When I was young, I dreamed of Italy. Once in a while, my father would pull out the slide projector and show us pictures from his life on a mountain near Colle Isarco, not far from Italy’s border with Austria. He taught me to speak a little in both Italian and German, which I loved. My father, though, is not Italian, and his sojourn at a mountaintop telecom site (still the only time he’s ever been outside North America) came all-expenses-paid courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, which he joined after being drafted during the Vietnam War. That period of conscription, which ended in 1973, was the last time the U.S. used the draft to compel military service. It was not reactivated during the Iraq War, nor during America’s longest war—the conflict in Afghanistan. Taking all of this into consideration, the announcement by the White House last week that they would support a policy change forcing women as well as men to register for the Selective Service might not seem an issue of immediate interest. However, the proposed change should motivate Americans to take a good, close look at the Selective Service and see a system that is fundamentally unjust.
In researching my forthcoming book on women in rebel groups, I looked into the history of military conscription worldwide. Since rebel groups as well as national militaries often draft participants by force, I was interested in knowing how conscription functioned both historically and today. A comparative view of conscription shows that the notion of a draft is fundamentally gendered, but from its inception the policy of conscription has also been explicitly classed. From the time of Queen Elizabeth I in Britain, the targets of “impressment” were vulnerable male populations: the poor, the working class, and even foreigners and children. The impressment of American men was one of the precipitating causes of the War of 1812. From 1857 on, the French military conscripted thousands of West Africans as auxiliaries. Many of those forced into service were subjects offered up by local elites, provoking uncomfortable parallels with the slave trade.
The classist effect of the draft has likewise been historically obvious here in the U.S., where during the Civil War the Draft Act of 1863 explicitly allowed men to avoid service by paying $300 to someone else to serve in their place. This assist to the wealthy caused rioting that injured thousands in New York City during July 1863. Perhaps with that memory at hand, the wealthy got savvier about avoiding military service during the 20th century. During Vietnam, future Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump avoided the draft in part because of “bad feet.” George W. Bush served his time in the National Guard in Texas, a position he likely attained—directly or indirectly—due to his family’s connections. But the Cold War-era equivalent of the Draft Act’s $300 clause was arguably the provision allowing young men to avoid service if they were enrolled in college or (until 1968) graduate school. At a time when, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only about 10% of adults in the U.S. had a bachelor’s degree or higher, people like Trump, Bush, and Bill Clinton were able to benefit from this policy. For people like my father—a young man from a white, rural, working-class family in Western New York—the outlook was much different. After high school and two years at a community college, he’d taken a blue-collar job at Eastman Kodak in Rochester with the goal of saving money to continue his education and get a four-year degree. His acceptance to SUNY Brockport came through just weeks after he was drafted—too late to keep him from having to serve.
My father was still lucky in many ways. Instead of being sent to Vietnam like many others, he was sent to Europe and never saw combat (although, I’m told, there was a close call with an old lady on a ski lift). Soon after he returned home, he met my mother and started a family. He did eventually get to continue his education with tuition assistance from Kodak, though taking night courses while raising two young kids certainly put him into the “nontraditional student” category. What might have been different for him (and our family) if he’d been able to finish his studies 10 or 15 years earlier? And how many others never had the chance to pursue their careers at all? How many of the thousands who were killed and wounded in Vietnam would not have been there but for an unjust policy?
Updating the Selective Service requirements to include women without reforming the system’s other inequalities does not make the process more just. It will only create a system that threatens women with the same differential effects that it has imposed on men for years. A new draft would also bring up uncomfortable questions of race: With only about a third of African-American and Hispanic youth enrolled in college in 2014, and only 15% of Latino students completing a 4-year degree, it’s not hard to figure out who would be most likely to serve if the draft were reactivated sometime in the future.
In recent years, Germany, Jordan, and a handful of Eastern European countries have all eliminated systems of conscription or compulsory service. Rather than forcing America’s youth to register with Selective Service, and threatening them with the loss of financial aid, job opportunities, jail time, and even the loss of citizenship if they don’t, perhaps it’s time for us to have a national conversation about whether a draft will truly be necessary, realistic, or just in the 21st century.
My father, Mark Henshaw, provided useful background information for this post. He is happily retired and actively pursuing projects researching the history of veterans in Eastman Kodak and a book on Native American place names throughout Western New York.