not relinquish after the crisis ended.
The military draft, rather than being a necessity to which good and decent citizens would not object, became in my mind a way to hide the costs of war so that massive and usually unjustified foreign interventions could proceed. The draft-card burners might have been pinko liberals, and some might have been misguided pacifists, but even a Christian economist with a strong opposition to socialism could share one or two of their views.
Why Oppose the Draft?
Christians should object to the draft for several reasons. First, there is no clear Biblical evidence that God ever gave the state the authority to compel men to serve in the military. When war came, troops served like a volunteer militia. There was evidently plenty of family pressure to respond to a call to arms, but those who would not serve were not, it appears, subjected to any civil sanction. There is no penalty mandated by the Old Testament law, even if certain civil leaders may have used coercion.
Old Testament references to military obligations mention nothing like the modern military draft. Exodus 24:5 says that a newly married man “shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken.” A newly married man is not to be asked, by any authority, to serve in any capacity that would take him away from home. To infer that the person would be locked up for failure to respond to a call to arms seems to be a real stretch.
If the civil magistrate has the ability to ask men to serve, this does not imply that he can punish those who choose not to. In Judges 7:3, Gideon’s large army was reduced by over two-thirds when the fearful were told to return to their homes. Had Gideon used coercion to assemble his original army? There is no indication that he did, and in fact it would have been difficult to do so when the Midianites had such a hold on the country that he had to hide even his everyday activities (Jud. 6:11).
Years later, when Israel asked for a king, the prophet Samuel warned the people that the king would take their property and compel military services:
And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties…. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.”
Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel…. (1 Sam. 8:11-12, 18, 19)
Clearly, a draft was one of the disadvantages of rejecting God for a king.
The draft acts like a hidden tax, imposing heavy but difficult-to-assess burdens on a few while relieving the government of the responsibility to show an accurate accounting of the costs of war. A person who must give up a $25,000-a-year job when he is drafted into an $18,000-a-year military job suffers a loss of $7,000 a year. This $7,000 does not show up on the government’s books, and thus does not enter into the military’s decisions about how many troops will be used.
Furthermore, this ignores the fact that the civilian job and the military job are not equivalent in difficulty and risk — a combat job in the military is far more hazardous. An all-volunteer military must provide recruits with enough compensation — pay, benefits, or intangibles like prestige and public respect — to attract them away from their civilian alternatives. Draftees suffer the loss with no compensation.
Some will argue that in wartime people will not serve for any amount of money, and therefore the military will be undermanned. But dangerous civilian occupations like coal mining are manned — because they pay well enough to compensate for the risk. Maintaining a volunteer military in a protracted, high-casualty war might mean very high pay scales, but converting to a coerced military does not eliminate the costs. They will still be there, but imposed directly on the draftees instead of the taxpayers.
Even if a military draft were acceptable in principle, there are good reasons to oppose a draft conducted in the United States today. The U.S. today regularly and deeply engages in the sort of “foreign entanglements” our first president warned us about. In many, if not most of these cases, U.S. national security is actually threatened by our own military intervention. As the U.S. government steps outside the area in which it has legitimate jurisdiction, it stirs up resentment among foreigners who then look for ways to strike back.
Should a Christian aid in this process by supporting a draft? Do we really want to make such foreign adventures cheaper for the government?
Wives and Daughters
Finally, there is a very real threat that a draft will someday include women. This is not intended to be an essay on women in combat, but many of those who favor the draft strongly oppose putting women in combat roles, if not women in the military altogether.
This will soon become a politically untenable position. It will be more and more difficult to defend a male-only draft, as Americans grow more accustomed to seeing women in hazardous military occupations. Drafting women may be phased in, to reduce opposition. Perhaps women will be allowed some sort of stateside “civil service” alternative, at least at first.
The Universal National Service Act of 2004, if passed, would require all eighteen- to twenty-six-year-olds, male and female, to perform a two-year period of military duty or “a period of civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, and for other purposes.” The bill amends the Selective Service Act to require women to register for the draft. Those who refuse to comply would face criminal prosecution.
Thankfully, although the U.S. military appears thinly stretched, the draft seems unlikely to be reinstated in the near future. Christians should be troubled, however, that a bill like the Universal National Service Act is even being considered. Conscription is not a patriotic necessity. It has no clear Biblical support and is dangerous to our liberties.
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.