Archive Article: The Return Of Conscription? 24 Jan 03.
December 27, 2008

With all the speculation of an Australian involvement in a war against Iraq, there has been some suggestion that conscription should be reintroduced. There are not too many certainties in politics. But here’s one: conscription will not be reintroduced.

The two main reasons given for the reintroduction of conscription are that it will assist the Australian Defence Force (mainly the Army) to maintain its numbers and it will solve the problem of unruly youths. Both arguments are wrong.

First, the nature of warfare has changed. It is no longer necessary to have the large fighting formations that we did in, for example, the two World Wars. Warfare used to be about humans killing humans.

Back in the European Middle Ages most soldiers were ordinary farm workers, who took up fighting on an ad hoc basis when there was a need to fight. If rulers wanted a professional force, they had to pay for one on a regular basis. This would mean paying for mercenaries. The problem with mercenaries is that they ran out when the money ran out, whereas one’s own citizens would be patriotic enough to fight on with or without pay.

Three hundred years ago, as the modern system of national government got underway, so there developed a system of national permanent standing armies. Two hundred years ago, Napoleon took the development a step further by recruiting far larger fighting formations than had previously been seen. This process of expansion continued right into the 20th Century.

The process ended in the two World Wars. The invention of the battle tank in World War I, for example, meant that warfare became increasingly mechanized, with one machine fighting another.

This form of warfare became far more expensive because the machines are so expensive – and also far more destructive. The high cost means that countries cannot afford to hold many items of equipment. Therefore if a country is going to win a war, then it has to be won quickly, or it will not be won at all. When the 1991 Gulf War began I predicted that it would last six weeks (42 days) – in fact it lasted 43 days. By contrast, Iran and Iraq could not muster a supreme victory and so their own war dragged on throughout the 1980s for eight years and it was one of the longest wars in the 20th Century – and it ended in a draw.

In short, Australia does not need a large standing Army composed of conscripts. Instead, it needs a small, well-trained and well-equipped fighting force, composed of people who have chosen the Army as their career.

The other reason given for reintroducing conscription is that service in the Army will do young men “good”. Such people see the Army as form of social welfare system, if not a form of punishment.

In fact, the Army – like the rest of the Australian Defence Force – is an honourable profession. It is not some form of prison for reforming the behaviour of recalcitrant youths. If a society has its problems with young people, then those problems should be handled by professional social welfare organizations. The Army already has its hands full dealing with the defence of this country.

In short, the Army should get the funding it needs to do its job – and the social welfare bodies (like Wesley Mission) should get the funding they need to do theirs.

Broadcast Friday 24th January 2003 on Radio 2GB’s “Brian Wilshire Programme” at 9pm.