Center for Strategic Communication

(by Adam Elkus)

Reader PRBeckman left a very great comment on my “Legibility at War” post, placing the WWI draft effort in perspective:

The federal government wanted to conscript millions of eligible men, but it had no information about those men and it lacked the institutions and money to gather that information so it depended upon private, voluntary organizations to fill the gaps. This is where the culture of voluntary associations reveals its dark side. The army’s estimate suggested that perhaps 3 million men never registered at all. This illegibility was a great dilemma and that’s where voluntary associations came in. Americans of this era are famous for their prolific creations of associations of every kind. You would think that would be a good thing except that they too often veered into vigilantism. These organizations were populated by people who weren’t themselves eligible for the draft, but they saw it as their duty to ensure that those who were eligible weren’t shirking. Organizations were formed all over the country, the most prominent being the American Protective League which counted 250,000 members. In 1917 and 1918 the APL and these other organizations, in collaboration with federal, state & local gov’ts, ran “slacker raids” to try to find those men who were eligible but who hadn’t registered. The accounts of these raids are frightening. The raids varied in size but they culminated in a massive operation in New York City on September 3-5, 1918:

“The APL later estimated that somewhere between twenty thousand and thirty thousand men participated: city police, government agents from the Department of Justice, more than two thousand soldiers and one thousand sailors, and thousands of American Protective League operatives. For three days they scoured the city’s streets and public places interrogating somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 men. A man who lacked a draft registration or classification card found himself escorted by these self-appointed authorities to the nearest police station.”

They surrounded the “exits and entrances of every train, ferry, subway” station, “cordoning off whole blocks and interrogation men on the street. Later they raided theaters, saloons, billiard parlors, and boarding houses. Sailors wandered through the city’s restaurants moving from table to table inspecting the cards of diners.”

All the consequence of trying to achieve ’legibility’. And it would have an impact on concepts of citizenship, changing how citizens interacted with their government. The WW1 period was the transition era from the “illegible,” “wild and unruly forest”-era of citizenship to one that has taken on “a more legible shape.”

It’s worth pondering this when we hear endless appeals from pundits about how if our politicians and partisans were only forced to abandon their substantive political differences and get together, if our populace was regimented by a peacetime draft unconnected to urgent military danger for the purpose of social cohesion, we would somehow be a more perfect union. John Schindler rightly dispenses with these ideas:

A Swiss-style mass reserve force would make a great deal of sense if the United States worried about actual invasion from Canada or Mexico, something which even Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn’t think is a realistic threat. Otherwise, not so much

Moreover, what would the U.S. military do with all those people? Since, unless you want to replicate the worst features of the pre-1973 draft, when flimsy exemptions abounded that privileged the privileged, the Selective Service system would have to direct millions of young men (and women too? how, in gender-equal 21st century America, could they be excluded?) into the forces. Even allowing that a high percentage of young people would be kept out on grounds of rising obesity and general idiocy that are spreading in wildfire fashion among American youths – many place that number at seventy-five percent unfit for military service these days – the Pentagon would need to find lots of make-work work for many big battalions of teenagers.

I don’t hear anyone suggesting a draft period of two years, as it was before 1973, so we’d be talking about a one year – twelve months – service period at most (Austria is down to six months coerced service, as a reference point, which has limited functional utility for the active forces.). Which would mean the U.S. military would have to invest in a vast training system resulting in lots of units filled with half-trained troops plus many others counting the days until they get out. It’s not difficult to see why you hardly ever meet career military types, of any rank, with any enthusiasm for restoring peacetime conscription.

Schindler acribes this to the utopian dreams of pundits that never had to endure military discipline themselves but want someone else’s sons and daughters to do it. However, even this is actually too charitable. I wrote and scrapped a column for War on the Rocks that analyzed this at length (it was getting too dense for a typical op-ed format) and I came to the conclusion that there is actually an strong element of authoritarianism in this.

The idea is that, in essence, with a regimented body of Americans we have cohesion again — cohesion, however, defined by the pundit’s own views about what politics America ought to have. What Dana Milibank’s column (which Schindler’s column rebuts) amounts to is the idea that a regimented America is one that will be more likely to agree with his own subjective political beliefs. Key is his sentence at the end that the ultimate goal of this would be to do undo the damage of “self-interested leaders” and the fact that the shutdown was the impetus for his column:

It’s no coincidence that this same period has seen the gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves: a loss of control over the nation’s debt, legislative stalemate and a disabling partisanship. It’s no coincidence, either, that Americans’ approval of Congress has dropped to just 9?percent, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question 39 years ago.

If partisanship is what regimentation seeks to cure, than the unspoken assumption is that a drafted public is one more likely to share Dana Milbank’s view of American governance. Let us be direct: his view of governance is one that conflates ideological disagreement (combined with the particularities of the US system) with pettiness and flaws of character. And the implication is that regimentation, authority, and discipline will reduce disorder and make American politics legible to him and other observers — like the China-fetishizing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Don’t get me wrong, I found the shutdown disturbing too. I dislike partisanship as well. I think that the shutdown was also a failure of American governance. But it had complex structural causes,  not some sudden and simplistic deprecation in the character of Americans raised on butter instead of guns. Structure, particularly when combined with ideology, matters. And we should start being very careful when an intellectual avoids existing structural analysis, warns of societal decadence , and declares that we must regiment ourselves and quash disagreement to save the polity. We should particularly be concerned when said intellectual creates a mono-causal explanation for a complex set of social problems and declares we must regiment ourselves and quash disagreement.

In any event I’d rather have vigorous partisanship and democracy (even if it results in gridlock and partisanship) than the kind of America Milbank seemingly wants to build. And knowledge of history should make us very cautious about the constant of the intellectual proposing coercion for the sake of order, cohesion, and discipline in society. Diversity builds robustness and strength, and centralization and regimentation can have substantial costs.