ENDING THE DRAFT August 11, 2014

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.

So what has changed since the 1960s? One thing, obviously, is the continued growth and self-confidence of a young, and young adult, constituency. In 1971, the 26th Amendment reduced the voting age to eighteen. If young people do not presently vote as often they might, the threat of a new draft would change that very quickly.

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.



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  • Frank74

    Your observations about the changing American attitude particularly on collective responsibility and the common good are on target.

    However, readers should be aware that the apparatus for the draft remains – I believe the current mobilization regulations provide for the first troops to be ready (including training) in 90 days. The consequences for persons refusing to register with Selective Service are draconian and lifelong – a reminder that the nation still seeks to coerce silence out of the resisters to our military mindset. ( http://www.centeronconscience.org )

    I write as a pacifist – and while I do not want to see a draft, its presence did force a certain moral clarification for young adult males. On several occasions I spoke publicly in resistance to the US going to war in Iraq, at each of these events there was a strong presence of hecklers from the Young Republicans. However, when those who so vociferously cheered the move to war were questioned about their own willingness to enlist, they each had their sights on “other ways of serving my country.” (Not unlike the leading architects of the war in Iraq!)

  • Charles Cosimano

    An excellent analysis. The one thing left out is why the draft ended in the first place. By the 1970s, conscripts were no longer reliable as troops. They would ignore and disobey orders. In Vietnam the custom of fragging, killing their own officers, had developed to be a serious issue. The draft simply no longer worked.

  • eagles.metal

    Your implication in the closing is absolutely wrong. The churches that have kept in step with the changing cultural dynamics are, in large part, the churches that have declined in recent years. The mainline Protestant denominations, for example, have fallen almost in lockstep with the culture’s changing values about the role of women, LGBT issues, etc. and they have declined severely, while denominations and unaffiliated churches that have stood against the culture have grown and thrived.

  • William Murphy

    The draft was an aberration. The American way of war was use of the Active, Guard, and Reserve volunteers for war. We didn’t have a draft at all prior to 1862. Between 1776 and 1947 we only drafted people for 9 years (1862-1865, 1917-1918, and 1940- 1945). Having a draft is not the norm for America.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Conscription made a certain degree of sense when it was a matter of defending your own community, or at the most heading to the borders of your country to fight there. Since the US became a world power, it has been a matter of being shipped overseas to fight, and since WWII it has been a matter of fighting in actions that have been frequently questioned as having little or no bearing on the actual defense of the nation at all. It is this geopolitical change that ultimately was the death of conscription. The only reason it took as long as it did is because our national leaders and the “best and brightest” who were advising them were really pretty dense about such things, and it wasn’t until things came to a head with Vietnam that they finally had to face up to the reality of the situation.

    Perhaps the impact that the the transformation of the US into a quasi-imperial great power has had upon religion is the real issue that has been inadequately studied. It has certainly made us more aware of and open to the rest of the world. There is a clear connection between this and the tremendous global missionary outreach that has been undertaken by US Christians. It has also been those congregations that have been most open to the world coming through their doors and worshiping alongside them that have also grown the most and been most successful and influential. Those congregations that have put up the walls and become closed ethnic enclaves have tended to stagnate and slowly die off. With the trend toward gradually increasing ethnic diversity has also come a greater theological inclusiveness. It is not just that different Americans believe different things (which has always been true), but rather that it is now not only possible but common for people believing very different – and sometimes even contradictory – things to be welcome in the same church. Believe me, it didn’t used to be that way.

  • apeiron

    The draft, or something resembling it, exists in European countries as a socialization mechanism separating the callow from the empowered. It’s a rite of passage. It’s actually a force for good, if still a pain in the rear, and expensive. What an 18-year-old is too stupid to avoid, a 19-year-old has already learned to be leery about in the service. The problem is that the draft also leads to post-natal abortion at an age unacceptable in the US. I’m personally fine with legislating such abortion until the age of 30. But most Americans are incredibly litigious on personal injury issues.