Saturday, June 07, 2003

Is Democracy Finished?

Charlie Rangel, the New York democrat, raised a minor ruckus a few months ago by suggesting that we ought to reinstate the draft. His comments may have been effective as rhetorical brickbats, but even he probably knew that the era of mass armies is over with. Even were the reinstatement of universal service politically possible, it would be militarily absurd. Low-tech soldiers have no earthly purpose except to serve as victims to high tech soldiers, like the hapless Iraqi orcs in the recent Mesopotamian Dungeon Siege episode. But properly trained and equipped soldiers are extraordinarily expensive. The rate-limiting variable in military power is, for the time being anyhow, money, not manpower. This fact cannot be changed by a political decision, but it has enormous political consequences.

It has been plausibly argued that developments in military technology are the single most powerful cause of structural political change. Thus the military revolution of the 16th Century made political absolutism more or less inevitable because only powerful, centralized states could field and finance effective armies and fleets while the mass armies of the 19th and 20th Centuries required rulers to redefine themselves as national leaders and to pay attention to the welfare of their citizens in order to mobilize entire populations. I don’t know to what extent I subscribe to this account of history; but, like everybody else who lived through the Vietnam era, I remember the end of the draft in the United States as the day the world changed, when the air went out of the tires to use a metaphor all the more apropos because it is as flat and stale as the event it describes.

No comments: