Do Our Lives Belong to the State? Why Selective Service Must End

Last week, I signed a petition to eliminate the requirement to register for Selective Service in the United States. This is an issue that I have been interested in for over a decade, but it has only recently been getting traction. The reason? Attempts to require women to register for the draft are increasingly gaining momentum. On the one hand, it is insulting and discriminatory toward both men and women to require only young men to register for the draft. On the other hand, it is a strange victory for feminism when women previously free from the possibility of conscription are now at risk of being forced to fight in whatever war the United States government deems expedient. The possibility of women being drafted has gotten many more people thinking about whether or not the government should have a right to draft anyone. As I have made clear before, I believe that the answer is “no.” While I understand that good, reasonable people can come to different conclusions on this, I submit that it is morally impermissible for the government to basically compel people to die for them. An inescapable implication of conscription is that our lives belong to the State and that the State decides when we have to put them on the line and possibly die. This is utterly inconsistent with a free society. It is especially egregious when the government engages in unnecessary wars, because it means that conscripts will be forced to die needlessly. It also forcibly separates people from their homes and families and is undergirded by the idea that all people are emotionally fit for military training and service, a clearly preposterous idea. Finally, it imposes yet another burden on people such as LGBT Americans and racial minorities, who have already suffered so much exploitation in this country, by forcing them to fight at the pleasure of a government that has often been downright hostile to them. However, since as mentioned earlier, good people can disagree about the draft, I would like to address some of the most common arguments in favor of it:
1. A Draft is Necessary in Case of Emergency

There are two reasons why this argument fails. The first is that it could be used to defend any of the worst features of a totalitarian police State. In his speech explaining his vote against the Patriot Act, Senator Russ Feingold declared, “Of course, there is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country that allowed the police to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to hold people in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, then the government would no doubt discover and arrest more terrorists. But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live. And that would not be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that would not be America.” The same basic point applies to the military draft, and, indeed, Feingold voted to eliminate Selective Service during his time as a Senator. The second problem with this argument for the draft is that it assumes that only a minuscule number of people will actually enlist to fight in a legitimate case of emergency. In actuality, the wars in which governments have had trouble finding enough people to fight have usually been unnecessary wars. One of the rare exceptions would be the case of the North during the American Civil War. The North had difficulty getting enough volunteer soldiers as the war went on because so many white Northerners were relatively apathetic to the fate of black slaves, despite the federal government’s stance that the war was necessary to preserve the union. The fact that the United States has never before or since fought an internal war due to certain states trying to secede to obstruct human rights demonstrates the unusual nature of the Civil War. And the Confederacy also instituted a military draft, further reminding us that governments often use conscription to provide boots on the ground for bad causes.

2. A Draft Is Fairer to Minorities and the Poor

This argument has existed since at least the Vietnam War. Some people who have voiced it, such as the late Senator Ted Kennedy, have been sincere. Others, such as retired Senator Ernest Hollings, a former segregationist, have had less than noble motivations. Let’s look at the first part of the argument, that the draft is fairer to racial minorities. Surely, if economic circumstances are causing young nonwhite Americans to be more likely than white Americans to join the military, that is a problem of racial inequality, not an all-volunteer military. Furthermore, the draft itself was grossly unfair to racial minorities, forcing them to fight for a country that denied them equal rights. As I examined in a research essay for one of my MA courses last year, a significant number of African Americans resisted the draft when it was in place. As for the part of the argument that the draft is fairer to the poor, this also withers under closer scrutiny. The draft in the United States has historically been riddled with loopholes that favor middle and upper class Americans. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, conscripts could literally buy their way out of the draft legally. The Confederacy allowed “one person as agent, owner or overseer on each plantation of twenty negroes” or more to be exempted from the draft. In the twentieth century, student deferments kept the burden of the draft disproportionately on people too poor to afford college. Professional athletes and sons of politicians and wealthy businessmen got to serve in “champagne units” where they were at significantly lower risk than other draftees. Furthermore, why doesn’t this argument get applied to other professions? Chances are, relatively few Americans from wealthy families become cops or firefighters, yet nobody advocates forcing everyone to spend time working in those jobs. Finally, there is the elephant in the room that any reinstatement of the draft will necessarily force a lot of poor and minority people into the military who are currently not enlisted.

3. The Draft Would Make It Harder to Start Wars

The argument goes that politicians and affluent civilians feel shielded from the sacrifices of soldiers and are therefore more willing to support wars than they would be if their children had to fight. Putting aside the fact that it’s pretty clear their children wouldn’t have to fight, there is an excellent way of proving this claim false. Far more American soldiers died in the Vietnam War than in the War on Terror. The same point holds true for World War I and the Korean War, two other unnecessary wars fought with conscription in place. How can it be true that a draft makes Americans less likely to put up with war if far more American soldiers have died with the draft in place? The fact is that since the draft stopped being active in the 1970s, the U.S. has not been involved in any war with casualties approaching anything close to the level they were during Vietnam. A big reason for this is probably that the government knows that if casualties in an unnecessary war ever again reach Vietnam-levels, enlistment rates will plummet.

Selective Service must be ended. And legislation ending it should include a clause preventing state or local governments from conscripting people, as state militias did before the Civil War. But I have a suggestion for if the draft is ever actually reinstated. I have noticed that some people who have no military background and are too old to be drafted would like to bring back conscription. Any politician who votes to reinstate the draft and does not have a military background or an equivalent background of service such as participation in the Peace Corps or Freedom Rides, ought to be drafted themselves. No matter their age or physical condition. And a portion of these politicians should be placed on the front lines, commensurate with the percentage of regular draftees who fight on the front lines. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.



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2 responses to “Do Our Lives Belong to the State? Why Selective Service Must End

  1. Great arguments, Charles! Although I am reaching the age where I couldn’t be drafted unless it was a true all-hands-on-deck national emergency, it’s time to end it. People forget- we got rid of Selective Service registration for several years until Carter, of all people, brought it back when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

    Having spent most of the last five years in Singapore, though, I’m gratefully to merely live in a country where there is registration, but only the remotest chance of a draft. In Singapore, all young men have to do two years, and are on reservist duty until they hit 40.

    • Thank you for your feedback! Like you, I am certainly glad to be in a country where the draft itself is hypothetical, and I hope that it will never be reinstated, due to how politicians knowing how impractical and unpopular it would be. And it is sort of jarring that Carter brought Selective Service back. That was certainly one of the big mistakes of his presidency. Interestingly, Reagan promised to rescind it if elected, then did almost a complete 180 after winning.

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