I rarely read the Independent newspaper, and when I do it’s normally for the (unintentional) comedy value. For those of you who have never read it, imagine a secular version of the biblical Book of Revelation and you’re getting close to how it reads. The Independent’s columnists frequently come off with absurdities beyond reason which are often simply best ignored, much like the ramblings of an elderly grandparent in the final throws of dementia. However, Johann Hari’s recent suggestion – “Bring Back Conscription – Even for Me” – must not be left without response.

His article opens with a lament about how us “Back Here” don’t pay enough attention to the war “Out There” [in Iraq]. Fittingly for an article in the Independent Hari tells us of a friend of his in Iraq – “a rational graduate of science from Oxford” – starting to talk about the “End of Days.” Please try to keep from laughing folks. The guy’s serious. Lets hear him out. After lamenting the mess in Iraq he asks: “have we noticed?” Well, fuck me! Have we noticed? Noticed the saturation coverage of the war in Iraq across television screens, radios, newspapers, the internet, political meetings, protests, et al? Only people who have their eyes and ears painted on could have failed to notice it. And yet Johann doubts it. On this flimsy premise Johann is about to support a horrendous policy. After some statistical mumblings he gets to the beef he has with the entire British (and US) population: “The war in Iraq continues because it doesn’t matter enough for us to stop it…[because] we don’t know anyone who’s fighting it.” [Incidentally, Johann never gets around to explaining just how his proposal would lead to an increase in the numbers of people we know fighting].

But fear not children! Johann has found the answer via the ramblings of Charlie Rangel (dubbed by some as the “stupidest man in Congress”): Put the names of every human being in the country between the ages of 18 and 30 into a ballot and those names drawn out must enter the military. Of course, Hari bravely points out that he is 28 and thus this policy would apply to him equally. But, would it? Looking at his photo he appears to be a bit, well, how do I put it nicely? Ummm…damn it, fuck nicely – he’s a fat bastard, not unlike Piggy from Lord of the Flies. He’d probably be rejected long before he’s handed a machine gun and told to patrol Basra. Anyhow, he quotes Rangel: “There is no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to Congress, if members of the Congress and the administration thought their kids would be placed in harms way.” Now, how this notion is supposed to yield the conclusion “therefore the draft should be introduced” is beyond me. For one thing, politicians the world over send or have sent troops to war despite having some form of draft – the US done it in Vietnam. Moreover, since there are millions of people between the ages of 18-30 what are the odds that “kids of the administration” would get called up? Too small to seriously worry about. At best Rengel’s argument is an attempt to justify the draft for “kids of the administration” – and it doesn’t even do that, for reasons which should become obvious as I analyse Hari’s “liberal case for the draft,” (disturbing use of the word “liberal”, eh? Johann obviously studied Newspeak at university).

Hari gives two “arguments.” Firstly: “a draft would change the attitude towards war back home: we would need a lot more persuasion to allow a war to be launched, and we would follow its course more carefully.” I’ll call this Hari’s “care or else” argument. What a horrible, insidious little piece of bile. Is it even worthy of a serious counter-argument? A similar argument might justify sending British citizens to live in the third world to make us care more and give more. Or perhaps we could locate a few folks to the North Pole to really make us appreciate global warming. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention such things – I don’t want to give Johann any ideas. What Hari is really suggesting is that if we don’t care enough then the government should damned well force us to on pain of military deployment. Taking further leave of his senses Hari writes: “The people fighting the war are overwhelmingly black, brown or poor. Most of us are not.” [And therefore don’t care]. He seems to think Britain operates a form of “economic conscription” – poor people have to join the army because they have nothing else to do. Folks, please stop laughing. Unfortunately Hari offers scant evidence for this proposition, and in fact anyone with eyes to see and a brain to count will notice that the British forces are made up predominantly of white men. Perhaps stronger glasses Johann? Furthermore, members of the armed forces cannot seriously be called “poor” – they make good money and have fantastic career prospects. Is it any wonder that an Officer Training Corps operates in most British universities? Armed forces are increasingly specialist and thus increasingly well paid. Hari’s column is full of such hot air. It’s a wonder the Independent didn’t float into my office last Thursday.

Hari’s second argument fairs no better: “Conscription would…reduce war…[because] a conscript army fights wars differently.” What Hari means by “differently” is that when placed in an “immoral” war, conscripts would rebel “en masse.” Hari never tells us just who decides whether a war is moral or not. Seemingly Hari thinks that drafted soldiers would all behave themselves in war just as long as newspapers like the Independent and its snotty nosed columnists say it’s “moral.” His argument is rather odd. Strangely he mentions rebels at Vietnam. But, what he overlooks is the fact that conscript armies actually make foreign policy disasters and bad wars much more likely – not less. If we take a glance around the globe and through history at campaigns fought with conscripts we soon notice the principle that when governments have a ready pool of soldier-slaves they tend to be much more reckless. Going back to Vietnam – those who opposed the war also opposed the draft. Why? Because they were intelligent enough to realise that the draft would make matters worse. And even if Hari is right – conscription would make wars less likely – he forgets that it also makes wars damned near impossible to win when you get into one.

Hari quotes the US Armed Forces Journal from 1971 which compares the state of the US forces in Vietnam to that of the Tsarist armies in 1916/1917. I seriously doubt if Hari would like to suggest that the Tsarist armies were rebelling against an immoral war, but it is interesting that he should have drawn attention to Tsarist Russia at all. Earlier in Hari’s article he said that he couldn’t think of a convincing counter-argument to Rengel’s position. But, it all really depends on whether or not you accept or reject Rengel’s basic, and hidden, premise. The truth is that the basic premise of Tsarist Russia is the same as that underpinning the mentality of conscription: the government owns its citizens. People really have no right to their own life – to live their own lives as they see fit, to fulfil their own desires and plans, to order their own existence. Hari accepts this hidden premise (although perhaps he didn’t even notice it among the rhetoric) – and thus argues that every citizen from 18 to 30 should be turned into a sacrificial animal to be disposed of as their peers see fit. The only question you must ask is this: “who owns my life?” If you answer “the government” or “society” then, like Hari, you’ll have trouble finding something wrong with conscription in principle. If you answer “me, and me alone,” then nothing more needs to be said. The draft is, fundamentally, a form of slavery – insofar as slavery might be defined as involuntary servitude. And slavery does not suddenly become acceptable because it’s legal or because people like Hari think it’s a good way to placate the guilt they feel for once supporting a war they now oppose.

Ayn Rand put the matter like this: “Of all the statist violations of individual rights in a mixed economy, the military draft is the worst. It is an abrogation of rights. It negates man’s fundamental right – the right to life – and establishes the fundamental principle of statism: that a man’s life belongs to the state, and the state may claim it by compelling him to sacrifice it in battle. Once that principle is accepted, the rest is only a matter of time. If the state may force a man to risk death or hideous maiming and crippling, in a war declared at the state’s discretion, for a cause he may neither approve of nor even understand, if his consent is not required to send him into unspeakable martyrdom – then, in principle, all rights are negated in that state, and its government is not man’s protector any longer. What else is there left to protect?”

If you’re not convinced on principle, Hari’s argument should still fail to convince on mere pragmatic grounds. He waxes lyrical about conscript rebellions. But, just how would this help Iraq and the web of associated problems? Perhaps Johann has a utopian view of conscript armies running through the streets in Baghdad hand-in-hand with Sunni militia, singing kum-bah-ya, and toasting marshmallows over the burning wreckage of a Challenger II tank. It’s serious cloud cuckoo land stuff here folks. But, please, no laughter. At the end of the article Hari writes that “if a war is worth fighting, it is worth fighting with everybody’s children.” Hari frequently refers to soldiers as “kids,” “children,” and “boys and girls” as if our government recruits troops from a playground. Anyhow, what nonsense. If a war is worth fighting it’s worth fighting with a professionally trained, experienced, disciplined, dedicated force of people who voluntarily chose to do so. War these days is a much more technical affair, requiring much more technical expertise. For a start the bulk of the Iraq war prior to the collapse of Saddam was fought from the air – by highly trained pilots in RAF Tornados and B52 bombers. What would Hari suggest? Should we get a bunch of librarians, radio presenters, lawyers, shop keepers, and newspaper columnists and just stick them in the cockpits of hi-tech military aircraft? Johann, this isn’t the year 1300. It’s no longer about training people to ride a horse and wave a sword on a battlefield. If our country is attacked I want professionals to defend me, and I’ll gladly help to fund it. I don’t want an army made up of my neighbours and work colleagues. Fighting a war with conscripts is like trying to win the Superbowl with a team full of computer geeks. And you simply can’t send an army to fight – even a “moral” war – if rebellion lurks around every corner.

Hari’s policy would also have a disastrous social impact – on family and business. Are people to be involuntarily ripped away from their families against their will? Ripped away from their jobs? Their university courses? From fulfilling their plans? From their homes and friends? And how would Hari deal with deserters or people who refuse the draft? Would he have them shot? Last time I heard he was against the death penalty. Would he have them imprisoned? Last time I heard he was lamenting the fact that so many people are sent to jail. Would he have them heavily fined? What? This friend of the poor? I seriously doubt that Johann has the bottle to accept the punitive discipline required for a conscript army.

Johann clearly hasn’t thought about his position. His argument is worthy of utter contempt, and I’m amazed that anyone purporting to be intelligent should have written such a puff piece pile of pompous pious piffle. His policy is pragmatically defective, intellectually addled, morally bankrupt, and utterly devoid of principle.

But, like I said at the start, perhaps I shouldn’t take the Independent and its writers so seriously. We (in the real world) have nothing to worry about with regards to such a ridiculous policy as the draft. More worrying, in fact, is the draft between Johann’s ears.

Ok folks, you can laugh now.

Stephen Graham