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- By Mark-Alec Mellor



Welcome to our Summer issue!

Our special focus this time is on the ethics of conscription. And in a spirit of free and open debate, The Irenaut presents just one side of the argument. Since a debate is only effective if opposing positions are univocally articulated, we maintain unreservedly that conscription is unethical.

This all-out adversarial posture is something we humans agree upon for certain practices, such as debating, tennis, chess, or litigation. It doesn’t work for child-rearing, horticulture, or driving! Some political leaders seem to consider it the ideal approach to international relations, engendering the fear and threat of violence from beyond our borders—to be assuaged, as Napoleon Bonaparte did, by conscripting a civilian army. Climate change, unsustainable farming practices, deforestation, political extremism, drought, and famine—threats that potentially affect everyone on the planet and pre-eminently have the power to unite us in common irenic purposes—are sidelined by political and military leaders, while centre stage is dominated by this threat of their own making.

Ten European countries currently have conscription, and more are considering it. Their leaders’ argument is twofold: first, the threat of hostile nations cannot be met by depleted professional armies; second, impressment will give young people a ‘sense of common purpose’, to use Rishi Sunak’s words. Leaving aside the stunning perversity of the argument (to justify conscription on such a basis is like defending war because it affords us ample opportunities to study its aftermath of post-traumatic stress disorder), there is a concealed premise here. Why do young people need a sense of common purpose? What problem is this supposed to be the answer to? And is the purpose of harming other humans the best we can do when we seek a life goal?

Whether individually or as a group, many purposes are available to us, and it’s part of our ethical life to be able to choose those that inspire us. Some will put their energies into promoting human flourishing, or seek to mitigate the damage our planet is undergoing. We enrich the lives of others by exploring our potential to achieve very different purposes in different ways. Perhaps politicians who foist this chimera of a ‘common purpose’ upon us are hinting at another terrible ‘threat’: a society divided against itself, fragmented, anarchic. . . But this is no more than a hysterical reaction to the putative absence of the fictive ‘common purpose’.

We are increasingly cosmopolitan in outlook, we live in ethnically diverse communities, our loyalties are not confined to geographical boundaries, but are extraterritorial and invested in fan clubs, reading groups, poetry circles, international academic symposia. And isn’t this the kind of society we have been striving for?—One in which each of us can flourish in being who we are, embracing Michel Foucault’s injunction to ‘cultivate your legitimate strangeness’.

Two years after Hegel saw Napoleon (‘this soul of the world’) enter Jena on horseback, the emperor’s generals carried out a terrible reprisal against the rebels in Madrid, commemorated by Goya in The Third of May 1808, from which Nij, our artist, has borrowed for The Irenaut’s front cover.

Since Goya’s depictions of the horrors of war, our understanding of them has deepened and broadened through countless first-hand testimonies, films, poems, books, interviews with survivors, newspaper reports, footage from battlefields and hospitals. Depleted armies are a healthy sign that young people are increasingly averse to violence and dismissive of its claims to be a solution. Political leaders will be loath to create a geopolitical snake pit if they cannot count on civilians to jump into it. Instead of pushing them, let’s celebrate their irenic desire to flourish!

Mark-Alec Mellor