In order to gain an understanding of the context within which the Gita sets forth its teachings, it is important to understand the difference between our modern view and the ancient view with respect to the role of the citizens in society, particularly in relation to war and warfare.
In the modern world, every citizen has been considered to have an obligation to participate in military affairs, in principle. In many countries today there remains a universal service obligation. In the USA, until its experience in Vietnam, in fact, all male youths were subjected to a military draft. Thereafter, the move toward a “volunteer armed forces” was the reaction to the civil unrest that arose from the Vietnam era.
Sri Aurobindo points out that there are both advantages and disadvantages to the modern viewpoint: “…it helps to greater solidarity, unity and fullness in the life of the community and a more all-round development of the complete human being as opposed to the endless divisions and over-specialization and the narrowing and artificial shackling of the life of the individual to which the Indian system eventually led. But it has also is disadvantages and in certain of its developments the too logical application of it has led to grotesque and disastrous absurdities. This is evident enough in the character of modern war. From the idea of a common military obligation binding on every individual to defend and fight for the community by which he lives and profits, has arisen the system by which the whole manhood of the nation is hurled into the bloody trench to slay and be slain, thinkers, artists, philosophers, priests, merchants, artisans all torn from their natural functions, the whole life of the community disorganized, reason and conscience overridden, even the minister of religion who is salaried by the State or called by his function to preach the gospel of peace and love forced to deny his creed and become a butcher of his fellowmen! Not only are conscience and nature violated by the arbitrary fiat of the military State, but national defence carried to an insane extreme makes its best attempt to become a national suicide.”
As we also saw in the experience of Vietnam and its aftermath, a universal obligation eventually can lead to a situation where the society wants to avoid warfare. By moving to a volunteer force, essentially the development of a dedicated warrior class, the United States has adapted to overcome this “weakness” in the modern theory, and to that degree has begun to resemble the ancient viewpoints.
Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 6, Man and the Battle of Life, pp. 46-47,