The Defense Department’s recent decision to allow women to serve in combat is being celebrated in some quarters as a victory for women’s rights. And why not? It’s high time Lady Macbeth had a sword and buckler — er, make that an assault rifle — to call her own.
This has raised a slightly awkward question. If women are able to fight, then why, unlike their young male peers, are they exempt from the draft?
The draft, or Selective Service, as it is all too accurately called, was effectively ended in 1973, under President Nixon. At that time, the Vietnam War was eating the country alive and the draft had been revealed as one of its more unappetizing aspects.
In those days, who went to war was determined by a lottery. If your number was called, you were dragooned. If not, your life was still your own. I remember sitting in a college lounge, watching as numbers were announced on TV. I missed being called by a hair’s breadth; it was a lesson in the random surrealism of empire.
The lottery was a through-the-looking-glass way of claiming the draft was “fair.” There was nothing fair about it. Deferments of one sort or another were readily available for many fortunate sons. Harm’s way was reserved for the disadvantaged.
This meant little, though, to President Nixon. His interest in scrapping the draft turned on his belief that resistance to the war was driven by peoples’ outrage at the prospect of being called up to fight for a corrupted cause. He reasoned that a volunteer army would help keep protesters off the streets.
In this Nixon was correct to an extent not dreamt of in his cynical philosophy. America has been fighting continuously on multiple fronts for almost 15 years, under Republican and Democratic administrations. Volunteer troops endure multiple deployments, considered unendurable by previous generations, while incurring deep and lasting wounds society seems unprepared to address. Yet, for all this, the country’s public face appears more militant than ever and protest, for the most part, has been effectively confined to political speechifying.
Although young men are still required to register with Selective Service, reinstating the draft seems the last thing on anybody’s mind. Few politicians are willing to argue for it. At a moment when the cost of college is higher than ever — and its rewards more questionable — you’d think someone would stand up for the virtues, at least, of universal national service, taking two years off after high school to do something practical for the country, military or otherwise.
And so the question of whether — or when — young women should be compelled to sign up for Selective Service is probably academic. The country’s comfort with its creation of a military class, a self-selected group who, apart from the rest of us, take care of the empire’s dirty work, while everyone else watches it enacted on TV, seems all but swaddled in lack-of-memory foam.
Why we still bother with this vestigial memory of citizen soldiers is what’s puzzling.