Europe's first war between more-or-less peer powers in over 70 years upsets a lot of assumptions. Not least of them is the belief, or maybe just hope, that the brief and pleasant interlude of relative peace among powerful nations was here to stay. In broad terms, as I've written elsewhere, much of the world is back on a war footing, expanding military budgets and cementing defensive alliances. But renewed fears also offer governments that fear international dangers or just want an excuse to regiment their societies an opportunity to revive the unfortunate and previously fading practice of conscription.
"The Russian attempt to subjugate Ukraine has catapulted the world back a good 30 to 40 years to the Cold War era when highly armed military blocs faced off against each other in the middle of Europe," Deutsche Welle's Bernd Riegert wrote in March. "Germany and other states could find themselves forced to reintroduce conscription if they want to train enough personnel and reservists to build up an effective deterrent."
Wolfgang Hellmich, a lawmaker and member of the defense committee from Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party called for just that, as did Johann Wadephul, deputy leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Union in the German parliament. This would be a dramatic reversal for the country, which dumped the draft just over a decade ago in favor of a smaller, professional force recruited from volunteers.
But some countries have already made the switch. After Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Lithuania reinstated conscription after just six years without compulsion, and foresees expanding the practice to make it universal. Sweden followed suit in 2018.
"The Russian illegal annexation of Crimea [in 2014], the conflict in Ukraine and the increased military activity in our neighbourhood are some of the reasons," Swedish Defense Ministry spokeswoman Marinette Nyh Radebo told the BBC at the time.
Ukraine gave its own people a brief reprieve, abolishing the draft in 2013 only to bring it back after the following year's invasion.
But plenty of politicians hankered for compulsory service even before the world again became a tense place. They see it as a social-engineering project for sharing burdens and getting people from different walks of life figuratively holding hands and singing "Kumbaya," with arrest and prosecution for those who fail to comply.
"The German parliament's new center-left military commissioner wrongfooted a number of her colleagues on Saturday by calling for the reintroduction of conscription," Deutsche Welle reported in 2020. "It had been a 'big mistake' to get rid of mandatory military service in 2011, Eva Högl, a Social Democrat (SPD), told the Funke Media Group. She argued that the reported far-right tendencies in the Bundeswehr partly stemmed from that decision."
In the United States, some lawmakers tout mandatory service for all as a pathway to equity, which it might be if by "equity" you mean "shared loss of freedom."
"By reforming the Selective Service to be gender-neutral based registration, we draw on the talents of our entire nation in the time of a national emergency," Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D–Pa.) insisted last year of language that was, thankfully, later stripped from the National Defense Authorization Act.
But touchy-feely justifications for forcing people to serve the state are a hard sell. Claims that conscription will break down barriers don't square well with threats to place those who refuse behind bars. Old-fashioned defenses against predatory neighbors, on the other hand, more effectively play on people's fears. And too many officials, either frightened of cross-border dangers or simply aware of the opportunities they present, are taking advantage of the situation.
"Around one-third of MPs who responded said they were in favour of making military conscription compulsory for women," according to YLE in Finland, which has long drafted men. "The debate over whether women should also be required to serve as conscripts was reignited last autumn, and debate on the topic has become increasingly heated following Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the end of February."
But while many politicians seem eager for a return to the era of armies of the unwilling, there's little evidence that such a move offers advantages. In the war that sparked all of this reassessment, it's Russia using conscripts in its invading force, while even on the defensive Ukraine has barred draft-aged men from leaving the country, but only called up reservists (and volunteers).
"Poor morale among Russia's troops – particularly the high number of conscripts forced into battle – may be undermining Vladimir Putin's military efforts in Ukraine," The Independent reported of the invaders' performance so far, which has inflicted enormous damage without achieving its goals. Some drafted troops even apparently mutinied.
Meanwhile, "the Ukrainian army enjoys stratospheric morale and is punching far above its weight against Vladimir Putin's troops, tanks and missiles," notes The Economist. Part of that is the incentive derived from defending your homeland rather than attacking somebody else's. But Russia's proxy war in the Donbas region left Ukraine with a vast supply of veterans with combat experience. And Ukraine is paying its troops "seven times the average salary" in the country to put their skills to work, adds The Economist.
"Ukrainian veterans are still young. They're trained, and they're ready to fight if Russia forces them to," NPR reported just weeks before Russia sent inexperienced troops against soldiers its proxies had inadvertently schooled for years.
True, most of Ukraine's veterans gained their experience after being drafted, but their edge over the Russians is a combination of enthusiasm for their cause and bitter exposure to long years of continuous war and all that entails in terms of casualties, trauma, and disability. Frankly, there's no easy or desirable way to emulate the expertise conveyed by endless bloody conflict. Politicians seeking to preserve the security of ostensibly free countries would do better to look to Ukraine's success in motivating willing troops rather than emulating Russia's experience with masses of unwilling conscripts.