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Yeo Kheng Meng

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Choose any country of the world that practices military conscription and discuss whether the policy is necessary and/or desirable. What kind of arguments would you make for or against military conscription? Got B+ for this essay and A- for the module in total. I must have did very well for the finals to get that grade heh!.

Military conscription or the draft is defined as the compulsory enrolment of a country’s citizens for military service. In modern times, this usually means that young people are required to serve in the armed forces full-time for some number of years, after which, they are kept on reserve for some period  to form the bulk of the fighting force only in times of emergency.  One of the countries today that still practices conscription is Israel. Since its independence in 1948, its men and women upon reaching the age of 18 are required to serve in its military for 30 and 18 months respectively.[1] One wonders in this modern day and age, whether conscription is necessary or desirable for Israel.

The initial reason that necessitated Israel’s conscription was the lack of manpower and its hostile neighbours. At its 1948 population of 800 000[2], its leaders probably realised that they needed a conscripted army quickly to defend itself. This was critical as they fought a War of Independence with the Arabs the moment the state of Israel was created. The bigger Arab population and their conscription policies enabled them to more easily build up a larger army. Even up to the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel had only 240 000 troops versus 340 000 of its adversaries Egypt, Jordan and Syria.[3] The constant threat of war by its Arab neighbours such as Egypt (who refused to recognise its sovereignty till 1978) was one reason why conscription was necessary.

Given this constant state of tension in this region, the state of Israel has to play the central role to safeguard its citizens. In order to fulfil this role properly, the state has to maintain a balance of power in area primarily through military force.[4] A strong armed force obtained by the state through conscription rather than through professional means was preferred as it can be done quickly and the numbers of troops can be assured.

A contractual means of obtaining troops through citizen volunteers or mercenaries would likely take too much time or give rise to power struggle.[5] Even if Israel had a larger population, the cost required to attract sufficient numbers of professional soldiers would be huge.  A huge military expenditure would crowd out funds needed for a nation’s development in the early stages. These are factors Israel could ill-afford bear as it was still a new nation.

At the same time, a conscript army is desirable for Israel because of its lower cost. Besides the full-time training period, the Israeli reserves have an annual in-camp refresher of up to 45 days.[6] This is a cheaper way of maintaining a large reserve army on standby without paying a similar-sized professional army throughout the year. During pockets of peace time, most of the reserves can stay in their civilian jobs thus contributing to the economy.

In the event of a real war, the massive recall of reserves cannot be sustained indefinitely as having civilian jobs, a longer term interruption will result in bigger economic losses. This limitation constrains the hands of military planners away from long conflicts to short and sharp battles. Although the US practiced conscription during World War 2, this problem was alleviated by having women take the place of men in factories. The same cannot be said for Israel or any other country which conscripts women or already has a high female working population. This is highly undesirable in the event that a protracted conflict is inevitable. The battles plans that Israeli commanders write may have to place undue emphasis on the time required to achieve the objective and may unnecessarily limit their operational effectiveness.

Unlike the 1967 Six-Day War in which Israel initiated the conflict and had the benefit of planning for it, some wars such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War took Israel by surprise. This sudden attack nearly crippled Israel as it only had a small full-time army on standby to defend itself. Precious time was lost in the mobilisation of the reserve conscripts.[7] This near disaster may not have happened if Israel did not depend so heavily on civilian soldiers. A professional army would have likely been on a constant state of alert and be ready to defend against surprise threats such as this war. In this aspect, the slow rate of mobilisation makes reserve conscripts undesirable for unpredictable threats.

The persistent threat of conflict and small relative population to its neighbours has made conscription a necessity for its continued survival as a nation. Although some aspects of conscription may be undesirable, the need for huge numbers of troops without compromising its budget makes those undesirable factors pale in comparison. Improvements such as beefing up their intelligence services and fine-tuning their battle and mobilisation plans can help neutralise some of the negative aspects of conscription in Israel.

Israel is a country faced with exceptional circumstances. Worldwide, conscription is on the decline[8] since the 1970s showing that more countries feel less need to conscript as much as before.

This is due to a variety of reasons. The first being the high cost of maintaining a huge conscript army even on reserve. Germany ended their conscription policy in January 2011 partly to trim as much as €8.3 billion[9] of government spending.  In this day and age of government austerity, such savings are certainly welcome in the face of peace in Europe.

It may seem a like a contradiction as I mentioned earlier that conscription can help save costs. Conscription can save costs if a large army is required to be on standby against irregular threats such as those faced by Israel. However during prolonged periods of peace time, the upkeep of a huge conscript force even on reserve will become an unjustifiable liability on the national budget. A liability the Germans have chosen to end.

The second is the increased use of more sophisticated weapons acting as force-multipliers. The number and duration of wars have declined from the 16th century to the present and yet the death toll increased dramatically in the 20th century ending in 1975.[10] This increase according to Charles Tilly is attributed to the use of modern weapons such as missiles and aircraft. [11] The increase in such use of such force-multipliers has reduced the need for massive numbers of troops as compared to the past to achieve the same objective. Since these sophisticated weapons take many years and are expensive to train for, it would be better served if professional soldiers were hired to do the job.

The perceived increase in security over the use of conscription may actually decrease it. One of the reasons Israel implemented conscription was to be able to repel the large Egyptian and Syrian Army who themselves practice conscription. This build-up of troop levels was a result of the vicious cycle in building up the size of their armies. A war if it occurs will result in a larger scale of devastation.  If a collective action is taken to reduce the size of one’s army by ending conscription, it may result in a safer Middle East.

Conscription also results in an inefficient use of manpower. Countries practicing conscription experience opportunity costs and lose the comparative advantages of their soldiers. These conscripts would have otherwise contributed to the economy in more efficient means if they were not called to the draft. Conscripts are usually paid lowly owning to their large numbers and budget constraints. South Korea for example pays its conscripts just 10%[12] of its minimum wage. This low wage will hardly commensurate with the true economic potential of the men in service and will result in deadweight losses to the economy.

The short period of training and annual refresher period compared to professional soldiers will mean that the soldiering qualities such as discipline of the former will not be as proficient as the latter.[13] Any military-only skills gained by the conscripts during the period of conscription would be lost when they leave the service. The constant turnover of conscripts also mandates large training schools to be set up to train successive batches of new draftees resulting in high costs.

The threats of today like terrorism and guerrilla tactics have changed the face of warfare.  Countries in modern times are less likely to militarily engage each other in a traditional sense but face threats from decentralised terrorist groups. The state is still the central actor in instituting actions that will protect its people. However, the methods required may sometimes need troops to be sent overseas whether to engage these terrorist groups or for humanitarian missions. In times that require immediate deployment, only regular forces can be ready in time to do so. Societal attitudes in Singapore for example, govern that the role of conscripts should be to protect the nation within its borders and not face unneeded risks by going overseas.[14]

On the other side of the coin, military conscription does have its benefits. The first of which is that it is the only cost-effective way for small nations like Israel and Singapore to build up an army of substantial strength against possible threats. The numbers obtained through volunteers will likely be insufficient. The exception is when war is imminent when more volunteers may be willing to join like during World War 2 by the Malayan Volunteer Forces.[15] Even so, the increase in volunteers during times of tension cannot be counted on reliably to produce numbers. The time required to hone soldiering skills would have to be curtailed as well in times of emergency leading to poor quality of troops.

Given that the weapons systems like digital radios and vehicles of today are more sophisticated, the training required to operate these weapons is longer. When war is imminent and if professional troops are unaffordable, the state may not have the luxury of time to implement the conscription policy and train troops in the use of modern equipment. A fixed length conscript service would provide the military with ample time and predictable schedule to train sufficient recruits to operate advanced battle equipment.

Conscription promotes national cohesion and racial harmony by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds together. This is most evident in Singapore where there exist multiple ethnic groups. The enforced sharing of areas and responsibilities create a sense of trust and bonding between people from many races and social ladders which may have otherwise not met outside of the service.

In conclusion, the need for conscription varies depending on the circumstances faced by each nation.  Conscription can be justified for small nations. For bigger countries like the US and in Europe, volunteers are sufficient and a conscription policy would only serve to increase the suspicion of its neighbours. However, given the constant decline of military conscription practices worldwide, it goes to show that the arguments against conscription are getting stronger.

[1] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Defense Service Law” (1986)–+5746-1.htmAccessed 5 November 2011.

[2] David Melle. “Facts of Israel”  Accessed 5 November 2011.

[3] Randolph S Churchill and Winston S Churchill Jr,  “The Six Day War” (1967) p. 54

[4] Robert H. Jackson, Georg Sørensen “Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches”(2007), p 88.

[5] Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1990, (Basil Blackwell 1990), chapter 3 (“How War Made States, and Vice Versa”), p.83

[6] Dr. Netanel Lorch , The Israel Defence Forces (1997),

Accessed 5 November 2011.

[7] Lawrence Whetten and Michael Johnson. “Military Lessons of the Yom Kippur War”, The World Today, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Mar 1974), p.102

[8] James Gwartney, Robert Lawson and Joshua C Hall “Economic Freedom of the World: 2011 Annual Report“ cited in Joshua C Hall. “Worldwide Decline in Conscription: A Victory for Economics?” (2011)

Accessed 5 November 2011.

[9] David Gordon Smith, “’End of an Era’ as Germany Suspends Conscription” in Spiegel Online International (2011),,1518,737668,00.html

Accessed 5 November 2011.

[10] Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1990, (Basil Blackwell 1990), chapter 3 (“How War Made States, and Vice Versa”), p.73

[11] Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1990, (Basil Blackwell 1990), chapter 3 (“How War Made States, and Vice Versa”), p.74

[12] Lee Tae-hoon, “Is it fair to pay draftees less than $100 a month?” (2011), KoreaToday. Accessed 5 November 2011.

[13] Adam Smith put forward that “The soldiers who are bound to obey their officer only once a week or once a month, and who are at all other times at liberty to manage their own affairs their own way, without being in any respect accountable to him, can never be under the same awe in his presence, can never have the same disposition to ready obedience, with those whose whole life and conduct are every day directed by him, and who every day even rise and go to bed, or at least retire to their quarters, according to his orders.”

“The Wealth of Nations Book V, Of the Expenses of the Sovereign or Commonwealth” Chapter 1, para 11, cited in Joshua C Hall. “Worldwide Decline in Conscription: A Victory for Economics?” (2011) Accessed 5 November 2011.

[14] Ong Wei Chong. “The Inter-National Servicemen of the SAF: Citizen Soldiers in Overseas Missions”, (S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University 2009), p2. Accessed 5 November 2011.

[15] Rosmary Fell, “The Malayan Volunteer Forces”, para.3 Accessed 5 November 2011.

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