At Wilton Park, a German general made the case for conscription. Germany is more or less prohibited from maintaining a purely professional military force, so it isn’t really all that surprising that the general would make a virtue out of necessity. Nevertheless, at least one part of his argument was particularly interesting; he suggested that conscription actually improved the quality of the Bundeswehr.
Now, this is not an argument that is typically given on behalf of conscription. Lots of people argue that conscription can help solve shortfalls in recruitment, and the German general echoed this claim, specifically referencing the difficulties that other Western European nations have had in filling recruting quotas. Conscription is usually described as a trade-off between numbers and quality; conscripts are believed to perform at a lower level of expertise and with less enthusiasm than volunteers. The US Army certainly holds to this belief, and various commentators have implied that conscription explains the relatively poor performance of the Army in Vietnam. This is absurd, of course; the difficulties the Army faced were at the tactical and operational planning levels, rather than at the level of tactical execution. Poorly trained conscripts are also blamed for the failure of Russia’s army in the first Chechen War.
The general rejected the idea that conscription requires a trade-off. Instead, he argued that conscription (which takes only a percentage of eligible German males in any case) allows the Bundeswehr to appropriate a cross-section of the skills it needs to operate as an organization. Instead of relying on volunteers to fill its ranks, the Bundeswehr can simply take what it needs. When those personnel are in the army, they can be offered particularized incentives for becoming professional soldiers, at least for a time. Thus, conscription allows the Bundeswehr to maintain a higher level of human capital among its personnel than a similar volunteer army. The general suggested that this was particularly important given the increasing technical demands that digitization puts on soldiers.
This argument is particularly interesting coming from a German, because the experience of the German Army in the 20th century has consistently defied the argument that conscripts damage military quality. Throughout the 20th century (and before, back to Prussian times) the German Army has managed both widespread conscription and extremely high quality, all the way down to the level of tactical execution.
To be clear, I’m not calling for conscription in the US. I do, however, think that some arguments against conscription are nonsense, and I suspect that the “quality” objection may be one of these. The experience of Germany and other Western European nations with conscription should also serve to dispel the notion that a draft makes a country more militaristic, violent, or conservative; there would appear to be virtually no evidence to back up these claims.