The drumbeats of war seem to be the heartbeat of history and most often requires a generation of boys to wage it. Boys of a certain age are assumed to become combatants, to be used as fodder and be made killers or charged guilty of such potential, regardless of individual deed. Whether a man agrees with his government’s policies does not matter. It was decided for him that he should serve, either enslaved into a uniform or as a volunteer seduced by pay, duty bound. In the case of survival, when a people face extinction, the fighting males become the last vestige of hope for a society or nation. The instincts and roles becoming policy and normality.
“In America, conscription is unknown; men are enlisted for payment. Compulsory recruitment is so alien to the ideas and so foreign to the customs of the people of the United States that I doubt whether they could ever dare to introduce it into their law.”- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America, praised the virtues of the United States, one being that it refrained from the use of conscription. It’s a practice essential for great wars, one that assumes men are the property of government. American governments would go onto disprove his boasts about the greatness of such exceptional ideals. The American Civil War would introduce conscription in both north and south. Eligibility for the draft is a government tradition that haunts the lives of men of a certain age even into the twenty-first century, and no doubt soon the other gender will also be invited to enjoy this “duty.” If a nation could enslave people for labor. it was inevitable that it would also do so for war and the United States has been no exception.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in February 2022 forbade men aged between 18 to 60 from leaving the country in response to Russia’s military invasion. It’s the most recent example of a government’s power to nationalize human beings for war. The invading Russian government is also relying on the use of conscripts. It is often believed that conscription and a mandatory trained populace is key for a nation to deter and deal with attack. The October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel showed that despite having a trained populace and a capable military-security force, a determined enemy can still have success. An armed populace of individuals and communities acting in their own defense and self-interest remains a far better means of protection than a centrally planned force, which failed. Despite having a well-trained conscript culture, unarmed civilians are still targets incapable of defending themselves.
The Hamas fighters were motivated, driven volunteers fighting an ugly and vile “war of the flea.” In turn, the Israeli government’s response was to punish the entire Gazan population with starvation and bombardment. Should the Palestinians in Gaza survive, it is likely that Hamas will have more volunteers, while the Israelis will continue to rely on conscription alongside professional “believers.”
Individuals who are drawn to conflict because they believe in the moral legitimacy of the fight tend to fight longer and harder than those who are forced to or are only motivated by pay. The central state tends to waste resources and conducts itself with incompetence that can lead to more lives lost than need be. The Russian government’s early expeditions into Chechnya in 1994 with the use of inexperienced conscripts was an example of a government treating humans that it “owned” as fodder. Teenagers with little experience or training were thrown against a determined defender in a modern war that was as savage as any ancient one. Such operations defied the wisdom of experience but military commanders wasted lives with arrogance and incompetence. Lives stolen have little value to a thief.
The assumption that conscription is a defensive act that brings the civil populace swiftly to arms relies on the centrally planned model of thinking to warfare. Individuals will defend their communities from threats; a pro-gun and volunteer culture strengthens community and skills relevant for defense, regardless of a central state. Outside of the claims of defense, national governments have deployed their conscripts abroad to satisfy imperial ambitions. Conscripts have also been used against the home populace to sustain the very government that exploits them. A double edged sword for the central government may also exist, as conscripts with military understanding can become a critical and motivated threat against the state, along with returning veterans of war.
It’s also expensive to maintain large modern armies and conscription adds to that cost; salaries and compensation to businesses alone, not to mention the increased expense of logistics.
The male population of a nation becomes an even more credible target in the minds of an enemy when conscription is in place. The government’s enforced ownership of these individuals transfers them to the status of being a representative of the government and no longer an innocent civilian. These definitions in war are often arbitrary and allow distant killers to calculate just who they can murder with a legal conscience. For example, the families of factory workers, deemed targets based on contribution to a governments war effort, are the mathematics of murder that have been used in the past, just as all fighting age males can be detained or executed from a distance purely because of their existence.
“What line separates the lawful wartime targeting of an enemy combatant from the extrajudicial murder of a man suspected, but not convicted, of wrongdoing?”- Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything; Tales from the Pentagon (2016)
Many boys will fight to defend against an invader, just as they would in a home invasion during peacetime. If a child raised on a farm works alongside their parents, are they being exploited? If a child sees injustice and takes up arms, are they exploited and brainwashed? It is a complicated perspective of intellectual and moral consent. Regardless, this has not stopped the intentional punishment, execution, and conscription of boys in war. The vileness of an enemy can be depicted by its willingness to use children to wage war. A child may willingly fight against aggressors; this does not then validate the brutality of the invader. It’s often a reaction to the invader’s brutality that inspires a population to resist. Jewish children fighting against Nazi SS soldiers in the streets of Warsaw’s ghetto did what the children murdered in extermination camps were unable to do. Children fighting against extermination did not justify the German government’s policy of genocide.
Boys as young as ten were considered insurgents in past conflicts; for example, the U.S. invasion and occupation of the Philippines. Governments and militias alike have forced boys into military servitude. In that sense, the Lord’s Resistance Army is analogous to Nazi Germany, where children were used in the final defense of the dying Reich. To the violently ambitious, a child is both a tool to be used or one that can be eliminated and violated along the way.
The mindset that a boy is a credible threat based solely on their potential to operate a weapon is also a way to justify war crimes. Modern war-fighters have used, in ever greater numbers, remotely piloted drones to execute government policy in faraway lands. The documentary National Bird unveils the nature of the assassin campaign conducted by the United States in its Global War on Terror. What is revealed is the imbalance between civilian deaths to those of insurgents. But what makes one an insurgent? The assumption of guilt is often very ambiguous and any male of a certain age in a given area, armed or not, can be seen as a credible target and considered an insurgent. The calculation to murder is instant and simple: “Are they old enough to hold an AK-47?” It’s the question that can be answered with either a stay of execution or instant death.
When government fiat allows war planners to describe entire regions as “free fire zones” or let suspicion be based on “age, sex, and Location,” then atrocities will become common place. Kill counts like those celebrated in the U.S. war on Vietnam can further feed the frenzy with any male becoming fair game to satisfy the statistical need to kill “the enemy” and, in the case of an occupation, that often becomes the population itself.
From afar the misery of war is easily relegated to demographics, and as strategic possessions of a nation state, males of a given age are decided to be a strategic commodity, the property of central planners. It permits the innocent man to be murdered, his life less valuable because he may look like the terrorist, guerilla, or national army of a foe. His penis may as well be a WMD. Possession is itself an executioner’s writ. Or simply put, he is old enough to operate a rifle, and is therefore the enemy.