The Conscription Prescription

By Yossi Alpher

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.
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The Israeli military draws its manpower from universal conscription. Actually, conscription in Israel is no longer truly universal — large numbers of ultra-Orthodox are exempted, along with any woman declaring herself religious and a percentage of youth judged unfit for service — but it probably comes as close to universality as any army. In stark contrast, in the United States there is no conscription; the American troops fighting in Iraq are strictly professional soldiers.

In this week’s disengagement from Gaza and the ongoing war in Iraq, different armies are engaged in radically different tasks. The comparison tellingly illustrates how differently Americans and Israelis view the role of the military in a democratic society.

Despite the draft exemptions, the Israeli military has always been a major force for social absorption and nation building in Israel. It helps immigrants feel at home — this writer included, back in the 1960s — and unites Israelis from all walks of life around a common denominator.

In order to bring more religious youth into service, the army agreed years ago to allow them to combine military duties with yeshiva study. Today, those youth constitute a large proportion of the officer corps, and their absorption has been so successful that all religious senior officers have chosen loyalty to the state and its institutions over loyalty to religious injunctions, and have ignored the appeals of rabbis to refuse to dismantle settlements in Gaza. On the other hand, some units with large numbers of religious soldiers and non-commissioned officers are being kept far from the disengagement front, lest they be crippled by defections.

Universal service in Israel also means that an extremist misfit like Eden Natan-Zada, a Kahanist with psychological problems, remained in service and was armed, despite going AWOL twice and despite the appeals of his own parents to disarm him. He ended up, in uniform, massacring Arab passengers in a bus in Shfaram two weeks ago.

The army’s deep involvement in disengagement has brought that controversial move into nearly every Israeli home. Only time will tell how traumatic for Israel’s citizen soldiers, and for the home front, will be the task of physically removing settlers from their homes in Gaza and the northern West Bank. Wisely, the security establishment is placing older reservists and standing army officers and non-commissioned officers in the front lines of the disengagement mission, along with professional police officers, most of whom are well beyond their compulsory military service years.

But this begs the question: Wouldn’t a professional army make more sense today for Israel? For years now, some senior strategic thinkers have pointed out that the country’s evolving security needs — a small and highly technological army, air force and navy, little danger of conventional warfare, heavy police duties such as we encounter today — are better adapted to the standard of relatively small professional services than a large conscript army. Yet the Israeli public is not interested in this solution.

A few hundred miles to the east, in Iraq, the United States has fielded a very different army. It is made up of some 140,000 professional troops. There are also around 25,000 contract soldiers — mercenaries by any other name — hailing from all corners of the world, including ex-soldiers and marines who served in Iraq, then went back as civilians to earn more than three times as much carrying out security missions.

The mercenaries are there because the army, lacking in manpower, is privatizing some of its tasks. Indeed, as American casualties pile up in Iraq, it is becoming increasingly difficult for recruiters stateside to sign up new troops. National Guard units are serving longer, and in tougher circumstances, than originally contemplated. And strategic planners at the Pentagon are reportedly considering revising American war capabilities and abandoning the Cold War-era objective of fighting on at least two war fronts at once, because there aren’t enough troops to go around.

Since in the United States the military is professional and not conscript, the country has thus far been spared many of the protest phenomena of the Vietnam War years. There are no draft dodgers, no one burning draft cards, no Ellsberg-style revolts from within the establishment, no refuge in Canada.

There is one bereaved “mom” protesting outside President Bush’s residence in Crawford, and she appears to symbolize a growing level of discontent. But that’s nothing like the thousands of Israeli mothers whose protests in the late 1990s about Lebanon, and more recently about Gaza, helped bring about their sons’ and daughters’ withdrawal from those unwanted fronts.

Is America’s professional army, drawn largely from the lower socioeconomic strata and increasingly numerically inadequate to the task, the right answer? Would the American public have allowed its president to send the armed forces to a misbegotten war in Iraq in the post-Vietnam era had this been a conscript army, staffed by the sons and daughters of a far wider spectrum of Americans who had been forced by law into service?

Israel maintains the army as a citizens’ army for reasons of nation building, national unity and democracy. While there are dissenters and draft-dodgers on both the extreme left and the extreme right, for most Israelis the current controversy over the army’s role in disengagement does not contradict that policy. The controversy reflects a society that is hyper-democratic — indeed, almost anarchic — but still worth the mess. The army itself will weather disengagement looking to most of us like a pillar of stability and national values.

In contrast, the role of America’s professionalized armed forces in Iraq and the country’s apparent growing shortage in military manpower do not appear to be generating much of a debate about the possibility of restoring conscription as a way of dealing more democratically with the war on terrorism. Americans aren’t interested.

As seen from Tel Aviv, this is troublesome.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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