<< The Body Politic

Reconsidering Women, the Draft, and the Duties of Citizenship Series

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

Rebecca Burgess

March 9, 2016 | AEIdeas

With anemic fighting forces and the life of the Union on the line, Congress passed the Enrollment Act of 1863, enabling the military draft to be used on a federal scale in the United States for the first time. A mob of enraged anti-draft rioters in New York City made a beeline for the pro-Union, pro-draft, pro-Emancipation New York Times headquarters — where its indomitable editor, Henry J. Raymond, protected his employees by facing down the mob with a Gatling gun mounted on the building’s rooftop.

The mob thought better of storming the building. Raymond didn’t have to fire even a round. The Union eventually won the Civil War, but reactions to “the question of the draft” have continued throughout our history to wax and wane fiercely.

A Gatling gun of protests most recently erupted after Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley’s February 2nd testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft.” Most have come in response to Senator Ted Cruz’s comment — “Are you guys nuts?” — inspired by the affirmative answers of his fellow Republican presidential contenders when asked whether women should be required to register with the Selective Service.

Charges have been traded between the various presidential campaigns both that Cruz is pandering to the anti-political correctness crowd and that the others are simply pandering to political correctness. This seems due in no small degree to the near universal immediate conflation of the act of registering with the Selective Service, “The Draft” itself, and women in combat.

It’s true that the ultimate purpose of registering with the Selective Service has been to provide the government in the midst of a national emergency with enough bodies to win battles and thus a war. Emotionally, the visceral reaction against requiring “daughters and sisters” to register with Selective Services, to be forced to serve in foxholes on the frontlines, is understandable. We have a civilization and laws and traditions built on the assumption that a woman’s as well as a man’s right to life and liberty are threatened by the arbitrary violence of the more crafty or better-endowed. Even a more calculated reaction rhetorically is understandable — war is violent, and contemporary male political candidates have a hard enough time “proving” that they are sufficiently committed to ending “violence against women.”

We want to keep American mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters safe. We should also want to keep American fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons safe. But for the American president, the task is to keep the nation and all the people safe — to secure the American way of life, which includes the government, against destruction, as well as to secure all Americans’ right to life and liberty against destruction. Theorists of liberal democracies have traditionally argued that the enjoyment of those rights also entails some duties. General, later President, George Washington argued:

It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defence of it, and consequently that the Citizens of America (with a few legal and official exceptions) from 18 to 50 Years of Age should be borne on the Militia Rolls, provided with uniform Arms, and so far accustomed to the use of them, that the Total strength of the Country might be called forth at a Short Notice on any very interesting Emergency…

What those “legal and official exceptions” comprise is of course what is in contention in these latest rounds of the debate. These are complex issues, and not immediately obvious. But before any full-on grapple with them is the fundamental consideration of whether refusing to serve your country is an exception granted you by the state, and not an inherent right. George Washington had some thoughts about that too.

This is the first in a three-part series that will sketch out not just Washington’s argument, but those complex intersections of the Selective Service, women and the draft, and the civic obligations of citizens of a liberal democracy.

See the series here: