For obvious reasons, historians concern themselves with writing about things that happened, rather than others that did not exist, or that ceased to happen. In one instance though, we can learn a lot about modern America from tracing the long-term cultural impact of something that finished over forty years ago, namely the military draft. Odd as the linkage might initially sound, that absence still casts a substantial shadow on American religion.
No history of twentieth century America can underplay the significance of the draft. To varying degrees, the institution – or its threat – was a critical force in the lives of virtually all male Americans born between, say, 1890 and 1952, and on their families. Although the institution did not end overnight, it basically became a dead letter in 1973. Jimmy Carter’s loopy renewal of selective service registration in 1980 was a purely symbolic statement designed to prove that, despite all appearances to the contrary, he actually was running a serious foreign policy. The continued survival of that system into the present century is one of the mysteries of the universe: it exists because no politician wants to be seen doing anything that could be construed as anti-military.
No present or future government could or would reintroduce anything like the mass draft, although it might reappear for strictly limited groups like medical professionals. Partly, this is a change of military doctrine and technology. Assume the worst-case scenario of conventional warfare, whether in Estonia or Hainan, Yemen or Moldova, and no foreseeable circumstances exist in which it would be useful or desirable to mobilize a mass U.S. army. If one or other crisis did escalate, then it would rapidly reach the stage of nuclear confrontation, where a couple of million more boots on the ground would be even less relevant.
But even if some administration was sufficiently deranged to attempt to reinstate the draft, surely changed social attitudes have made any such policy impossible. The earlier draft depended on a popular consensus concerning citizenship and the collective good that simply no longer exists. In that earlier era, moreover, institutionalizing the draft promoted widespread ideas of authority and deference, and normalized and mainstreamed concepts of military force and violence. In turn, the existence of those ideologies made the draft possible.
The draft also marked a critical gender divide, sending the consistent message that, however women might rethink or improve their status, they ultimately could never compete with men in the basic task of preserving and defending their nation. Military service was a basic component of gender ideology.
Obviously, many resisted the draft or sought means to escape it, but what is most striking is not that some resisted, but that the vast majority grumbled and accepted. Yes, they faced severe penalties if they flouted the law, but pressures from family and community helped enforce conformity, and even in the 1960s, those pressures were far stronger than they are today.
Also, military service developed a self-sustaining quality. Boys grew up knowing that their fathers and grandfathers had served in the military, and that they might be expected to fulfill a similar role. Whether you liked it or not, military service was part of the air you breathed.
Also vital has been the changing nature of gender roles, and any future draft would have to draw equally on both sexes, placing both men and women in combat roles. If we just conceivably imagine a government trying to draft young men to go off and fight Islamists, Chinese or Russians, are they prepared to put millions of women in harm’s way? Seriously? (That’s not a comment on women’s abilities in combat, but rather the likely reactions of parents and significant others).
Still more important is the decline or collapse of the factors that I earlier listed as consequences of the draft. For a sizable majority of younger Americans, military service is an alien reality, a wholly unknown quantity except through video games. Insofar as it does exist, it is utterly irrelevant to them. Only a society absolutely severed from its military would develop the sentimental hero cult that it has formed about uniformed personnel over the past decade or so.
And while we can argue about the cause of these changes, older ideas of the collective, of family and community, simply do not now carry the weight they once did. Part of the change is economic. In a society where the normal form of gaining a livelihood meant going to a factory, mine or mill together with several hundred or thousand other people drawn from neighborhoods just like yours, a collective enterprise like the mass draft made sense in a way that it cannot possibly do today. This is at all levels a much more atomized society, with a deeply engrained ideology of radical individualism. It is also much less prepared to accept ideas of deference and authority, of the slightest suggestion that any institution is off limits to pervasive criticism and exposé. (And the Internet has massively strengthened that cynicism). For better or worse, deference is not what it used to be.
A mass draft, then, would have no military value. Any legislator hoping ever to see re-election would be bound to oppose it. And if implemented, any attempt to enforce it would rapidly produce protest and resistance of a scale and intensity that would dwarf that of the 1960s.
The draft, then, is dead, QED.
But that fact carries implications far beyond the merely military. The end of the draft both caused and coincided with fundamental shifts in social ideology, and those shifts echo through society.
To take a near parallel example, look at how organized religion has changed in the US over the past forty years, and witness the impact of that list of factors I mentioned. We think of the rise of radical individualism, the collapse of collective and deferential ideas, the decline of community, and the growth of gender equality. Have not churches and synagogues risen or fallen by how seriously they have accommodated to that new cultural world?
In some cases, then, perhaps we need to rethink American history in light of things that no longer exist. The story of Draft-Free America clamors to be written.