We often see the army as a separate entity, outside of society. In countries where the state has a strong hold on the monopoly of violence, the army is alien from the rest of society. Conscription brings the army closer to civil society, but why does the state place its monopoly on violence in its male citizens hands? To understand the role of conscription within society, I think I should try to place it in the context of this era and the different forces that run this society.
Beforehand I would like to remark that I do not believe that we are living in a post-industrial era. True, most of Western society is focusing on service jobs, which are not strictly productive in the old industrial sense, but that is because of the globalization. A lot of basic industries have been exported and the production of the basic products is carried out in par example China. The service jobs are supporting the productive jobs all over the world, like the town supported the agrarian society in the middle ages, but the town was still an internal part of the agrarian society. With the industry the proletariat have been exported as well, again like the farmers lived in the countryside and the burghers in the towns during the middle ages. Of course we should not underestimate the size of the industry in Western society, but this industry is there mostly to finish the products, of which the components have been made in the rest of the world. Logistics, financial markets, etc. are simply a part of this productive system, fulfilling their direct supporting roles. You could claim that a country like Japan is another town, with its own role towards its countryside, but basically working with the same system of production, even though the West often fancies itself as the only 'town' system.
I would like to divide this system in:
- Producers: makers of the consumable products.
- Owners: the owners of the production system (often corporations).
- Regulators: the authority which makes the production system possible (often the state).
All 'jobs' outside of the system of productivity are paid by the surplus of this system, I call these the socializers. The state and benefactors act as intermediates between the industrial production and these socializers. Societies that are perceived as useful for society by the owners (companies) and/or regulators (state) are kept alive by these authorities. The role of these socializers can be in a certain way to entertain the masses, confirm authorities, support social networks, etc. Art has had its patrons and still has the state and certain benefactors. These socializers can be supported by the producers though, when the producers have a way to gain a surplus with which they can develop socializers. As long as all the surplus ends up at sole owners or regulators, these authorities will decide how this will be spent, an extreme example of this can be found in North-Korea, where the regulator is the sole source of macro socializers. Because of the world system we end up having an extra high surplus in the hands of the producers within western society and a chance for the producers to create socializers. Owners regulate this, for simple profit and thereby incorporation in the production system and the regulators observe and encourage regulation of the socialization of the producers within Western society, to keep a certain stability within the system.
This can be seen at macro level within sports, which are only still an internal part of the production system when for instance the owner gives its employees a chance to work out and within the school system, where the regulators keep the population fit. Otherwise sports have changed into mass entertainment, in which the producers poor their money. At micro level you can see this system within the traditional family. Where the father and mother share producers roles, but often in the traditional family the father is seen as the prime owner and regulator, while the mother at home is the socializer. Her mother role is there to confirm the family structure and raise the kids.
These roles are the basic gender roles and I don't claim that they are really bound to any sex, like I don't claim that producers are bound to their role as sole producers. I don't think this system is immobile. At the moment we see that the owners are more often then not also the regulators. But the mobility could be used to make the producers the owners and regulators.
Because of the system these socializers are mostly depending on the owners and regulators. To create a certain amount of freedom and security these socializers are more eager to depend on the regulators, then the owners within Europe. In the USA this is not the case, because the surplus mostly ends up in the hands of the owners. To create a certain stability for the socializers in the USA they create their own regulators in the form of charities, societies, funds, etc.
But now the role of military service within this system. This seems to be an incorporation of the common man into the regulators role, by sharing the monopoly of violence. The state (regulator) is counting on every man to play his role in the system to defend the production with arms. But this can't work within the modern army. It is not practical for the modern army to have a large amount of amaturistic troops. Considering the development to more specialized and highly trained troops, these military servicemen don't play an important role, besides during a real war as canon fodder (like in Vietnam). The more important role of this military service is to have this institution as a socializer. Like the mother within the family, the army is teaching the men the basic build up and attitude of society with the regulator/state on top. You can see how important the regulator finds this socializer by checking how much of its resources are put into the military service.
But these are not the only 'costs' of the military service within society. Like the suppressing gender roles that are the results of the traditional family ideal, this military service has its own consequences. The more important the role of the military service within a society, the bigger these consequences are. I have seen these consequences in Finland, where the emancipation is limited to the point of the male macho, who has had a taste of the monopoly of violence. The seperation of male and female genders by the army and the submission to the state/regulator by the military service male leads to a submissive population. This submission in combination with the macho leads to internal strife and thereby violence, which can be seen in the problem with domestic violence that plagues this country. These results work complementary towards the alcohol and (legal and illegal) drug abuse thanks to the Finnish winters. Because these issues dominate the Finnish society so thoroughly, these consequences are not limited to the people who have actually done their military service, even though that is the larger part of the male society.
This is how I would like to explain the role of the military service within the modern Western society: as a socializer. Thereby the military service becomes an internal part of the forming of a culture and society structure under the state/regulator. I think it is important to acknowledge this, so the real reasons and consequences of the military service can be tackled.