No one expects a military draft. The Pentagon doesn’t want one. The government hasn’t compelled anyone to fight since 1973. But in March, a national commission recommended requiring women to register for the draft. It’s easy to forget the United States has never taken conscription out of its arsenal.
The news got lost in the pandemic flood, but peace-minded Christians should care, for several reasons: 1) The unexpected can happen; 2) The rights of conscience need to be protected; 3) We don’t want to double the number of people a draft would coerce; and 4) Avoiding complicity in militarism is important to our peace witness.
The Commission on Military, National and Public Service, which delivered its report to Congress in March, disappointed peace advocates. In addition to proposing to extend the draft to women, the commission rejected expanding protections for conscientious objectors.
CO advocates had asked that young people be allowed to make their objection to war known when they register, with something like a “CO check-off box.” The commission’s report stated this would cause too much confusion.
Mennonites and other Anabaptists tried to influence the commission. Representatives of 13 denominations and agencies — ranging from Mennonite Church USA to Old Order Amish — sent a letter in September after conferring last June at a meeting hosted by Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
Amplifying Anabaptist and other pacifist voices, the Center on Conscience and War — a Washington, D.C.-based peace group marking its 80th anniversary this year — urged the commission to recommend abolishing the draft and draft registration altogether. “The best way to protect rights of conscience is to discard any notion that it is acceptable for the government to conscript anyone for war,” CCW staff members Bill Galvin and Maria Santelli said in a May 15 report.
Draft registration goes virtually unnoticed today because young men don’t have to fill out a Selective Service form like they did when President Jimmy Carter reinstated registration in 1980 in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Now registration happens automatically when applying for a driver’s license or federal financial aid.
The commission called draft registration a “low-cost insurance policy,” though future wars likely won’t depend on conscripts. In fact, from the military’s point of view, filling the ranks with the unwilling would reduce the armed forces’ effectiveness — not to mention how unpopular a draft would be.
Which brings up a counterintuitive argument: Some peace advocates favor a draft, believing it would deter military action. The public wouldn’t rally for war if the sons and daughters of privilege stood in harm’s way, the theory goes. Without a draft, war is painless for most Americans and therefore easy to accept or even ignore, especially when it drags on for years, as America’s 21st-century wars have done.
But forcing young people into the war machine, indoctrinating them in military culture and training them to fight would expose them to the caprice of unpredictable leaders and unforeseen events. We saw after 9/11 how popular a war can be, at least at first. The last time there was a draft, protests did indeed stop an unpopular war, but not before 58,000 young Americans died.
The military’s lack of interest in a draft hasn’t deterred a proposed expansion of conscription. We can hardly imagine a draft today, but even a remote possibility merits our attention as part of our peace witness.