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Page 26
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Genocidal Conscription

By Gerald R. Gioglio (reviewer)

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Genocidal Conscription: Drafting Victims and Perpetrators Under the Guise of War
by Christopher Harrison

(Lexington Books, 2023)

Author Christopher Harrison is a scholar, and Genocidal Conscription is an academic piece. Harrison is among a cadre of academicians who study the "functions of military service as a factor of planned destruction" among both conscripted soldiers and minority populations. He is an expert on the Twentieth Century history of genocidal states, including crimes like the use of sterilization during the Holocaust.

Genocidal Conscription, though geared to an academic audience, is refreshingly readable. The book is neatly packaged at 185 pages with footnotes after each of the seven chapters and includes a comprehensive bibliography.

The book is presented much like a college class, and like a college class, readers can expect the most prescient arguments to appear quite frequently throughout the narrative. The author sets the table in the first three chapters. He discusses the historical developments of eugenics and modern conscripted warfare while promising a deep dive into two nations that targeted and conscripted minority populations ultimately deemed "life unworthy of life." That is, groups identified by nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion. These draftees, conscripted under the guise of performing "mandatory military service," were actually "labor slaves," ostensibly rounded up to support a war effort. Frequently abused and often worked to death, many survivors were eventually slaughtered. Meanwhile, totalitarian and genocidal states hid this mass carnage by counting these victims as "casualties of war."

Harrison drills down further in chapters four and five. He concentrates on two modern nations guilty of these crimes, the Ottoman Empire in World War I and Axis-Era Hungary during World War II. In the final chapters, he summarizes the material and discusses contemporary concerns while presenting a detailed analysis of his findings. Harrison begins his analysis by presenting the perspective of military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, who reminds us that "the impulse to destroy the enemy"—broadly defined—is "central to the very idea of war" and suggests that some wars are fundamentally connected to certain genocides.

The author states that certain nations used conscription to purge convicts and "undesirable" members of societies by killing them off; their deaths hidden among the actions of modern warfare. He cites examples of conscripted labor brigades being forced to clear paths through minefields, being sent into combat unarmed, and often killed in massacres by conscripted soldiers ordered to finish off the survivors.

Harrison argues that the modern era's two World Wars "provided for and resulted in new modes of genocide" that policymakers sanctioned and committed. Both the Ottoman Empire and Axis-Era Hungary explicitly used their drafts during wartime to eliminate minority groups, thereby changing the characteristics of their country's populations. These countries deliberately used tactics that resulted in the "wastage" of conscripted penal populations and other targeted minority groups. The author suggests such tactics were used to punish and kill those deemed as expendable and worth less than regular infantry recruits or conscripts. This butchery was done in five stages, isolating target populations, subordinating them by conscription, forcing them into work brigades, and to final destruction by sending them to war zones.

In the case of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey enslaved Armenian, Assyrian, Greek, and Jewish men who had previously been stripped of their political, civil, and economic rights, sending them to work and die in war zones. Harrison then illustrates the ways that many of these victims succumbed to starvation, exposure, and disease while others were simply killed.

The author documents how, during the early years of World War II, Hungarian fascists "used selective conscription to discriminate against, capture, and conscript into labor battalions" the Jewish, Jehovah's Witness, Communist, and Roma Hungarian populations. Here, too, tens of thousands died as victims of multiple genocides through wastage and massacre.

Harrison firmly insists that Hungary conducted this genocide while an unoccupied ally of Germany. Then in 1944, when Germany took over the country, Hungary became the "last major international program of extermination perpetrated by the Nazis." Once again, the author cites examples of military perpetrators killing off their targets so that the "names of these victims could go into the record as casualties of war." The scale of death is documented with two helpful tables appearing in chapter 6.

In addition, the author discusses selective mandatory conscription in some nations. Here, he traces strategies used to target and draft specific populations of working-class men considered "relatively less crucial to the overall economic and military strength of the country."

In the final chapter, he examines data on conscription policies used by free and authoritarian regimes today and tries to identify groups at potential risk. He finds that Asia has the highest number of places of concern, followed by Africa and other hotspots like Afghanistan, Russia, and Syria. These data are presented in several useful tables identifying various "Disempowered Groups" at risk.

Like any scholar worth his salt, Christopher Harrison calls for additional work to be done to understand further and prevent current and future cases of genocidal conscription. For example, he calls on authoritarian states to end conscription in any form, to adopt all-volunteer military forces, and significantly to change policies that prevent civilian populations from being forced into any national service that puts them in danger.

Genocidal Conscription may not resonate with every reader. Yet, this is a well-written polemic with important historical detail for those seeking to understand the use of warfare to mask the criminal aspirations of authoritarian regimes. It is especially relevant to those who are working for peace and for ending all forms of involuntary servitude and conscription. So, get your library to order a copy and check it out.

Gerald R. Gioglio is a member of VVAW and the author of Marching to a Silent Tune: A Journey from We Shall to Hell No. Published by ACTA Publications.

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