Answering the Call to Arms: A Study of Conscription


Providing military protection for their citizens is a basic obligation of nation states. How to staff such a military is a choice all states face, and in the modern age, that is generally a choice between using conscription or an all-volunteer force. The developed world is increasingly turning against conscription. Some studies have shown that democracies with conscripted militaries suffer fewer casualties in war than democracies with volunteer forces because conscription affects the children of social and political elites that are better able to restrain policymakers from the brink of war or bring the war to an end faster. However, there is not a consensus on this in the academic literature, and both the financial and social costs of conscription make a compelling case for ending the practice throughout the world.


Max Weber, a German sociologist, defined the very nature of the state as the holder of the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in a given territory.[1] All states require a military to enforce this monopoly and to defend themselves against other states’ potentially aggressive behavior. They all face a similar question: how should the military obtain its manpower? Historically this was a choice between foreign mercenaries and national troops; as early as the 16th century Niccolo Machiavelli was writing about the danger of using foreign mercenaries.[2] In the modern age, national troops are a characteristic of the modern state. More recently, the question has been how to staff a national force—by conscription or by an all-volunteer force. This choice has far-reaching implications and affects foreign policy decisions by public officials.

Conscription in the World Today

Modern conscription appeared first in France in 1798,[3] and the national conscript army spread as a result of France’s successes against professional mercenary armies during the Napoleonic Wars. Conscription was a national policy for virtually all European states for the next two centuries. After the end of the Cold War, however, the strategic picture changed, at least in Europe, and one by one the European states turned away from conscription to all-volunteer armed forces. Governments increasingly needed small, professional armies that could serve abroad in peacekeeping missions, rather than mass armies of conscripts to defend against a Soviet invasion. The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy all moved to a volunteer force during the 1990s.[4] Germany held onto conscription much longer because of its historically-based mistrust of professional militaries, but even it ultimately suspended all compulsory military service in July 2011.[5]

Of those few European states that yet retain conscription outside of the former Soviet sphere, conscription only has a significant role in Switzerland (where it is an important part of national identity), Finland (which is quite focused on territorial defense, thanks to “memories of the heroic Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1940 and recently reinforced by the example of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008”), and Turkey, where tensions with the Kurdish minority have maintained the military’s strong role in society. Even Russia is taking steps towards reducing its reliance on conscription by reducing its service obligation to one year in an attempt to professionalize its military after its “mixed results” during the 2008 Georgia invasion. [6]

The map that follows, taken from The Economist, shows the use of conscription worldwide. As the map indicates, conscription remains very important in Asia. North Korea maintains the heaviest burden of conscription in the world, with five to twelve years of active service required along with reserve duty until the age of sixty.[7] Throughout Eurasia, conscript armies still are and will continue to be relevant to the struggles of power, though most of the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction, largely because “quality, represented by the ability to use complex new weapon systems, has replaced quantity as a measurement of military power.”[8]


How Democracy Affects Foreign Policy

In any discussion of how the choice of conscription affects foreign policy, we must make a fundamental distinction between democratic and non-democratic states. “Since casualties are negatively correlated with mass opinion, over the duration of a war, populations become increasingly weary of fighting and decreasingly supportive of the conflict. This induced ‘war weariness’ in nations [results in decreasing]… military effectiveness over time.”[10] Democratic leaders face internal constraints that force them “to be more selective in the wars they fight… [because] democracies specifically are more sensitive to the prospect of casualties than other types of regimes.”[11] This democratic sensitivity to casualties is a foundational principle of the theory of democratic peace.[12]

Non-democracies face fewer internal institutional constraints on their behavior. Their choice of military manpower affects them less than democratic states because the people potentially affected by conscription are less able to effect meaningful political change. Casualties thus affect decision-making less in a non-democratic regime.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that disputes involving two democracies generally result in fewer casualties than disputes between democratic and non-democratic states,[13] since in a democratic society, “the public holds leaders accountable for costly and unpopular wars and disputes, and leaders pay for this accountability through electoral defeat… [thus] democratic decision makers tend to avoid conflicts with high citizen casualties and consequently high political costs.”[14]

It is for all of these reasons that this analysis of how military manpower choices affect foreign policy will focus exclusively on democratic regimes.

How Conscription Affects Foreign Policy

The results of the few empirical studies done on this subject are mixed. Joseph Vasquez performed a study that examined casualties in military disputes involving democracies from 1950-1985, analyzed data from both World War I and World War II, and used numerous control variables to account for his non-random selection criteria. He concluded that democracies that favor conscription over volunteers suffer fewer combat casualties than democracies with all-volunteer professional forces. This is because conscription will make the military more representative of the people by ensuring that children of wealthy elites that enjoy greater political power and access to policymakers are unable to avoid military service. This makes governments become more risk averse and more sensitive to combat casualties to avoid the political backlash that comes from the elites feeling the horrors of war on a personal level.[15]

There is some evidence of resistance from conscripts in democracies affecting change. After World War II, Western European powers sent conscripts all over the world in an attempt to retain their colonies. Two-thirds of the 135,000 troops sent to the Dutch East Indies were conscripts; many of the French forces in Algeria were conscripts as well. “Political opposition engendered by the loss of citizen-soldiers in defense of colonial rule was one reason why governments were forced to abandon those campaigns – as well as, eventually, their empires.”[16]

Vasquez contrasts the more “equitable and random way” that conscription distributes the burden of military service across society with the all volunteer force, where soldiers are recruited from the lower classes who have fewer economic or career prospects in the civilian world. Casualties that affect the lower classes that have less access to the halls of power restrain policymakers less than more equitably distributed casualties.[17] However, it is important to remember that conscription does not necessarily ensure that children of elites are at risk; those in power can easily manipulate the process for their own purposes. President Lyndon Johnson chose to activate only a tiny fraction of reservists to serve in Vietnam to keep children of elites out of the war and avoid a political backlash, even though activating more could have ended the war sooner and saved American lives.[18]

Based on these findings, Vasquez concludes that “an argument in favor of the creation of the all-volunteer force in the United States was that it would not coerce citizens to serve and expose themselves to risk. Yet this study suggests that volunteer systems-driven partially by labor market economics-contribute to higher casualties for democracies when soldiers are sacrificed more readily. Thus, while a volunteer force may help democracies maximize individual freedom at home, it can have deadly implications for those who serve when not all serve, which raises concerns about issues of equality and social justice.”[19]

Other studies, however, using different selection criteria, have come to very different conclusions. Koch’s statistical study of combat casualties showed that “the effects of conscription are statistically insignificant… Conscription does not affect casualty levels… [and] states with conscripted militaries are more likely to engage in militarized disputes” than states with professional volunteer militaries.[20] Vasquez himself said that it was quite counterintuitive that his results favored conscription given that “conscription is associated with the carnage of the past century’s two most destructive wars.”[21] Perhaps this is merely evidence that his selection criteria significantly changed his results, given that other similar studies have come to very different conclusions. It appears at present to be no consensus on this issue in the academic literature available.

Power as an Alternate Explanation

If for the moment we accept Vasquez’s conclusions as fact, that nations using conscripts suffer fewer combat casualties than nations with professional armies, the question remains as to why. Does the fact that a nation elects to use conscription cause it to embrace a more peaceful foreign policy because the soldiers are more representative of society? Or does it choose more peaceful foreign policy because it lacks the ability to project power effectively?

Volunteer forces are more effective in combat than conscript forces.[22] The best example is the armed forces of the United States. Since the US military moved away from a draft and became an all-volunteer force, it has become “the highest-quality military in its history and the finest armed services in the world today… The percentage of ‘high quality’ enlistees… jumped 50 percent between 1973 and 1997,”[23] which is why commanders prefer to command volunteers over draftees.[24]

Robert Cooper explained how the relative power of the United States and Europe determine their behavior in foreign policy: “The differences between Europe and America are shaped by their military capabilities: so runs a popular argument. To put it crudely, the United States is unilateralist because it has the strength to act on its own; Europe’s attachment to treaties, the rule of law and multilateralism comes from weakness and wishful thinking. Rules exist to protect the weak and Europeans like them.”[25]

The same logic provides an alternative explanation to Vasquez’s premise. If states with volunteer armed forces are likely to be more aggressive and thus more likely to incur casualties than states that rely on conscription for military staffing, it may be because those states have a more effective military and can thus more easily see military options as likely to be successful. Such states will be naturally be quicker to resort to military force, because they are more confident they can win, whereas states that use conscripts, all else being equal, are at a military disadvantage and thus are likely to try much harder to avoid confrontation and settle disputes through diplomacy because their weakness forces them to do so.

The Real Costs of Conscription

One of the concerns of moving to an all volunteer force is how much it will cost. The surprising reality is that volunteer forces generally cost less than conscripted ones. In the American context this is certainly true. “A draft brings in untrained, resentful first-termers who reenlist in far lower numbers than do volunteers.” Before the transition to a volunteer force, only ten percent of new American soldiers reenlisted; in 2000 that number was fifty percent. Even if pay was drastically cut, reinstituting a draft would greatly increase turnover and training costs. It costs far less to retain quality personnel than to train new ones every two to three years. The increased strain on non-commissioned officers that comes from dealing with resentful draftees reduces their retention as well. This increasing turnover would reduce the experience, stability and efficiency of the armed forces.[26]

Administering and enforcing the draft would also cost a great deal of money. President Reagan created a Military Manpower Task Force that after studying the issue at length found that returning to conscription would cost at least $1 billion dollars more than retaining a volunteer force even with all the potential savings accounted for.[27] When you factor in the loss of military effectiveness that comes from a conscript army, the case for a volunteer force becomes more compelling.

The social and political benefits of conscription are ambiguous, and consensus on the matter is lacking. The social and political costs are not. Comparing data from before and after the transformation of the American armed forces to an all-volunteer force paints quite a telling picture.

Discipline as a whole has been far better during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts than it in previous wars, and especially during the struggle in Vietnam. The desertion rate for the Army is 9 per 100,000; in Vietnam it was 73, in World War II it was 63, and in Korea it was 22.5. In 1970, 152 soldiers serving in Vietnam were tried for mutiny; there have only been a handful of such cases in the last ten years. In two years in Vietnam, 600 fragging incidents (cases of violence against superiors) were reported by the Army; in the last ten years there have been less than five.[28] Because the volunteer force is “free to discharge soldiers who abuse drugs, perform poorly, or otherwise are ill suited to service life,” drug use and other similar issues are far less common than in times past.[29]

Crucially important for the rest of the world is how moving to an all-volunteer force has reduced crimes against civilians in war zones. Vietnam had many such incidents. Five hundred people are estimated to have been killed in a single day at My Lai. The abuses of Abu Ghraib and the killings at Hadithah, though widely reported, do not approach the scale of previous conflicts. Court martial records provide some perspective. In ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, 22 servicemen were convicted of killing civilians; in Vietnam the number was 278.[30]

Even evading a draft produces social costs. “The Vietnam era demonstrated that the price of the inevitable avoidance activities and economic dislocations can be substantial. Conscription inspired a plethora of avoidance schemes, including early marriages, unnecessary schooling, inefficient employment, and political violence.”[31]

Perhaps most important of all, it is important to realize how conscription can cheapen the value of human beings. U.S. Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig explained that When it receives people at no cost, the military, like most institutions when this happens, tends to treat them as if they were virtually of no worth.”[32] The fundamental belief that all men are created equal and the ideals of freedom that underlie the post-modern world are weakened when the survival of those ideals is based on compulsion to military service.

If modern leaders struggle to find enough willing recruits to fulfill their military needs, perhaps that is a sign that they should reevaluate their international commitments. And if this is not enough, then establishing a foreign legion that will call on volunteers looking for a better life in another country is far more conducive to the ideals of human rights we take for granted in the post-modern world than forcing men into uniform.

There is no consensus on how the practice of conscription affects foreign policy in the academic literature, and both the financial and social costs of conscription make a compelling case for ending the practice throughout the world, which explains why the developed world as a whole (with a few isolated exceptions) has largely abandoned conscription as a policy of military manpower.


Bandow, Doug. “Mend, Never End, the All-Volunteer Force.” Orbis 44, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 463. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed January 20, 2012).

Cancian, Mark F. “The all-volunteer force: After 10 years of war, it’s time to gather lessons,” Armed Forces Journal (October 2011). (accessed January 20, 2012).

Cooper, Robert. The Breaking of Nations. (New York: Grove Press, 2003).

The Economist, “Does your country need you?” (accessed January 20, 2012).

Koch, Michael, and Scott S. Gartner, “Casualties and Constituencies: Democratic Accountability, Electoral Institutions, and Costly Conflicts,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (2005): 874-894.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, trans. William K. Marriott (Project Gutenberg, 2006), chap. 13. (accessed January 20, 2012).

Sheehan, James. “The Future of Conscription: Some Comparative Reflections,” Daedalus 140 (Summer 2011). Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed January 20, 2012).

Vasquez, Joseph P. “Shouldering the Soldiering: Democracy, Conscription, and Military Casualties,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (2005): 849-873.

Weber, Max. “Politics as a Vocation,” (PDF received in Comparative Politics, University of Warsaw: 1919).

[1] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” (PDF received in Comparative Politics, University of Warsaw: 1919).

[2] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. William K. Marriott (Project Gutenberg, 2006), chap. 13,

[3] James Sheehan, “The Future of Conscription: Some Comparative Reflections,” Daedalus 140 (Summer 2011).

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Economist, “Does your country need you?”

[6] Sheehan, “The Future of Conscription.”


[8] Ibid.

[9]The Economist, “Does your country need you?”

[10] Michael Koch and Scott S. Gartner, “Casualties and Constituencies: Democratic Accountability, Electoral Institutions, and Costly Conflicts,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (2005): 876.

[11] Joseph P. Vasquez, “Shouldering the Soldiering: Democracy, Conscription, and Military Casualties,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (2005): 851.

[12] Koch and Gartner, “Casualties and Constituencies,” 874.

[13] Ibid, 881.

[14] Ibid, 876-877.

[15] Vasquez, “Shouldering the Soldiering,” 850.

[16] Sheehan, “The Future of Conscription.”

[17] Vasquez, “Shouldering the Soldiering, 851-852.

[18] Ibid, 853.

[19] Ibid, 870-871.

[20] Koch and Gartner, “Casualties and Constituencies,” 887-889.

[21] Vasquez, “Shouldering the Soldiering,” 867.

[22] Ibid, 858.

[23] Doug Bandow, “Mend, Never End, the All-Volunteer Force.” Orbis 44, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 463.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations, (New York: Grove Press, 2003), 155.

[26] Bandow, “Mend, Never End, the All-Volunteer Force.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] Mark F. Cancian, “The all-volunteer force: After 10 years of war, it’s time to gather lessons,” Armed Forces Journal (October 2011)

[29] Bandow, “Mend, Never End, the All-Volunteer Force.”

[30] Cancian, “The all-volunteer force.”

[31] Bandow, “Mend, Never End, the All-Volunteer Force.”

[32] Ibid.

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