Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 21: Shall We Have Universal Military Training? (1944)

The case against universal training is usually based on the belief that its results are undesirable both for the individual and, in the long run, for the state. Most persons who oppose obligatory peacetime training concede that such training might improve the efficiency of the military establishment. But they insist that its benefits are grossly exaggerated by proponents who completely disregard the seamy side of the picture. In their view, the disadvantages of universal military training in a democracy like ours are so numerous and so important that they far outweigh the possible gain in military effectiveness which training might produce.


Effects upon the Individual

First of all, it is widely believed that obligatory training, far from fostering democratic ideas, actually is hostile to the kind of democracy that we regard as characteristic of the American system. This point was made by some who opposed the training law in 1940. To them obligatory training in time of peace marked a departure from democratic principles, a first step in the direction of a breakdown of our free institutions. They said that the “principle of compulsion,” as contrasted with “voluntary loyalty,” was native to fascism and alien to democracy.

Many people share this belief that if we adopt compulsory training we will be taking a great step in the direction of a European authoritarian system. The absence of compulsory training in the United States has been an important difference between the American governmental system and those of Continental Europe. To many Americans, universal training is characteristic of the things which they do not like in Europe. They regard it as something which provides a basis for blind obedience to state authority. Our suspicion of state encroachment upon the sphere of individual rights is a traditional part of our democratic life, and it might be weakened by a compulsory training program. This is another way of saying that people who hold this view are skeptical about the alleged virtues of military discipline. They believe that insistence upon unquestioning obedience to orders from above tends to weaken rather than to strengthen individual character.

Also, there are many people who dispute the alleged educational possibilities of a military training program. They point out that the military authorities are fearful of a program which might so emphasize education in citizenship that combat training would be reduced to secondary importance. The fact remains, moreover, that a training program would take a year out of a young man’s life at a time when he would normally be pushing ahead with his education, getting a start on his job or profession, or in other ways establishing himself as a functioning member of his community. Though military service might open up new horizons to a minority of underprivileged men, it might, by putting them a year behind in their lives, hinder more men than it helped.

This objection had particular force in earlier times when military training was so exclusively a matter of drilling and maneuvering. Then, there was little which a young man could pick up during his period of service which would be of benefit to offset the lost year. Today, the concept of military service has been broadened because of the mechanization of war to include a vast variety of special skills, many of which might be of distinct advantage to the individual in civilian life.

As far as physical improvement is concerned, it is agreed that a year of military service might be helpful to many men. It is also true that the problem of physical condition is one of major proportions. About half the men examined by the Army and Navy during the present war have been rejected for military service, chiefly on account of mental or physical deficiencies. But, it is objected, military training would have no chance to influence the physical condition of young men until they reached the advanced age of eighteen. A constructive public health program could deal with young people of both sexes at a much earlier age and over a much longer period of time. Military training might help, but it would not be a panacea.

Finally, there are many people who object in principle to the establishment of any educational program supervised and administered by military authorities. They feel that the primary aim of any educational program should be training in democracy, and that the Army, which is by nature and necessity a purely authoritarian institution, is not a proper agency to do the job. It is better, they say, not to have any indoctrination at all than to have the wrong kind. If the indoctrination stressed suspicion of other countries, fostered militarism as an end in itself, or cast doubts upon the democratic processes of government, it might have a deadly effect, not an enlightening one.

Effects upon the State

Most of the arguments about the effects of universal training upon the state are variations of those mentioned above with reference to the individual. As suggested above, it is held that a training program would have the effect of strengthening forces of reaction and militarism at the expense of civilian authority and liberal movements. During the last war, when conscription was being debated in Britain, Mr. Norman Angell stated his view that “if during the last few generations England had had conscription, the operation of the system would have resulted inevitably in checking the liberal tendencies of English political development and strengthening the reactionary and imperialist, by limiting freedom both of discussion and institutions and by curtailing popular right.”

This suspicion of militarism as a force which in many countries has been characteristically antidemocratic is deeply rooted in American and British thinking. In both countries there has been a constant desire to subordinate all military institutions (except the navy) to an extent seldom seen on the European Continent. The insistence in both countries on maintaining constant civilian control over all military agencies and operations is an evidence of this.

It may be argued that it is unreasonable to suspect and fear a large army but not a large navy. This, however, is beside the point, for in both countries militarism is associated in popular thinking with the Continental system of large mass armies rather than with navies and their limited personnel. It amounts to a fear that a vast army might become the tool of a would-be dictator who would use it to destroy democratic liberties. Consequently, those who are particularly convinced of the genuineness of this danger tend to oppose all proposals for universal training, which is the one sure way of building up a vast army in any state in the minimum time. They echo the comment of Mr. Elbridge Colby that “A citizenry automatically trained in peace-time to military ideals and practices will have those ideals and practices more deeply rooted than will a citizenry whose only consciousness of the army comes with the impact of war.”

A variation of this argument may be mentioned briefly. This is the view that a training program would tend to have a serious effect upon the character of the American governmental system, first because it would build up governmental power and limit drastically the liberties of the individual, and, second, because it would tend to expand the power of the federal government at the expense of the forty-eight states. Those who are concerned over the latter problem point out that a universal training program would be administered only by the federal government and that the last vestiges of the state militia system would probably disappear. In this way the federal government would gain sole authority in an area which it formerly shared with the states. And many are concerned lest such authority should be too easily, and perhaps irresponsibly, invoked in local disputes.

Next section: Practical Aspects of the Problem