Collateral Damage: Draft Resistance and the Anti-War Movement

The draft is coming back into the public consciousness, it seems. Pam Spaulding has a great post on the subject at Pandagon, pointing up in particular the lack of specially skilled military personnel such as medics and translators. This, by the way, is something my old pal Ed Hasbrouck — one of the members of the early-1980s national draft resistance network of which I was part — has been talking about for a few years:

Refusal to register has been extremely effective in preventing a draft of young men. But health care workers probably won’t get the chance to refuse to register. Your first word from Selective Service will probably be an induction notice. Once you get it, there is no safe or easy way out.

One of the most disturbing arguments that pops up whenever the draft is discussed is the “we need the draft in order to galvanize opposition to the war” argument. One commenter on the Pandagon thread puts it succinctly.

I’m of draft age and absolutely support bringing it back. If the domestic situation during the Vietnam era taught us anything at all, it’s that the only way to politicize and mobilize young mainstream Americans is to make geopolitics very, very real for them. Cavalier attitudes about foreign adventures will vanish in an instant.

You hear a lot of people saying this. It has the ring of common sense about it. And it’s true: much of the anti-war activism of the 1960s and early 1970s was propelled by the vulnerability of young American men to conscripted service in an unpopular war.

But it’s a historically ignorant argument, given the propensity of the political classes to find loopholes and exemptions in draft laws: the people whose opinions matter would still be insulated from the reality of combat, of bereavement. And those loopholes and exemptions will definitely remain. They’ll be worse, more flagrant. Do you honestly think this Congress will refrain from handing out deferments to, say, sixth-year Yale MBA-track students?

More importantly, even if it were an accurate argument it would be an immoral one. Hold a gun to someone’s head to compel political action, and you’re branded a terrorist, and rightly so. If you hire someone to hold the gun, you’re still a terrorist. If you find a personnel director to do that hiring, you’re still a terrorist. How many layers of insulation are necessary between your finger and that trigger until the description no longer holds? “How would you feel about the issue if your life is on the line” is the same question those guys with box-cutters posed as they flew planes into buildings in New York and DC a few years back.

I wrote the piece below the fold in January 2003. It’s still relevant, though some of the specifics no longer apply.

Collateral Damage: Draft Resistance and the Anti-War Movement

Twenty-three years ago this month, after Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter reinstated draft registration in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I sent a letter to the Selective Service System — carbon copied to the US Attorney in Buffalo, NY — politely informing them that I would be declining their offer of registration. When the FBI finally came to my door two years later, in Berkeley, California, I reiterated my intent to refuse to comply with the draft laws.

I claim no special heroism for this stance: hundreds of young males nationwide did likewise, as did thousands of non-young or non-males trying to gum up the works of enforcement. The sabotage was widespread. Lists of local registrants were posted in public places in an attempt, anticipating the later public service of John Ashcroft, to encourage friends and neighbors to turn noncompliant men of that delicate age in to the relevant authorities. This didn’t work either. When I — ahem — obtained the list that had been posted in the Alameda County courthouse, serving Berkeley and Oakland, the law-abiding registrants named therein included Ira Michael Heyman, then chancellor at UC Berkeley, and who despite being decades too old to receive a draft notice was evidently possessed of such patriotism that he registered several times in different zip codes. Also among the East Bay’s stalwart obeyers of law was one “Pinhead, Zippy T.”

Ah, but draft resistance in the 1980s wasn’t all fun, games and petty theft. People actually went to jail for it. In 1983, eighteen young men were indicted on felony charges stemming from refusal to register. Eleven were convicted. A couple spent time in prison. The main reason I wasn’t among them, as far as I can tell, is that my Congressional representative backed me up. Ron Dellums, at that time the Representative for California’s Ninth Congressional District in Berkeley and Oakland, sent a letter suggesting to the abovementioned US Attorney, Sal Martoche, that he spend his office’s time pursuing the increasingly violent local representatives of drug cartels rather than peace activists.

So it was surprising to me to see one of Dellums’ Black Caucus heirs, Harlem’s Rep. Charlie Rangel, raise an apparently serious suggestion that the draft be reinstated. I can’t say I disagree with his intent. The old adage “Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight” is as valid as it was when the Wobblies first uttered it a century ago, aside from needing one obvious update in this age of enlisted women and Condi Rice. Statisticians have sometimes disputed the assertion that the US military’s lower ranks are overwhelmingly populated by African-Americans relative to society at large. But no one disputes the military’s class disparity. Rich kids don’t become grunts. The bulk of US soldiers who actually risk injury are there because that was the job available to them. Meanwhile, those who make the decisions to go to war are unlikely to see their loved ones die in the attendant hostilities, the pathetic story of Ted Olson notwithstanding.

So I find it understandable that Rangel would say, as he did in a CNN interview, that “I think, if we went home and found out that there were more families concerned about their kids going off to war, there would be more cautiousness and more willingness to work with the international community, instead of just saying that it’s my way or the highway.” How likely would G.W. Bush be to commit troops to Iraq if he knew Jenna might be walking point in Baghdad?

OK, maybe that’s a bad example.

Rangel’s argument has holes in it large enough to allow easy passage of a lemon-yellow Hummer H2 with fully inflated tires. One could point out that the present crop of warmongers found it easy enough to escape the clutches of the Selective Service System before 1975. One could point out that most pols already sacrifice their families on the altar of career. One could point out that while the vast majority of rape victims are female, no one is proposing laws that would send one male in four to the NYPD basement for the Giuliani broomhandle treatment. Some evils are better abolished than distributed evenly.

But forget the details: there’s something rotten at the heart of Rangel’s pitch. Though he dresses it up in terms of social contract and shared sacrifice that would make even an unreconstructed communitarian fascist like Amitai Etzioni retch, what Rangel is saying is “change your policies or lose your children.” He could help develop the growing number of Americans who don’t want to fight this war, but instead, he’s taking hostages. He isn’t quite piloting a 737 into the Capitol to make his point, but the difference is at this point one of degree alone, and has a potential US death toll far outstripping that of 9/11/2001.

Note to draft-age men in Harlem: don’t look to your Representative for support should you take a principled stand when the draft board comes calling.

6 thoughts on “Collateral Damage: Draft Resistance and the Anti-War Movement

  1. Andrew Warinner

    Well said, Chris.

    Even if you accept that the draft would curb our appetite for foreign wars (and I don’t, as history shows), the ill effects of a reinstated draft would far outweigh whatever restraint it would put on the government. There are a ton of structural reforms that could be considered and pushed that would be more effective.

  2. Edward Hasbrouck

    Thanks for the mention, Chris.  (We should get together sometime—it’s been, what, 21 years?  We’re just across the Bay from each other. And my partner is also a teacher and fan of your blog. Let me know if you’re ever in the City.)

    The more decisive issue than whether a draft is, in some people’s minds, *desirable*, is whether it is even *possible*—which it isn’t.  It’s clear if you look at the 26-year track record of draft registration, which was rendered unenforceable by mass noncompliance, that a draft simply wouldn’t be enforceable either.

    For more on the lessons of history, the present situation, and what you can do, see:



  3. spyder

    The US military cannot afford a conscripted military.  Do to the incentives provided in terms of increased pay and enlistment and reenlistment bonuses, the DoD manpower budget for its slightly less than 2 million personnel is already astronomical.  Any mandated service legislation woud have to discuss this topic, as well as the really nasty one of whether or not to draft females (when so many roles in the DoD are already billeted to them).  It is highly unlikely a draft could be afforded.

    This doesn’t even begin to open the can of worms about the unwillingness of draftees to obey and follow orders.  The incidents of fragging in Iraq and Afghanistan are very low, especially compared to Vietnam era service.  A conscripted military unit forced to serve in the Middle East would be a nightmare to command and rightly so.  I am certain those serving in the Pentagon see this potential as they continue to ask Congress not to institute a draft.

  4. pebird

    I think we need to up the thinking a bit.  The draft will look very different than before, and like everything else the government does recently, it will be chaotic, clumsy, and poorly administered.

    Incompetence is a tactic to inoculate power from criticism – well, we really don’t know their intentions, since it was just screwed up so badly.

    But American culture, that can-do spirit in the face of disorganization ‚Äì that‚Äôs what will be appealed to.  The people will be asked not just to face the terrorists in battle but help fix our messed up system.  In typical US double-speak recruitment can be recast as voluntary conscription.  Why wouldn‚Äôt anyone want to help bring our troops home faster?

    As you note in regard to doctors, I don‚Äôt think it will start with combat troops ‚Äì but support / communications/ technical personnel ‚Äì the right wing will have a field day with this ‚Äúthe liberals can‚Äôt even bring themselves to heal our wounded soliders‚Ä?.  Protest, move carefully.

  5. Maia

    I really liked your article -the idea that the draft is all that stands between us and recreating the 1960s is for people who have more time for nostalgia than analysis.