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Soldiers in An All-Volunteer Military Never Bear the Burden of War

The title of this post is not meant to be provocative, but I realize that it will provoke some people – at least into questioning and possibly into anger. But before jumping to any conclusions, please read the full post (which is a slightly amended and expanded version of a comment that I left at this EconLog post by David Henderson).

It is incorrect to say – as another commenter (Mike W) at that same EconLog post says – that the burden of America’s war since 2001 has been placed only on “a small part of the American population.”

The burden of war is borne by those who pay for it. Because a volunteer military requires the government to pay market wages to its employees (rather pay only the below-market wages that are paid to conscripts), the burden of war is shared by all taxpayers and only by taxpayers.

Contrary to Mike W’s claim, the burden of war is never borne by non-conscripted soldiers as such. These people voluntarily enlist because they find the pay attractive given the jobs. Today’s military men and women bear the burden of the war only ;in their roles as taxpayers and not in their roles as soldiers or military officials.

Just as no one says that the burden of building a house is borne by the workers who voluntarily accept the construction jobs necessary to build the house, no one should say that the burden of war is borne by non-conscripted soldiers. It is not borne by those workers (which is not to say that military jobs are not difficult and dangerous). The burden of building the house is borne by the person(s) who finance its building – and the burden of war without conscription is borne by the people who finance its conduct (i.e., present and future taxpayers).

In fact, the only way in which it makes sense to talk of the burden of war being borne by people in the military is if those people are conscripted into the military. Conscription is a means of shifting much of the cost – a means of shifting the burden – of manning a military and using it to wage war from taxpayers onto soldiers. Conscription – like all slavery – is a means of stealing labor from workers for the benefit of those who put the workers to work.

Consider again the example of building houses. If housing developers were able to conscript construction workers to build houses, then and only then would the burden of building houses be borne by the workers who do the building. Otherwise, again, the burden of building houses when construction workers must be enticed with pay rather than enslaved with force into their jobs falls exclusively upon the people who finance the building of the houses.

As for Mike W’s point about the Pentagon forcing enlistees to endure the likes of excessive deployments, that might well be true. Indeed, I’m quite confident that it is true. But that’s a problem not with the all-volunteer force; instead, that’s a problem with the Pentagon violating the terms of the contracts that it struck with its workers. Indeed, it’s the Pentagon furtively resorting to piecemeal conscription! It’s the Pentagon forcing people to work against their wills. The Pentagon’s misuse of soldiers in this case has nothing to do with the volunteer nature of today’s U.S. military and everything to do with the back-door sneaking in of piecemeal conscription.

I deeply oppose nearly all of the military actions that the U.S. has undertaken throughout its history. But if those actions are going to be taken, the only way to ensure that the burden is shared as fairly as possible, rather than imposed disproportionately upon a tiny and especially vulnerable fraction of the population, is to require the military to pay its employees market wages (and, of course, also to require it to abide by the law of contract no less than other employers are obliged to abide by the law of contract).


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