“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?!” rang out across America during the late 1960s. President Lyndon Baines Johnson was loathed by many for overseeing a deeply unpopular war in Vietnam that was going from bad to worse. Young Americans were being drafted to go and fight—and die—in Vietnam’s jungles. University campuses ignited in protests and thousands of draft cards were publicly burnt.
“The crevasse between generations widened with a fury,” says Tracy Dahlby, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who was of draft-appropriate age during the Vietnam War. “The Great Depression and World War II had foreshortened our parents’ youth and early dreams and the changes they observed in their pampered kids struck them as wrongheaded and churlish.”
While the draft has never been enacted since, it has remained part of the landscape of America’s civilian-military relationship through the Selective Service System, the government agency that since 1980 has maintained information on who could be pressed into service if the US needs tens of thousands more troops to fight a war or if the country faces an existential crisis.
Women have never been required to register for the draft, a stance increasingly at odds with the reality of America’s modern military, the commission noted
All male US citizens, regardless of where they live, and male immigrants—documented and undocumented—residing within the US, aged 18 through 25, must register through the Selective Service System.
And for the first in American history that requirement may be about to be extended to women, after the government’s National Commission on Military, National and Public Service declared it is now time American women also register to become eligible for the military draft.
“A qualified and capable force means we must extend the registration requirement to all Americans, men and women,” Debra Wada, the commission’s vice chair, announced in March. “By leveraging the skills, abilities and talents of all Americans, regardless of gender, qualified men and women alike will be able to fill any and all personnel needs.”
Women have long been involved in America’s wars, from multi-tasking camp followers during the American War of Independence to driving trucks and repairing airplanes during World War II. But they have never been required to register for the draft, a stance increasingly at odds with the reality of America’s modern military, the commission noted.
More than 224,000 women are serving in the US military, constituting about 17% of the armed forces’ 1.2 million active duty members. More than 2,900 of those women have served in army combat positions since 2016, according to the commission.
Given the contumacious reactions to mandated military service in the past, it’s been noted that being drafted today would not necessarily mean serving in combat. In times of national crisis, the government could draft people to a variety of positions, including non-military ones.
“A draft of massive numbers of people would be almost inconceivable in this era, but what I can imagine is a targeted draft of people with certain skills [such as] cyber or medical, for example,” says Kara Vuic, a war studies professor at Texas Christian University, who is writing a book called Drafting Women. “There are provisions even now to conscript medical personnel. Imagine if we got hit with a cyberattack in the middle of this COVID-19 quarantine.”
Among the general public, the majority of men and women support women serving in combat roles. But opinion about women being drafted appears sharply divided along gender lines. In a 2016 poll, 61% of men favoured extending the draft registration to both sexes while only 38% of women supported doing so. That said, both men and women are not keen about the draft in general. Only 29% of all voters support it, according to the 2016 poll. The issue even has feminists splitting either way.
“Equal rights feminists have argued for many years that women should have equal civic obligations, including military obligations,” says Vuic, who recalls the many nurse veterans she interviewed who voluntarily signed up for the Army Nurse Corps and volunteered for service in Vietnam because they believed that the draft’s exclusion of women was unfair and that women should serve on equal terms.
“Many feminists today would echo their sentiments, arguing that equal citizenship requires equal obligation.”
On the other hand, Vuic notes that “other feminists have argued that women should not face compulsory registration or service in a patriarchal military that has discriminated—and they’d say continues to do so—against women. Some take particular issue today with requiring women’s registration for military service given the rates of sexual assault and harassment in the military.”
After 40 years of the draft never being enacted—in large part due to America’s modern-day all-volunteer military force—the whole debate over whether to include women could seem moot. But some argue the key point remains that Selective Service reinforces cultural ideas about service and citizenship in a way that is detrimental to women.
“Women’s registration would affirm the notion that women can provide equal contributions to national security,” writes Max Margulies, executive director of the Rupert H. Johnson Grand Strategy Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point. “Expanding draft registration to women would be an important symbolic act that undermines stereotypes about gender roles.” This in turn, he says, would help reduce “barriers to women’s participation as equals throughout society.”
Their exclusion perpetuates narratives about women’s contributions being less than the service of men
Margulies notes that when military service is so closely entwined with national identity—as it is in a country like the US—those who are excluded from an obligation to serve have a different relationship to the state. This doesn’t necessarily result in an excluded group being seen as inferior, he says, but in the case of women and the draft, their exclusion perpetuates narratives about women’s contributions being less than the service of men. As a result, he argues, gender-neutral conscription—or just the idea of it—can pave the way for greater gender equality and better inclusion of women in the political and social community.
“Minority groups, especially African Americans, have always fought for the right to fight [in the military] to establish their bona fides for full equality in society,” says Richard Kohn, professor emeritus of History and Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina. He notes the social, political and economic consequences of service and combat, whereby a debt owed by society to the combatant is established.
But others counter that it is precisely this link between military service and perceptions of true citizenship that is a cause for concern and is part of a bigger problem: illustrating the grip the military-industrial complex has on broader American culture.
“Through a combination of cultural forces, some overt and others subtle, Americans are taught from a young age to accept their country’s militarism without question,” writes David Niose, an attorney and author, and former president of the American Humanist Association. “Themes of nationalism and militarism are frequently injected into public life through the media and other institutions…as is a sense of righteousness, a rarely challenged belief that the country is almost always a force for good.”
He notes how America’s worldwide military presence—approximately 800 bases in 80 countries, far more than any other country—is never seriously questioned, and how the entire economy points in the direction of militarism. About $650 billion is spent each year on the military—more than the next seven top-spending countries combined—enriching corporate coffers and comprising a major segment of the economy. At the same time, he notes, for many young people enlisting in the military is the only way to avoid a minimum-wage job and to pay for a college education.
“The obedient acceptance of these rather staggering realities demonstrates how effective the conditioning has been,” Niose says.
Against this background, the draft is seen by some as another unwelcome component of America’s military-industrial complex and its relentless grip.
“What is most remarkable about all of this is not that it is happening, but that it is happening without much serious scrutiny, public discussion, or objection,” Niose says. “The surest sign of successful conditioning is a population that not only complies with a desired outcome, but does so without questioning.”
American lawmakers in Congress would need to modify the Selective Service Act if it were to include women. For now, the US government has far more pressing matters to consider due to the COVID-19 outbreak, whose wider societal ramifications might even come to influence Selective Service, the draft and America’s militaristic tendencies.
“In the case of Vietnam, the draft split the country in manifold ways—by socioeconomic status and race, to name but two—and in the US today, more splitting we don’t need,” Dahlby says. “Were the draft to become unavoidable, however, I would say yes, everyone should be treated equally, as we steer to a more equitable society, with measures taken to ensure individuals are matched to appropriate types of jobs and service. More important, I should think, would be the debate to decide whether, if and how the draft is warranted in the evolution of a democratic society.”
Dahlby says he has “no regrets about not serving in an unpopular and what I believe to have been an ill-conceived and abysmally executed war.” What he regrets, he says, are the working-class friends he grew up with who were unable to avoid being drafted—President Trump received five military draft deferments during his youth—and “had to bear the scars” of the draft and the subsequent military service imposed on them.
“You’d meet them at a pizza joint and you could read it in their eyes,” Dahlby says. “The thousand-yard stare was real and so was a demeanour that was old when Napoleon’s armies retreated from Moscow.”
He remembers one friend in particular, who during their years growing up together was known as a perpetual wisecracker with an effervescent laugh.
“When he returned from war, all that was gone,” Dahlby says.
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