A few days ago, I came across the news that a renowned Korean pop boy band, known as BTS, had announced that they would be taking a break to complete their military training in South Korea. After all, South Korean law, like that of more than 80 other nations throughout the world, demands that citizens over the age of 18 serve in the military for terms ranging from one to three years.
This got me thinking about how, with escalating global conflict fueled by tensions over Taiwan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns about the implications of mandatory military service have resurfaced. And with them, the idea that compulsory military training in democracies is reliant on an antiquated logic that is incompatible with the principles on which they are based.
Corruption in the System
For one, the corruption behind obligatory military training is a reality that has delegitimized the whole system. In Mexico, I personally know a lot of men that have been able to escape mandatory service after their 18th birthday by simply making a call or bribing the right person. Similarly, countries like South Korea, Iran, Turkey, Colombia, Georgia, and Morocco – among others – have been accused of allowing rich individuals to avoid compulsory military service. Whether it be through faking disability waivers, moving out of the country, or simply reaching out to a friend in the army, high-income and well-connected citizens have been able to avoid serving in the military for years.
Indeed, in many countries, the institution in charge of compulsory military duty overlooks those who can pay their way out of it. As a result, people who wind themselves in a legal bind are frequently from marginalized groups, exacerbating the social and economic imbalances generated by the income gap. This demonstrates how corrupt military service has become, and how, like other institutional frameworks, it allows the privileged to avoid it while requiring the less advantaged to participate in unpaid defense services. Worse, it presents a twisted reality in which, in times of conflict, most of those who are forced to defend the country are the ones that cannot afford to protect their own lives first.
Changing Societal Behaviors
Moving on, the existence of compulsory military service appears to ignore changes in societal behaviors and circumstances that once gave it legitimacy. For one, it disregards how advances in the universal quality of life and longer life expectancy have permitted democracies to reconsider the responsibilities of citizens aged 18 to 20. While young people were historically expected to join the army and defend their country from constant conflict, democracies now urge them to pursue academic careers and professional and personal growth. Furthermore, forcible military service neglects the fact that, unlike in the past, improved mobility, rising disposable income, and the popularization of globalization have resulted in an increase in migration rates, which now limit the ability of citizens to serve.
While global life expectancy has nearly tripled since the implementation of conscription – allowing for the growth of education, the development of individualist ideology, and increased migration – the age requirements of compulsory military service have remained constant. By disregarding such changes, not only in ideology but in the preconception of the responsibilities of young adults, compulsory military service is failing to align with modern democratic values. As a result, the system appears to be violating its citizen’s right to seek an education, relocate to another country, or simply refuse to engage with an institution reliant on soft power.
Outdated Gender Roles
Moreover, beyond proving to be corrupt and out of touch with the behaviors and circumstances of our post-war society, forced military service also contributes to the division between women and men. Indeed, all countries that implement compulsory military service – with exception of Israel, North Korea, Eritrea, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Morocco, Mali, and Tunisia – require that only male young adults register for the army. The latter serves to reveal how the framework of forceful military service supports and contributes to the centuries-old gender roles that view the male as the protector.
Consequently, many individuals who oppose gender-specific policies of compulsory service have argued that requiring women to serve in the armed services would make the framework more equitable. However, doing so would simply oblige more individuals to embrace an unfair social contract in which the survival of the use of force takes precedence above the lives of its citizens. Instead, we should question the patriarchal beliefs that have not only pushed women to conform to gender stereotypes that render them unsuited for military duty, but have also exploited men as weapons of aggression.
These things considered, the debate of compulsory service should not revolve around whether or not women should be forced to complete military training, but on whether men should also have the right to decline enlistment.
Emergence of Peace-Based Narratives
Last but not least, the outdatedness of the current framework of compulsory service and conscription also disregards changes in the tools we use for solving conflict. As proven by the end of World War II and the Cold War, the existence of nuclear weapons has turned foot soldiers into a rarely used asset. Now, while it is true that nuclear power has been introduced to the battlefield through the development of tactical weapons, the latter has also led to a series of threats to soldiers that did not exist before.
The reality is that the emergence of advanced technologies has altered the conditions in which soldiers are obliged to serve. After all, unlike pre-nuclear war zones, in a hypothetical reality where countries chose to use tactical nukes, these would expose soldiers to diseases that are inheritable and thus can be passed down to their offspring. Worse, exposure to nuclear power at a non-deadly degree can also provoke infertility. Essentially, advanced defense technologies have led to the emergence of health and wellbeing risks that were once unimaginable. These things considered, environments of armed conflict have changed drastically and no longer fit the conditions that were set when citizens agreed to the social contract obliging military service as a civilian duty.
Yes, it is true that soldiers still deter forces that do not have access to nuclear power, such as rebel groups. However, beyond reducing interstate conflict, the emergence of nuclear weapons has also allowed for the rise of international organizations and peace-centered discourses that defy forced service in any military-based scenario. While conflict still persists, the emergence of nuclear power has created a fear that allowed for the creation of organizations like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. Actors like these have in turn proven that conflict can be deterred in different ways.
By collectivizing the wish for universal peace, post-war narratives have allowed for different conflict-solving techniques – unrelated to face-to-face aggression – such as diplomacy, research and data analysis, and cyber protection. Now, while not all roles in the army are violent, the rise of peace-based discourses has led to the framing of military institutions as being inherently Machiavellian, as in striving to win through coercion rather than cooperation.
Overall, forced military service is an obsolete structure that has failed to take into account cultural advancements. The latter is based on a framework that has proven incapable of adapting to societal changes as well as variations in how we resolve conflict. Now, this article is also not meant to argue whether or not citizens owe a duty to their countries in times of conflict, which I believe they do. Rather, it is meant to question whether these duties should be forcefully tied to the military. The truth is that by breaking free of compulsory military service, the choice of going to war would be taken by civilians, allowing the people to have a greater say on how and through which mechanisms their country solves conflict.
Featured image by: Filip Andrejevic // Unsplash