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The Immorality of Conscription, the Military Draft: the Majority cannot Determine Morality

Fr. Hugo published a seven-page article entitled “The Immorality of Conscription” in the November 1944 issue of The Catholic Worker. According to Patrick Coy, the article was so popular and the demand for it ran so high, that less than six months later the CW included it again, this time as a supplement to the April 1945 issue. Ten thousand copies were distributed beyond the initial mailing and ten thousand extra copies of the April 1945 issue of the paper were published as well. In April 1948 it was reprinted a third time, along with seventy-five thousand extra copies for distribution.

In his article Fr. Hugo pointed out that “conscription is an ancient barbaric custom, repressed for centuries by the influence of the Church, which rose to life again in the ruins of Christian Europe” and that universal conscription returned with Machiavelli and the French Revolution. Excerpts of Fr. Hugo’s article follow the short article below on the possibility of automatic registration of young men for the draft in Texas when they apply for or renew their driver’s license.

Apply for Driver’s License, Register for Draft

The Catholic Worker has a long tradition of making known, from the earliest tradition of the Church, the importance of respecting the conscience of the person in regard to participation in war. One of Dorothy Day’s great gifts to the Catholic Church and to the United States was her drawing together of biblical and theological resources to establish pacifism and conscientious objection as a legitimate stance for Catholics and for Americans. The ressourcement accomplished by Dorothy and Peter Maurin, along with priest-theologians and other Catholic Workers who assisted them, made available teachings from the Fathers of the Church against participation in war, the history of saints who practiced nonviolence and biblical reflection and exegesis supporting nonviolence. The newspaper, The Catholic Worker, facilitated the formation of conscience for many people on war and peace.
In 1973, after the Vietnam War, the military draft was repealed. There is currently discussion of reinstituting conscription. Young men are required to register for the draft when they turn eighteen. Failure to register for the draft carries a punishment of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 and can deny young men eligibility for federal government loans and government jobs.

In the past, there has been the opportunity for those who register for the draft to make a statement of conscience upon their initial registration, so that at a later date their application for conscientious objection may be taken more seriously.

On March 12, 2003, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Texas House gave preliminary approval to a bill that would automatically register young men for a possible draft when they apply for or renew a Texas driver’s license. “The bill mandates that information provided on a driver’s license application or renewal from men who are between 18 and 26 be automatically registered with the Selective Service System. The article provided the information that twenty-seven states have already passed such legislation.

One representative, Lon Burnam, whose attempt to amend the legislation was rejected, brought up the question of those who object to participation in war because of their religious and ethical beliefs as well as the right to privacy:

“I’m asking you to protect my First Amendment right to have my son or potential son or members of my faith community to have the opportunity to refuse to engage in the military system in this country because our faith directs us not to do so,” Burnam said.

Draft counselors, those who have advised young men whose consciences do not allow them to participate in war and killing, have often suggested that the youths begin to develop their portfolios early, documenting their participation in events promoting peace and against war, and, for Catholics, including a letter from their Bishop of their participation as active Catholics. It is still to be recommended to develop the portfolio; however, with an automatic registration, it would no longer be possible for the young men to declare their conscientious objection upon registration.

The Immorality of Conscription by Fr. Hugo
“Machiavelli was the first modern to propose universal compulsory military service. Quite apart from the lateness of the age, here certainly is a strange beginning for a moral obligation! It is, in fact, with Machiavelli that the modern concept of war, as distinguished from the medieval idea, takes its beginning: the modern concept being one of unrestricted war-physically unrestricted in the extent of its destructiveness, morally unrestricted in its rejection of ethical limitation and control. Essential also to the modern idea is the use of war, not as a last resort, which was the requirement of traditional ethics, but as a normal, though alternate, means for securing national power and “honor” when diplomatic measures fail. As is to be expected, Machiavelli, true son of the Renaissance, went back to the example of pagan Rome in his study of war, finding no model for his studies during the Christian centuries. Here, then, in an environment of neo-paganism, which excluded deliberately and cynically, every breath of Christian thought and idealism, was born the idea of universal conscription.

The subsequent history of this moral duty is scarcely less strange then its beginning. Although proposed by Machiavelli, conscription did not actually begin until the French Revolution. Its actual beginning, like its first conception, thus issued from an explicit rejection of Christianity. It came, in other words, not from the contemplation of religious or moral truth, but on the contrary from the irreligious tenets of the Revolution and the conscious repudiation of Christian teaching. Its service, from the beginning, was not made to the one true God nor to Jesus Christ His Son, but rather to the goddess reason. . .

The revolutionists saw universal conscription as a concrete realization of brotherhood and equality and a measure necessary for the defense of their newly won liberty. Their choice of means was an unhappy one. They did not foresee that their invention was destined in the end to destroy brotherhood by setting men all over the world at one another’s throats, and that it would realize equality and freedom by making all men equal in a terrible bondage. For who are more slaves: the ancient millions who labored under threat of a whip to build the pyramids, or the modern millions who must abandon their homes, the pursuit of happiness, and their very lives, in order to take up arms and kill their fellow slaves? . .

There might have been more liberty and brotherhood in the world today had the revolutionists possessed sufficient spiritual perception to distinguish the dross from the ideal in their aspirations. But the revolutionary ideals were betrayed in their beginnings. The bourgeoisie-the rich, the merchants, the manufacturers-these are the ones, so historians are now able to see clearly, who gained freedom by the Revolution: but not the poor, not the workers and peasants, not the common man-even today these have not achieved freedom in the great democratic nations, although they are told otherwise by their masters. Thus the revolutionary ideal of brother-hood was inadequate, partial, even hypocritical. What wonder, then that under a concept of equality and fraternity, which holds as a theory that all men have a duty to die for their country, only a few are called on actually to give up their lives (and these the young, the immature, and the powerless), while their brothers continue, not only to live, but also to live in comfort that is materially increased by war.

Majority Cannot Determine Morality

Conscription must likewise be attributed in great measure to the immoral doctrine of the revo-lutionary philosophers which holds that the will of a majority of the people is the absolute and final arbiter of right and wrong. Only through this doctrine could compulsion be given to military service. From then until now, a majority vote, and not an objective standard of morality, has determined the rightness of conscription. Now if the majority vote is a convenient method for determining the details of social life, it is not, of itself, in questions that involve moral judgment, a sufficient support for a moral obligation, but requires a deeper basis in natural or divine law.

Ultimately, therefore, the moral sanction of conscription is no higher than that of the blood pacts and blood feuds of primitive peoples by which they were “bound” to avenge in blood the lives of their fellow tribesmen.

Conscription Inimical to Democracy

Evidently, therefore, con-scription is opposed not merely to the ethics of reason and the teachings of the Gospel, but also to the idea of democracy. This should be noted particularly since apologists for the practice in democratic countries ration-alize it as democratic; the reason that they give for their assertion is that all are included in universal service and no able-bodied person is exempted from contributing in one way or another to the national war effort. Yet already the revolutionary government, basing itself on the will of the majority, and not on the free will of the individuals actually concerned, first limited the application of the law politically, and then compelled the others to go into service. The will of the majority was considered so sure a guide that the measure was carried through, in spite of active resistance. Henceforth compulsion and not freedom has been of the essence of military service; and this in the name of democracy.

The whole history of the movement to spread democratic liberties confirms what is said here of the opposition between democracy and conscription. For example, the spread of democratic liberties in the nineteenth century was chiefly retarded, as in Germany and Hungary, by the growth of nationalism and its inseparable instrument, militarism. Again, it is in the least democratic and most autocratic nations that conscription has reached its highest perfection: Napoleonic France, Prussia and the German Empire of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nazi Germany, and Russia under Stalin, which “in fact, has come nearer the goal of the nation in arms that any other nation in history.” England the United States, on the contrary, the two great democracies, were the last to adopt conscription; and they did so only under “necessity” and with great reluctance. It does not speak well for the democracies that they had to learn their democratic duties and from autocrats and dictators.

Consequence of Conscription for Civilization

Duty to the State as to an absolute end is inspired, not by justice or true patriotism, but by a disordered nationalism. You may see this concept of duty perfected and exemplified in modern times [1940s] by the Prussian officers’ corps.

Cold, proud, and arrogant, this false idea of duty is rooted in a disordered sense of personal honor, pride of blood, and worship of the State; it is quite different from the sense of duty fostered by rational ethics or by the teachings of Jesus. In fact, if we were to seek a moral justification for conscription and the particular concept of duty that is demanded by its acceptance, we could find it only in the ethics of Prussianism, or some similar system, enforced ultimately by a sanction akin to Kant’s categorical imperative, that is, by a notion of blind duty without roots either in reason or in revelation. Such a categorical imperative, divorced from rational and objective morality, is found in the will of the majority, the voice of the blood bond, the oracle of tribal morality. That the Prussian system best fulfills the requirements of nationalism and militarism is demonstrated by the fidelity with which this system has been copied by the other nations. At present, the President of the United States is recommending peacetime con-scription, the very essence of militarism, to democratic America! Yet this very will-ingness and ‘need” to imitate the German methods, Prussian and totalitarian as they are, indicates clearly how impossible and destructive is the whole war system in a civilized world; for it shows that, if force is to be the basis of international order and the measure of national greatness, then civili-zation will never be able to progress beyond the condition of the most barbarous nations, since the others will be compelled to adopt the same methods of barbarism in order to secure their own power and national interests. And it is conscription, more than any other single factor (apart from the spiritual deterioration which lies behind the whole process), which has in our day brought men back to the standards of barbarism, to the primitive ideal of the nation in arms.

The Position of the Holy See

The Holy See, God’s appointed teacher of morals to the peoples, has remained singularly unimpressed by the alleged moral duty we are considering. Pope Leo XIII, in 1894, having watched the frantic armament race that followed the Franco-Prussian war, protested against it, as follows: “We behold the condition of Europe. For many years past peace has been an appearance rather than a reality. Possessed with mutual suspicions, almost all the nations are vying with one another in equipping themselves with military armaments. Inex-perienced youths are removed from parental direction and control, to be thrown amid the dangers of the soldier’s life; robust young men are taken from agriculture or ennobling studies or trade or the arts to be put under arms. Hence the treasures of States are exhausted by the enormous expenditure, the national resources are frittered away, and private fortunes impaired and this, as it were, armed peace, which now prevails, cannot last much longer. Can this be the normal condition of human society?

Later Pope Benedict XV added more clearly and expressly to this indictment that conscription is itself a cause of war.

Surprisingly enough, if is usual to regard the acceptance of conscription as the fulfillment of a moral and patriotic duty, the Holy See attacks the practice, as a recent commentator points out, precisely on the ground that it is anti-patriotic. In other words, although the Holy See does not deny that war may be theoretically justified and that soldiering is intrinsically evil, nevertheless if holds that both are extrinsically evil because of the great harm they bring upon the whole world and upon individual countries. Com-pulsory military service, as the very extreme of militarism, brings such grave dangers to a nation’s youth and such serious dislocation to public order that, quite apart from its evil effects on international society, it is opposed to the best interests of the countries that adopt it, and therefore, far from being the fulfillment of a patriotic duty, it is in truth opposed to true patriotism. Those who maintain that conscription is based on moral duty find no support in the teachings of the Popes. The trouble has been that Catholics within the several countries, too much influenced by nationalism themselves, have failed to follow, to interpret, and to apply the directives thus given to them by the Vicar of Christ.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, May-June 2003.