Why Do Conscripts Militaries Risk Enemy Civilians More Than Volunteer Forces?

Dr. Yagil Levy, Open University of Israel

Published on: March 17, 2021

Ashraf Amra, AFP | Smoke billow from Gaza City after an Israeli military strike

Conscript militaries risk enemy civilians more than volunteer forces. Let’s compare American to Israeli militaries to better understand this.

During 2006, commanders of the U.S. forces in Iraq came to acknowledge that violence against Iraqi civilians incited the insurgency. Therefore, they decided to accept substantial risk to minimize civilian death. In 2009, this approach was further developed in Afghanistan by Major General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force. McChrystal called for limiting not only the killing of civilians, but also of insurgents. Invoking what he called “COIN mathematics,” McChrystal eschewed the traditional assumption that killing two out of ten insurgents leaves eight, and understood that every insurgent killed leaves someone angry enough at the killing to join the insurgency. Restrained rules of engagement then increased the risk to soldiers to minimize civilian death.

In contrast, the mathematics of McChrystal’s Israeli counterparts are entirely different. Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, pledged to improve the level of the IDF’s “lethality. ” He even tests combat units according to the number of casualties they inflicted on Arabs.

In practice, in 2018-2019, Israel used lethal force against Gazan demonstrators along the Israel-Gaza border. As the UN investigation revealed, between 30 March and 31 December 2018, using live ammunition the forces killed 183 Palestinians (including 35 children) while only 29 were members of Palestinian organized armed groups. Israel lost only one soldier. Israel’s rules of engagement allowed using lethal force only in circumstances in which there was a real and imminent danger to human life or bodily integrity, and only as a measure of last resort when non-lethal means have been exhausted. Still, leaving the legality of these actions aside, the gap between the rules and the number of deaths, and the fatality ratio of one Israeli soldier to 154 Gazan noncombatants, may reflect the degree to which the Israeli troops took a minimal risk and shifted most it onto Gazan noncombatants.

Conversely, in summer 2019, when Israel’s goal was to de-escalate rocket-fire from Gaza into Israel, it restrained the rules and risked the soldiers to a greater extent in an attempt not to harm Gazans.

Here is the paradox: When the U.S.-led forces withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of miles from America, they paid more attention to the political order they left behind than the Israelis did with Gaza. This, despite the fact that partnership with Gaza is critical to Israel’s security. While their U.S. counterparts understand the need to conquer “hearts and minds,” the Israelis hold firm to “lethality.”

How can this paradox be explained? My argument is that one key explanation inheres in the different impacts of the casualty sensitivity syndrome on volunteer militaries (as in the United States) versus conscripted militaries (as in Israel). In both countries, as much as in other industrialized democracies, the rise of individualism, liberalization, and the market society and the decline in the perception of external threats have led to the emergence of this syndrome. It is reflected in limited societal tolerance of the death of one’s own soldiers and the policymakers’ derived assumption that the public will not support costly military operations; this constrains the use of military force. While in the U.S. case, the Vietnam War marked the emergence of this syndrome, in Israel it appeared following the warfare in Lebanon since the 1980s.

To cope with this syndrome, policymakers opted, inter alia, to transfer risk from their own soldiers to enemy civilians by using excessive lethality, with relatively limited discrimination between combatants and noncombatants. However, I argue that conscript militaries are more restricted than volunteer forces in their leeway for risking soldiers to protect enemy civilians, and therefore they tend to shift more risk onto enemy noncombatants. We can explain this difference by drawing on four scholarly explanations.

First, conscription enlists more elite members of society who have disproportionately greater sway vis-à-vis decision-makers when the lives of their sons and daughters are at stake. High social status is correlated with access to resources and powerful social networks, which may be crucial for anti-casualty collective action, as the cases of Vietnam and Lebanon testified.

However, it is not only the power upper-class families possess, but also their greater ability to adopt and express a critical outlook in general, and particularly regarding the use of force and the sacrifices it entails. For good reason, there is more likely to be a subversive reaction to loss of lives, or the potential for loss, in conscript militaries than in volunteer forces. As the U.S. case shows, with the introduction of the all-volunteer forces following Vietnam, casualties became disproportionately concentrated in disadvantaged communities, where the population possesses fewer of the resources needed to engage in politics. Hence, anti-casualty protest declined.

Second, unlike a volunteer force, conscription requires service from the willing and unwilling alike. Therefore, conscription increases the potential for the presence of a large number of conscripts who are averse to sacrifice and may dissent when the justification for sacrifice is questionable.

Third, unlike a volunteer force, conscription favors voice over exit, to use the famous terms of political theorist Albert Hirschman. Voice in the shape of protest, including anti-casualty protest, is favored when those involved have limited alternatives to exit; in this case, exit entails hardly realizable emigration, defection, or exemption.

Fourth, when the sacrifice is coerced by the state, the republican political culture is cultivated: the state coercively mobilizes its youth in return for political and social rights accrued by the social networks that offer up their children for military service. Political rights are extended to the right to control the military, and hence legitimize claim-making in military issues. A system of obligatory service also increases the stake of citizens in the goals of policy, and prompts legislators to play a more active role in foreign policy in order to better serve their constituents. In a commodified, volunteer army, these mutual obligations are weaker. There, implicit in the relations between the state and the citizenry, is the notion of “free choice” made by the enlistees that absolves the state and the community of citizens of part of the responsibility and transfers it to the individual soldiers. In contrast, for conscripts, military sacrifice cannot be presented as the result of free choice but rather as a state-mandated sacrifice and hence also as the state’s and citizens’ responsibility to those coercively sent to risk their lives.

All in all, with the transition from conscript to volunteer forces, governments acquired more political freedom to risk soldiers. It is not only that “politicians have not faced significant organized domestic grassroots opposition to unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, quite unlike the Vietnam War experience,” as Karl Eikenberry, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, argued in the U.S. context. Moreover, more than conscript militaries, volunteer forces can legitimize risking own soldiers to better attain the political war goals, rather than shifting most risk onto enemy civilians. This is why, unlike their American peers, Israeli generals prioritize sacrificing the political logic of warfare over sacrificing conscripts.

Yagil Levy is a professor of public policy and political sociology at the Open University of Israel. His recent book is Whose Life Is Worth More? Hierarchies of Risk and Death in Contemporary Wars (Stanford University Press, 2019).