By Eugène E.
A hard-nosed individualist in my salad days, I was a sworn enemy of conscription as I cruised through that time of my life when conscription is usually relevant. The idea that young men were liable to be called up and separated from their normal lives for the sake of an abstract notion that seemed to have largely outlived its usefulness, irrespective of whether they wanted it or not, seemed to be an affront to my adolescent ideals of liberty and freedom. Fast-forward x number of years, and anyone lucky enough (or not) to run into me will find that, though I am still very much the hard-nosed individualist of yore, my take on the draft has evolved considerably.
There was a time when the draft was a coming-of-age ritual for males. While conscription in some form still exists in a number of European countries, it has been phased out in the major European states (the UK, France, and Germany). Further afield, there is no conscription in Canada, Australia, or the US outside of national crises or emergencies. While a number of reasons are typically put forth to explain the disappearance of conscription, there’s one that rarely gets much coverage: the advance of ultraliberalism.
The ascent of the ultraliberal movement and its domination of the national agenda occurred just as the relevance traditionally imputed to conscription began to melt. The army represents hierarchy, authority, and convention – all those things that ultraliberalism abhors and has tried to dismantle since the 1960s, when the hippie movement and the soixante-huitards took to the streets to tear apart everything that their ancestors had so assiduously built. The army also represents something else: manhood. The army is mostly a male thing. Male things are strongly discouraged by ultraliberals, who believe that anything oriented towards men smacks of patriarchy, misogyny, racism, colonialism, homophobia, and other such things.
Male things also reinforce a binary view of genders – namely, that there are men and women, and that the former differ from the latter. This view does not accord well with the views of ultraliberals, who believe that ideology trumps reality (in other words, that what one believes himself to be takes precedence over what one is). Ultraliberals cannot accept a reality that imposes constraints or limits. Hence the rising popularity of experiments conducted to reengineer gender notions and constructs, and, in the process, human beings themselves. There’s the Canadian couple that decided to bring up a child without any determinable gender. There are the projects in Swedish schools that try to make boys act like girls (by putting them in charge of the play kitchen), girls like boys (by encouraging them to shout “no”), or exit the entire gender-based model in general (by referring to children as “friends” instead of “boys and girls”). And then, to make sure that culture and the media back up and reinforce these adventures in absurdness, there’s the new movie exploring parenting in the age of non-binary children, appropriately directed by an individual said to have been active on the LGBTQ scene.
The purpose of all this is to challenge and master nature, render people oblivious to their own genders, and deemphasize manhood. It can’t be otherwise. It should also be obvious that this sort of ethos is incompatible with any traditional hierarchy. Moreover, the army represents a vertical power structure, while ultraliberals aim for horizontal power structures (though ironically, they have succeeded, wittingly or unwittingly, to create a vertical power structure of a different kind – one built on global capital and the extremes that it engenders). Consequently, the army needs to be rooted out. It has no place in the age of ultraliberalism.
Until recently, ultraliberals were on the right side of history. When the former Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War and ushering in a new age that, for some, signified the “end of history”, it made even less sense to maintain conscription. The West proceeded to skate across the thin ice of the Lake of Complacency.
Now that the age of naivety is over, we might want to revisit this question. Rising Islamism and other geopolitical developments have reminded us that history is alive and well. Ultraliberals have not acknowledged that reality, since it implies that the ultraliberal doctrine has flaws and is therefore in need of adjustments; but those who do not feel compelled to be beholden to the prevailing ideological dogma and who value intellectual honesty might be more receptive to the idea that our ancestors were not as stupid as ultraliberals would have us believe.
A heartbreaking incident took place last month at a Hungarian zoo. A young boy reached through a fence to touch a pregnant meerkat, got bitten by it, and shook the animal so hard he ended up killing it. The director of the zoo then posted a heartfelt message that, aside from lamenting the death of the meerkat, lambasted the lack of respect that he sees displayed by the young people of today.
The zoo director is right, of course. Discipline is one of the most valuable lessons that can be imparted to a youth, and it is one that is no longer inculcated in young people today. In simple terms, discipline is recognition of authority, awareness of constraints, and comprehension of the word “no”. None of this is clear to those who have been steeped in the belief that squashing hierarchies is creative, that the only acceptable religion is one that believes in zero authority, and that all heavenly bodies move only to prop up the brilliant destiny of the up-and-coming generation dazzling our planet. This produces adolescents who believe their parents are their “friends” and behave accordingly; who think nothing of having their feet sprawl over seats on public transit or of swearing at their teachers; and who stick their hands through fences at zoos even when they are explicitly told not to. They have a rather vague notion of their responsibilities, but they are remarkably well versed in all matters concerning their rights. In a word, we end up with ill-bred, narcissistic ogres.
The problem is only exacerbated by the growing attachment of the young to the online world, which comes at the expense of the real world as well as the social awareness and norms that the real world imposes; by the fact that contemporary role models tend to be vapid, vulgar popular culture icons with an online platform and tools to connect directly to their audiences; and by the inability of some of the Western countries, typically those with younger histories, to offer viable identities or solid cultural narratives around which their citizens can rally.
As Ortega y Gasset wrote, for a society to qualify as civilized, its members need to be prepared to submit to a higher authority on a number of questions (e.g., on matters concerning culture). To the extent that its members do not recognize higher authorities or the need to submit to them, that particular society is not civilized. It would be remiss of us not to ask how civilized modern youth happens to be, exactly.
No less urgent is the question of whether today’s youngsters are prepared to defend their values and their land. While some might think it is overly dramatic to claim that there is a risk of civil conflict on European soil, it would be imprudent to make no allowances for such a possibility. If the worst-case scenario is taken, will today’s youngsters be prepared to don a uniform and defend the future of Europe, physically or mentally? Can we count on men who as boys were encouraged to wear dresses in elementary school, as they are today in some schools in Sweden, to rise up to the challenge?
In War and Peace, Tolstoy shows that the strongest army is an army that is made up of soldiers who fight for something that they believe in. Can a young man who was brought up to question his own anatomy seriously believe in anything, let alone fight for it?
People live longer today, and so youths mature intellectually at a more advanced age than previously. Today’s youths are still working towards their high school diplomas at an age when some historical figures were already commanding troops. I am appalled at the academic prowess of those who graduate from high school today (and are accepted by universities!), if prowess is the right word. They also tend to be more aimless than past generations. Society is doing these youngsters a major disservice. Instead of having young men sit in classrooms, why not have them spend the last year of high school serving in the army? They will learn invaluable practical skills, get imbued with a strong spirit of camaraderie, obtain a sense of national belonging and identity, and acquire direction along with a sense of discipline.
This need not be seen as a proposal to (re)introduce conscription immediately and without further ado. But the need for this kind of dialogue is present and becoming more urgent. As with many important issues, it is best to have it when the temperature of the times is reasonable. It would be unfortunate if we were pushed into this dialogue by circumstances. Perhaps now is the time to preempt them.