“Conscription may have been good for the country, but it damn near killed the army.” -Sir Richard Hull
The first documented record of conscription, of obligating the entire male population of a nation, of a certain age, to serve in its military goes back almost 4,000 years ago in Babylon to the time of Hammurabi (1791-1750 BCE). 600 years later, the fledgling Israelite nation instituted conscription upon its exodus from Egypt. Centuries after that, the Chinese, Greeks and Romans would use conscription.
In European medieval times the custom became one person per family, though it was typically for one to three months, as the feudal lords preferred having their people on the farms for harvest time. In the Middle East, military slavery was developed, starting with the Mamluks in the 9th century until the Ottomans in the 19th century.
After the Renaissance, Europe saw the development of small professional armies. These were fairly effective until the French Revolution and the modern re-introduction of universal conscription. Napoleon Bonaparte was able to overwhelm the professional soldiers of his enemies with a force of conscripts that at times outnumbered his foes ten to one. Other countries have figured it out since (thanks to Wikipedia for most of the above).
One of the problems with conscription is that not all of ones conscripts are suitable soldier material. This has been a predicament for every military leader, whether Sargon, Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Ghengis Khan, Stalin or Mao Zedong. All except two military leaders in world history suffered from unqualified conscripts: Moses and Joshua.
In the beginning of the Book of Numbers, Moses lists the number of troops from each Tribe (except the Levites who served in the Chaplaincy, if you will). Before stating the number, Moses continuously adds the phrase “everyone who goes out to the legion.” According to the Ohr Hachayim (Numbers 1:20) every single male Israelite, from the age of 20 until 60 was a formidable and worthy soldier.
The Ohr Hachayim acknowledges the miraculous phenomena, but this may help explain the lightning-fast victories the Israelites achieved under the leadership of Moses (he conquered a significant portion of modern-day Jordan in just a few months, against mighty kingdoms that caused the Canaanite kings to quiver) and then under Joshua who conquered 31 kingdoms of Canaan (more like fortified cities, but impressive nonetheless) in seven years.
May our current soldiers be as worthy, formidable and successful as our warrior ancestors.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,
To those choosing to serve in the IDF. Though there is formally conscription, it is becoming a self-selecting force.