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A Lieutenant-Colonel Speaks Against

Peacetime Military Training

(April 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 15 [should be No. 14], 2 April 1945, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Case Against Compulsory Peacetime Military Training
by Roscoe S. Conkling, Lt. Col., J.A.G.U.S.A., World War I, Lt. Col., Army of the U.S., World War II
Published by Post-War World Council, ten cents.


At a time when the Army and Navy brasshats, some of the brasshat legislators and the President are trying, under cover of the hysteria created by radar and robot bombs, to pass universal peacetime military training legislation, an indictment by a man who has been a high-ranking officer in both major world wars deserves special comment.

Roscoe Conkling’s indictment of the system of militarism begins with the fact that he had to resume civilian status before he could speak out against peacetime conscription.

“Recently revised Army regulations provide that (emphasis supplied) ‘Except as authorized by the War Department, efforts by any person in the active service of the United States ... to procure or oppose or in any manner influence legislation affecting the Army ... are forbidden.’”

Conkling tried to obtain the permission of his superior officers to present his case. His application found its way to the wastebasket. Ten million men and women in the armed services are similarly disfranchised! So much for the vaunted “democracy” the Army is supposed to imbue in young manhood! Meanwhile the four-star generals and Navy gold-braids continue to beat a tattoo for conscription.

Conkling vigorously scores the attempt to steamroller a training bill through while the world is war-conscious, while the GI’s who are fighting on the world’s battle fronts are away and cannot express their feeling, which will undoubtedly be one of abhorrence of war and anything related to it – especially peacetime conscription.

“Defense,” the shibboleth under which all armies are raised, under which all wars are undertaken, is shown by Conkling to have been used by Hitler too. “In the early days of the Nazi regime,” he writes, “it will be remembered, Hitleresque abhorrence of the mere thought of aggression was vehement indeed – vocally.”

Beneficiaries of Conscription

Most potent are his arguments concerning the self-interest of the regular Army and Navy in passing a bill.

“With the expansion of our Army to 10,000,000 or thereabout, regular captains and lieutenants have been promoted to brigadier generals; majors, lieutenant-colonels and colonels to major-generals, lieutenant-generals and generals. Reduce that army to 1,000,000 or less and, with exceptions here and there, generals again become colonels, lieutenant-colonels and majors. Their pay is decreased, their authority, contracted and their social positions receive a jolting setback, ... The reduction of base pay together with longevity accumulations and “incidentals” aggregating six, eight, ten, twelve or more thousand dollars annually, to base pay of $333 a month for a colonel, $300 for a lieutenant-colonel, $250 for a major, and correspondingly reduced ‘incidentals’ cannot be thrust out of mind, however conscientious the effort.”

It should not go unnoticed, too, that it is the non-fighting major-generals and the desk strategists who are spending their time and our money in drawing up plans to militarize our young manhood.

Conkling does not forget the civilian proponents, those who make fabulous profits from the sale of military products, uniforms, quartermasters’ supplies,” “constantly obsolescing air, sea and ground vehicles, armament, etc.”

Nor the ideological profiteers in the campaign, exemplified by the Fortune magazine poll which “purported to indicate public favor for peacetime drafting of boys as they become eighteen years of age.”

Nor the legislators like Representative Wadsworth who, when not shouting for complete regimentation of all Americans through National Service legislation, lauds the “civic, democratic and physical” aspects of regimentation of the youth. With the lives of unborn generations mortgaged to the near-$300 billion public debt of the United States, it is of great interest to know the cost, which will be borne by the taxpayer, for this proposed reserve army. The uniformed “planners” of rank estimate that it will cost about $1½ billions per million trainees; about $1,000 to $1,500 a “head.”

All signs point to a lessening of the present relatively easy burden of taxation upon the corporations. Readers of Labor Action know who will foot the vast military bill. This huge military budget, supported by the people, was what Karl Liebknecht, in the most famous anti-militarist pamphlet of all times called the “Douloureuse,” or the sickness of all the European nations.

Conkling asks:

“Does America need a peacetime army 2,500,000 or more men – almost thirty per cent of its male citizens between eighteen and twenty-six constantly under arms? It would be fatuous to suspect the ‘army planners’ do not know the answer is overwhelmingly negative.”

The author of the pamphlet makes short shrift of the “selling arguments” for peacetime conscription. Democracy?

“... When we consider the barrier of rank set up between them (enlisted men – Ed.) and commissioned officers – necessarily, perhaps, in war but strictly observed in peacetime as well – the plea of ‘inculcating the democratic spirit’ falls, flat, as every soldier or sailor who has served ‘in the ranks’ well knows.”

This is from a man who served as lieutenant-colonel in both wars!

Civic affairs?

“In wartime, as we learned in the pre-election period of 1944, soldiers and sailors are permitted to learn about ‘civic’ affairs back home just what government boards and bureaus in power decide is good for them and nothing more.”


“And even to suggest sojourning in military barracks as aiding in developing high moral standards of eighteen-year-old boys is an outright insult to the intelligence of anyone who knows anything about army life.”

Conkling shows that the real benefits of militarizing the boyhood of the U.S. accrues to the machine of the Army and Navy. That even “preparedness for defense” will not be served, since the specialists concede that a year’s training “wears off” after two years without training. Therefore, in the next war, of what benefit will have been the years, the money, the moral sacrifices, when new training will be necessary?

Conkling shows that, the generals plan “refresher” courses. General Palmer wrote in the August issue of The Reserve Officer, “Every able-bodied young American should be trained to fight for his country if a War should come within three or four years after he completes his training.”

“The smallest possible professional organization!” This seemingly modest, vague plea of General Marshall and the “planners” is scorned by Conkling. How small is “Small”? “How ‘small’,” he asks, “could the professional organization possibly be to prevent too many demotions?”

Conkling Stumbles

The kernel weakness in Conkling’s otherwise imposing structure of argumentation is found in what he himself advocates. While opposed to conscription of the youth, he says:

“We must always maintain a not oversized, but sufficiently large and fully equipped standing army and navy, which includes formidable air forces and underseas craft, as well as a highly developed personnel and the most progressively modern machinery of war American ingenuity can devise.” (His emphasis)

Conkling now lays himself open to attack. Whereas he began his pamphlet belittling the idea of “defense” as a pretext for conscription and cited Hitler as a murderous example, now he himself concedes “defense” is necessary. Not by a large army of reservists gotten by compulsory peacetime military training, to be sure, but a “not over-sized” (how small is not oversized?,) and a “sufficiently large” (how large is sufficiently large?) standing army.

He has reduced ail his excellent supporting arguments to one question: How large and what kind of army for the “defense” he first scorned and now upholds?

How to Fight Militarism

Labor Action is opposed to conscription for all the good arguments that Conkling musters. The lack of democracy, the financial burden on the working people, the financial benefits to the Army and Navy cliques of officers, etc.

But we oppose it for a fundamental reason, too. We agree with the implication in Conkling’s earlier description of “defense.” But we go further. We believe capitalist nations go to war not for defense of the homeland, but for the sake of their profits and investments. They either want to obtain what they haven’t got (the “aggressor” nation, such as Japan, Germany) and which their rivals possess; or they wish to keep what they have (the “defending” nation, such, as the U.S., Britain), and which is threatened by their rivals.

Hence the army and navy in a capitalist society become the force through which the private monopolists and industrialists maintain their privileged positions. The armed forces may be used against internal enemies, class enemies. Some people may have forgotten the Palmer raids of 1920–21 following the First World War. Few have forgotten that General MacArthur sent the Army to shoot down the bonus marchers. Many of the far-sighted capitalist politicians are thinking of the post-war. Not as an era of peace, plenty and prosperity, but a time when, as labor presses forward its fight to secure these things which capital is not prepared to give, it will be necessary to tame it.

The advocacy of peacetime training means that the second “war to end wars” has failed. Conkling does not even see this eminent contradiction. The U.S., emerging on top of the heap in the profit scramble, will be hard pressed to maintain the spoils. The vanquished capitalist nations – perhaps a super-Hitler – will arise to challenge her.

The proposal for peacetime military conscription is part of this post-war pattern and is advocated by Roosevelt himself as such. And only when you recognize that for capitalism, all militarism is a “link in God’s world order” can you consistently oppose it in every form.

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