Mises Daily

The Myth of the Voluntary Military

Ludwig von Mises summed up the essence of government in words that are particularly vivid in wartime:

Government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action.… Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.

What about those who are called upon to enforce state edicts, whether just or unjust? Every society includes people who are willing to act as the coercive arm of the state, those who are willing to use violence and freely risk their lives as they administer the law. The state has no great trouble recruiting policemen and prison guards. Are there enough such people to amass a huge army of hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to risk their lives carrying out destructive foreign wars of dubious merit?

When you see the pictures of American troops fighting their way through sand storms, in a strange land with strange people, seeking to overturn a government and transform a society that posed no credible threat to the United States, being shot at by average Iraqis who are clearly motivated only by the desire to expel the invader, it is not hard to imagine that US troops are wondering how it all came to this.

The British defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, claims that the coalition armed forces are made up of “men and women who made a free choice to serve their country,” whereas Iraqi forces “are motivated either by fear or by hatred.” It’s hard to say what motivates Iraqi forces (perhaps the desire to repel invasion?), but what he says about coalition troops is simply not true.

The men and women now fighting initially agreed to be in the employ of the military. The United States is not yet conscripting people. And yet how many of these would leave Iraq if they could? What if Donald Rumsfeld announced that anyone now fighting in Iraq is free to leave without penalty? What would become of the US armed forces now attempting to bring about unconditional surrender in Iraq?

It’s an interesting question, as a pure mental experiment, because it highlights the essentially forced nature of all modern military service. To leave once the war begins would amount to what the government calls desertion. This word sounds ominous, but in fact it merely describes what everyone in a civilized society takes for granted: the right to quit.

Deuteronomy’s exhortation to encourage the Israelites into battle includes an invitation to freely leave: “What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return unto his house.” (20:8) But there is no such right in the modern US military. If you try to leave, you face coercion, particularly if you try to leave in wartime. In this way, the military differs from the police and the ranks of prison guards, jobs from which people are free to walk away without penalty.

Punishing people for attempting to leave the military — to avoid killing and/or being killed — is not a new practice. Mises speaks of the “barbarous” practices used in the 18th century to keep soldiers from deserting their units. The more undesirable wartime conditions become, the more necessary it is for the state to force people to continue to endure them.

The scene that shocked me most in the movie Gods and Generals — and it was clearly not intended to be shocking — occurs when an assistant to Stonewall Jackson informs the general that some soldiers have been discovered in an attempt to desert the army under his command. The general orders them to be tried in a military court, and, if found guilty of attempted desertion, to be shot. They were indeed tried and shot. Thus did these men die for exercising their God-given right to walk away.

One of those shot in the film was a young man recruited by Jackson himself, the son of a friend who decided to return to the North. The scene was included to demonstrate Jackson’s impartiality. This general is no respecter of persons — or (more plausibly) personhood. To me, the scene demonstrated the immorality of all modern notions of military discipline.

As the movie shows, the South believed it was fighting for the right of self-government, which required that the states be able to exercise their right to leave an increasingly despotic Union. But the military command would not allow their soldiers to secede. The Confederate generals believed that the Union must be voluntary, but the army itself must be kept together through coercion.

“The legalization of desertion might provide the very key to bringing about a more humane world.”

Of course, Northern armies employed the same practice. Many Union troops believed they were fighting against slavery, which amounts to nothing more than forbidding people from exercising their right to flee their alleged owners. But the imposition of the death penalty for soldiers choosing not to fight, that is, to flee their military owners, was assumed to be a normal part of military discipline.

Both North and South claimed they were fighting in order to abolish a form of captivity — the right to self-government in one case, and the right to not be employed against one’s will in the other — but the ability of the military to imprison and kill fleeing soldiers was never questioned. It is not often questioned today.

The scene parallels the opening sequence in the movie Enemy at the Gates, when Russian troops in boats are being bombed from the air by German planes. Russian troops begin to jump in the water to get away. Their Russian commander starts to unload his pistol as they leap. The viewer is rightly shocked by this incredible display of totalitarian brutality. Yet, in essence, what we are seeing is nothing more than a fast-forwarded version of the court-martial, death-penalty scene in Gods and Generals.

Both scenes underscore a reality hardly ever discussed: all modern armies are essentially totalitarian enterprises. Once you sign up for them, or are drafted, you are a slave. The penalty for becoming a fugitive is death. Even now, the enforcements against mutiny, desertion, going AWOL, or what have you, are never questioned.

This is remarkable, if you think about it. Imagine that you work for Walmart but find the job too dangerous, and try to quit. You are told that you may not, so you run away. The management catches up to you, and jails you. You refuse to go and resist. Finally, you are shot. We would all recognize that this is exploitation, an atrocity, a crime, a clear example of the disregard that this company has for human life. The public outrage would be palpable. The management, not the fleeing employees, would be jailed or possibly executed.

Murray Rothbard frames the question nicely: “In what other occupation in the country are there severe penalties, including prison and in some cases execution, for ‘desertion,’ i.e., for quitting the particular employment? If someone quits General Motors, is he shot at sunrise?”

The military has done a study1   of what causes people to go AWOL, concluding that the practice “tends to increase in magnitude during wartime” and when “the Army is attempting to restrict the ways that soldiers can exit service through administrative channels.”

The same study profiles the deserters, as compared with nondeserters, as less educated, having a lower aptitude, more likely to be from broken homes, etc. — all the usual reasons why a person is so dishonorably disinclined to want to be killed. Finally, this study examined the effects of desertion on the individual, concluding that choosing to be disemployed from the ranks of the armed and dangerous causes “loss of self-esteem and confidence” as well as “embarrassment and even shame.” Well, what else would you expect from someone who has “chosen a certain path and failed to meet the necessary requirements and/or sustain the fortitude to meet those requirements”?

Now comes the report from Diwaniya, Iraq, heavily cited by a US military spokesman, that

many Iraqi soldiers were fighting at gunpoint, threatened with death by tough loyalists of President Saddam Hussein.… “The officers threatened to shoot us unless we fought,” said a wounded Iraqi from his bed in the American field hospital here. “They took out their guns and pointed them and told us to fight.”

It could be that the captured soldiers are only trying to win sympathy. But it would hardly be surprising if it were true. To force people to fight when they would rather not is the very essence of modern military organization. In modern practice, there is no such thing as a voluntary military. Whether you are forced into the machine or not (via conscription or via payments in tax dollars), once you are a cog, you must stay in no matter how much grinding you do or how much you are ground.

The slave-like nature of the military commitment has no expiration date. Yes, there are contracts, but the military can void them whenever it so desires. Predictably, it desires to void these contracts (through so-called stop-loss regulations) when the enlisted most want to leave: when they must kill and risk being killed. All branches of the military have implemented these stop-loss regulations because of the war on terror. This amounts to the nationalization of human beings.

Still, one wonders how much the ranks of the militarily employed would shrink in absence of antidesertion enforcement. If modern presidents had to recruit the way barons and lords recruited, and if they constantly faced the prospect of mass desertions, they might be more careful about getting involved in unnecessary, unjust, unwinnable wars, or going to war at all. Peace would take on new value out of necessity. When going to war, they might be more careful to curb their war aims, and match war strategies with those more limited aims.

In fact, we might discover through the study of the history of antidesertion statutes the key to the transition from the limited war and decentralized military of the medieval world to the mass murder of the modern total war. The legalization of desertion might provide the very key to bringing about a more humane world.

In the meantime, US officials would do well to stop complaining that Iraqi soldiers are being forced to serve and forced to kill. A press release from the Air Force announcing its new stop-loss rule says, “We understand the individual sacrifices that our airmen and their families will be making.… We appreciate their unwavering support and dedication to our nation.”

One might even have a greater appreciation for their sacrifice (even if not their mission) if one knew that it were undertaken willingly.

This article is excerpted from It’s a Jetsons World, “The Myth of the Voluntary Military” (2011).


  • 1“What We Know About AWOL and Desertion: A Review of the Professional Literature for Policy Makers and Commanders,” by Peter F. Ramsberger and D. Bruce Bell [Alexandria, VA: US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, ARI Special Report 51, August 2002
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