Ethics@Work: Do we still need a people’s army?

New study calls for the end of universal conscription and a move to a volunteer, professional army.

November 18, 2010 22:41
Asher Meir.

58_asher meir. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Since its inception, the State of Israel has based its military on a paradigm of a “people’s army,” involving universal conscription and reserve duty. This is not just a lottery that everyone is subject to, as the United States had for many years; it’s a system where every person is expected to actually serve.

This model has a variety of practical and ideological justifications.

Practically, it was considered a way to field a large fighting force at low monetary cost and to ensure a high quality of recruits (since it is often assumed that the type of person who voluntarily enlists will be on average of lower ability than the population as a whole).

Ideologically, the IDF was envisioned as a melting pot that would take people from widely varying backgrounds – including birthplace and social class – and create from them a new, uniquely Israeli identity that would serve as a source of national solidarity.

A new position paper by Boaz Arad for the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies examines this paradigm and in light of its findings calls for the end of universal conscription and a move to a volunteer, professional army. The institute promotes a freemarket ideology that clearly shows the influence of the late American economist and free-market crusader Milton Friedman. Given that Friedman was a main driving force behind the move to a volunteer army in the US, it is hardly surprising that the institute is taking a stand on this issue.

The study is narrowly focused on the practical aspect of universal conscription.

Against the benefits of universal conscription must be weighed its downside. While the system may seem inexpensive, this is really just a case of the true expense being put off the balance sheet. The true cost of a soldier is not how much you actually pay him but rather how much you would have to pay him to convince him to enlist. Soldiers work virtually for free because they have no choice.

But their years of service obviously come at huge personal cost.

Furthermore, the model also involves costs to the army. Just as many soldiers would rather not serve, the IDF would rather not employ many conscripts. Imagine running a business where you had to hire any person who applied. The army has a job to do, and like any other institution, it would like to be able to choose its employees according to its genuine manpower needs.

Arad’s analysis goes a long way toward adequately quantifying this issue. One thing he points out convincingly is that whatever its merits, the idea of universal service is far from being the reality. Many young people are exempt due to ethnic origin or religious practice. Many others are rejected by the IDF as being unsuitable. Of those who are drafted, 18 percent don’t complete their service.

Of those who do finish their service, many are in make-work jobs, while many others are doing real jobs but jobs that could be done by civilians. Many have their service shortened by participation in special programs such as hesder.

Arad writes: “In contrast to the ethos of a ‘people’s army,’ in practice, less than a third of the men in each draft cohort bear the full burden of obligatory service, and that is even without taking into account the fact that only a minority of the conscripts are occupied in the core functions of the fighting force.”

He claims that moving to a professional army model would lead to an army that is more effective, less expensive and less intrusive of personal liberty. (It may be relevant that Arad is a prominent exponent of Objectivism, one of the more farreaching strains of libertarianism.) Arad’s findings are certainly an important contribution to the public discussion on the conscription issue.

But the professional, quantitative considerations are only one aspect – and not necessarily the most important one. I would like to add two additional dimensions of the issue, each one with its own facets favoring and opposing universal conscription.

First, the social aspect: On the plus side, the idea of the IDF serving as a melting pot forging a definable Israeli identity and contributing to national solidarity is more than a myth. There can be no question that the IDF is a place where most young people are thrown together with others from varied backgrounds and learn to get along and identify with each other.

On the minus side: that haredim, Muslim Arabs and religious girls are not drafted may imply that this melting pot is counterproductive; it does break down some barriers between Israelis but at the expense of creating new ones. The result is that very large swathes of the Israeli public are not fully considered “Israeli,” don’t fully view themselves as “Israeli” and are excluded in large measure from national solidarity.

Another problem: To the extent that the national identity is forged in the army, it is likely to be bound up to some extent with militarism, and this could have disturbing cultural repercussions, especially for a Jewish state.

Another important issue is public military policy. On the plus side, having a “civilian” army means that any military action must be viewed as legitimate in the eyes of Israeli society as a whole. Otherwise there is public opposition and individual resistance including draft dodging, lack of motivation, leaking of documents, etc. This serves as a check on military adventurism, though it could also deter actions that the leadership views as necessary.

On the other hand, having a civilian army means that the army is guaranteed a large, low-cost fighting force. The civilian and military authorities who are weighing military action don’t have to add up the dollars and cents of fighting to the same extent they would have to under a volunteer force. This gives more freedom to act when the need is felt, but it could also lead to excessive use of force.

Military leaders might even have an incentive to use their army once in a while to prove that they really need it. So perhaps this, too, could encourage adventurism.

Which consideration will be dominant? Naturally, these are considerations that apply to any army anywhere and not specifically to Israel.

I certainly do not have the answers to these questions, but I am convinced that they are at least as important as the efficiency and effectiveness issues examined by Arad. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).

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