In an era when the Bad-Idea Fairy runs amok through the ranks of policymakers, it was inevitable that conscription would get a new look from the political class. While lawmakers happily refrained from calling up unwilling troops to retake Kabul or invade Texas, the House of Representatives did vote to double the pool of Americans threatened with compulsory service for the state by extending draft registration to women.
"Last night, we made history," boasted Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), an Air Force veteran who pushed the registration amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. "The military selective service system hasn't been used to draft Americans in decades – I hope it stays that way. But should our nation face a catastrophe so large we need to activate our selective service system, we must be ready to have all hands on deck. That includes women."
Depressingly, the American Civil Liberties Union (which should find another name) agrees, arguing earlier this year that "The requirement that only men — but not women — register for the draft is one of the last examples of overt sex discrimination written into our federal law." As recently as five years ago, the organization emphasized that "involuntary military conscription is a violation of civil liberties and constitutional guarantees, including the right to freedom of association, the right to be free from involuntary servitude, and the right to privacy," and advised registering women only if the federal government foolishly insisted on maintaining Selective Service. Since then, equitable suffering under the state's boot has become a higher priority than getting rid of the boot.
But do you know who is not OK with extending draft registration? The American public itself—and it's getting less OK with the idea as time goes on.
"In 2016, 63% of Americans supported drafting women, as well as men, if the military draft were reinstated," Ipsos reported last month. "In this most recent poll, only 45% of Americans are in favor."
Admittedly, over half of men favor registering women, but that's more likely because they want to share the pain than that they're enamored of conscription itself. "Fifty-six percent (56%) see no need for a draft," Rasmussen reported of respondents to a 2019 poll.
In fact, if the government were to once again send out draft notices (perhaps by text message given the deterioration of the Post Office) 31 percent of male millennials told YouGov pollsters they would "try to avoid being conscripted into the armed forces" while only 23 percent said they wouldn't try to avoid a draft. (An even greater percentage of Gen Z men said they would fight conscription, but their numbers were too small to be considered representative.)
In bad news for the federal government, Houlahan, and the zombie ACLU, "About one-third of female Millennials (32%) say that they would 'try to avoid being conscripted into the armed forces'."
So, not only would new and improved conscription be more equitable but dodging the draft would also help to bring men and women together in a shared experience of contempt for the government and its compulsory ways.
I have a difficult time believing America's recently concluded (fingers crossed) experience in Afghanistan made anybody more inclined to go along with a new draft that would turn men and women into fodder for whatever military project struck political leaders of either of the major political parties as a must-do. Restraint in the waste of lives and wisdom in the choice of targets aren't considered virtues in Washington, D.C., and I doubt many young registrants are eager to become evidence for that point.
That means Houlahan and her fellow lawmakers might want to give just a little more thought to the potential public reaction to what they're doing as the monstrous grab-bag National Defense Authorization Act makes its way to the Senate with the draft-registration provision included. Arizona history, for instance, records a famous shootout between a family of heroic draft resisters and law enforcers who just wouldn't let them be. The event left four people dead.
"These weren't a bunch of hotheads; these weren't a bunch of outlaws," Arizona State University historian Heidi Osselaer commented in 2018. "It was brought about, in my mind, solely because of World War I. Men who didn't want to fight really saw this as an intrusion on their ability to earn a living, to take care of their families, that they didn't want to go fighting in Europe for some old-fashioned aristocracies. This was a young country — we were a democracy, and a lot of people sympathized with men who didn't want to go fighting overseas."
Similar sentiment against allowing politicians to use involuntary servitude to fill military ranks resulted in mass resistance during the Vietnam War and the torching of Selective Service records. Even among those who answered call-ups, over 420,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen deserted between 1966 and 1972.
Herding unwilling conscripts, fighting defiant resisters, and chasing deserters is an expensive business. During the Vietnam War era, economist Walter Oi "showed that drafting soldiers led to a loss in well-being that cost the country $6 billion to $8 billion a year (after adjusting for inflation since 1967)," as Reason's Jason Russell noted in a 2016 piece for the Washington Examiner. Oi's argument played a key role in ending the draft, augmenting the moral argument against compelling people to serve the state that politicians had, sadly but unsurprisingly, found unpersuasive.
At the end of the day, it's both expensive and immoral to force people to work and risk their lives in the service of causes they haven't chosen for themselves. Enlarging the pool of those potentially subject to compulsion doesn't make the policy more equitable; instead, it expands the reach of an evil policy that would make the country less free and less prosperous. Ultimately, if we want to do the right thing, we should end draft registration entirely and give up the thought of mandatory service for men and women alike.