On one of my first nights away at college I went out with a group of people. When one of them shared that I was a feminist, one of the guys made a snide comment about how women don’t really want equality because they wouldn’t want to register for the draft. He went on about his business with a confusing and irritating smugness. He thought he’d successfully tanked my feminism, but while he was right that I definitely didn’t want to sign up for the draft, I wondered why he thought anyone would want to be drafted.
I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who serves in the military all the more because I’m not and have no plans to be. As a woman, being forced to serve never crossed my mind even as my male peers were required to register when they turned eighteen. Freshman year would be only the first time I heard this particular draft argument from someone (at an all-girls high school you don’t hear many lamenting their draft requirement), but I quickly figured out that the whole “women aren’t in the draft so shut up about feminism” phenomenon is commonly directed toward calls for gender equality. Because, as we all know, men and women won’t be equal until everyone’s getting drafted.
Interestingly that very “bleh equality” sentiment is how a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act came to be. The Act authorizes $602 billion in military spending for the 2017 fiscal year, but it includes a provision requiring women who turn 18 on or after January 1, 2018 to register for the draft. It was introduced by Republican Duncan Hunter, a vocal opponent of lifting the ban on women in combat. Hunter’s “gotcha amendment” was his attempt at playing political chicken with liberals he thought weren’t really interested in gender equality in the military. This game failed miserably as the Senate voted in its favor 85-13. While I’m sure that guy from freshman year is very pleased by this development, this is just further proof we’re still having the wrong conversations about the draft. We shouldn’t be asking why women aren’t required to register, we should be asking why anyone is.
The Vietnam War was the last time the draft was used, and it was so unpopular that the military has relied on voluntary service ever since. Still, men aged 18-25 are required to register for the draft. If they don’t they risk being ineligible for federal financial aid, government jobs and driver’s licenses. Men who have immigrated to the United States risk deportation. There’s also the potential for jail time or a huge fine. For the time being, women are excluded from this, and while some would have us remain that way, it’s not for any reasons I can get on board with.
When Duncan Hunter’s master plan to stick it to the left went wrong, he ended up voting against his own amendment and was joined by five other Republicans. Ted Cruz, not at all into the concept of women in combat said, “The idea that we should forcibly conscript young girls into combat, to my mind, makes little or no sense. It is at a minimum a radical proposition. I could not vote for a bill that did so, particularly that did so without public debate.” Like usual, Ted Cruz and his friends are associating their resistance to the draft with anxieties about women’s capabilities in combat. Also like usual, this is also wrong. Despite the Pentagon recently lifting the ban that kept women out of combat roles women have been serving in the military for awhile now, and they’ve been doing a pretty good at it. Like the men they serve with, they’ve done so voluntarily.
Since we stopped conscripting military personnel there’s been no serious talk of returning to the draft. Even now that the Senate has passed this bill, there’s still no guarantee it will become law with a big debate being predicted in the House and President Obama potentially vetoing the Act for reasons unrelated to the draft provision. So it’s possible it may not even be an issue, except for American men still required to register.
While there have been politicians who have argued for suspending the draft requirement, there’s been no serious consideration of getting rid of it entirely. Those for keeping registration mandatory argue that it would be costly and dangerous to suspend the draft only to have to put into effect again if we need it. That a draft would build character. That it would make politicians think more carefully about pursuing war if they’d risk their family members in the process. While the monetary side of things would be unavoidable, what about forcing people to serve in the military builds character and not just disdain? And shouldn’t the people in office already be careful when considering war? And what about the disastrous response to the Vietnam War, which saw a high number of “draft dodgers” looking to avoid fighting and potentially dying? While a draft wouldn’t mean those selected would be sent into combat zones (other positions need to be filled after all), but it would still mean conscripting people unprepared and uninterested in war.
And what about those of us who aren’t very much valued here in the U.S? When Muhammad Ali refused to enlist after being drafted, he cited the hypocrisy of being required to fight while being systematically oppressed on home soil. Not much has changed since the Vietnam War. We’re still battling America’s prejudices, and the government and military aren’t immune to them. When I read that the Senate had voted for women’s inclusion in the draft, I thought about the military’s proven track record for looking the other way when it comes to sexual violence in its ranks. Somehow, the Senate voted more decisively for including women in the draft than it has for protecting women already in the military.
There’s a small likelihood we’d have another draft, so this could be mostly irrelevant anyway. But it’s 2016, and we also thought Donald Trump wouldn’t make it this far in his presidential campaign…so anything can happen, right?