A Quaker Reconsiders the Draft

When the Universal Military Training and Service Act expired in June 1973, I was overjoyed, like most Friends in the United States. My joy did not flow from the fact that I was young enough to worry about being drafted—thankfully I wasn’t—but because I saw it as a way to free Quakers and other young men from being subject to a process that verged on involuntary servitude and violated their conscientious scruples against participating in war. Not only had Quaker U.S. President Richard Nixon supported letting this odious 1951 law die, but its expiration would also lift a heavy burden facing every young man: whether or not he should give two years of his life to supporting possible military adventurism.

The end of the draft would, I confidently believed, allow only those who consented to serve to do so. It would thus assure that the nation’s military would be made up only of willing bodies, men—and later women—who voluntarily answered the country’s demand for military duty. A volunteer armed force might even conceivably reduce the personnel available and thus restrain military planners from banking on having a large Army and Navy for its sometimes nefarious purposes. If it wasn’t the millennium, happy days were surely closer. No wonder Quakers and others of like mind celebrated.

From the perspective of time, how wrong I turned out to be. I did not consider that the military would draw lower- class, even marginal, youth with higher pay than they could attain in private life, with glittering promises of post-military education reflecting their own chosen interests, and with commitments for travel to otherwise never-tobe seen places and experiences. Those longing for upward mobility could find it in the military. Added to such inducements, the military invaded the nation’s middle and high schools with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and contacted parents to entice them to pressure their children to enlist. What had promised to be a way of reducing the influence of the military actually made it more pervasive, as it spread its tentacles deeper and deeper throughout U.S. society. The assumptions it fostered will prove even more difficult to eradicate.

All of which brings me to the gravamen of my concern: once the draft expired and mostly financially needy lower class young people enlisted, a powerful restraint on the military also evaporated. It turned out to be a question of democracy, overlooked by elated people like me. We should have known better. People with fewer economic resources simply do not have the political clout that well-off college graduates and most Quakers possess. They could therefore be wounded and killed with less political bruising for those who set policy. Such poorer people were destined to make the sacrifices that policy makers required.

Let’s consider a historical example. The U.S. war in Vietnam, which stretched on during three decades—the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—became increasingly unpopular only after draftees from every part of U.S. society began to be lost to their parents, friends, and others. As the death toll of the war began to mount in the mid-1960s, support for the war became unsustainable on college campuses, especially elite ones where Quaker students often attended; students were being drafted out of college, and every young man had to plan how he could stay out of the Army. When a young man graduated from high school, his burden included not only what to do for the rest of his life but how he would deal with the requirement of serving in the Army. By forcing everyone to face the same dilemma, the draft turned out to be a democratic leveler.

But for Quakers and others who believed that their participation in war violated their obligations to God and their fellow human beings, whether friends or "enemies," the draft demanded a decision. Would they choose the route of conscientious objection, permissible under the law thanks to the sufferings of earlier generations of Friends and other conscientious objectors? Would they be sentinels of a better way or would they acquiesce and be drafted? The answers would bespeak their own deeply held values while exemplifying another way to the larger society. The draft’s end removed an opportunity to testify to Quakers’ insistence that the way to end wars is to refuse to participate in them.

Yet there remains a more important political consequence of ending the draft, one that this observer at least did not foresee. With the draft gone, democratic opposition to foreign military adventures also tended to atrophy. Beginning in the 1990s we reaped a seemingly endless "war on terror," a struggle against a tactic used by proponents of violence. Transcending other wars, this apparently endless battle bore no resemblance to earlier struggles against another country’s aggression or, coupled with aggression, a horrendous ideology preached by a fanatic individual, like Germany’s World War II dictator Adolf Hitler.

The United States has been struggling against terror ever since 1990; the end of the conflict in Afghanistan cannot be forecasted, and is likely, even under the Quakers’ 2008 hope, Barack Obama, to go on for as long as we can peer into the future.

Without a draft, such wars became commonplace and far removed from the concerns of the people whose voices are heeded in Washington, D.C. No widespread sacrifices are required. Those brought home in coffins tend to have fewer resources, be black or brown, more rural, or small-town whites. Mark it carefully: the end of the draft shifted the burden of the war to them, and they enjoy precious little of the influence that counts in the United States—wealth, power, and education. The country’s influential people had cunningly, even if unknowingly, found a way to shift the load of the nation’s battles to others, those with little political say.

Thus what I think Quakers should do amounts to a paradox for a people who historically advocated nonparticipation in war. We owe it to ourselves, to our faith, to the power we enjoy—we owe it, in short, to the entire nation—to demand that the draft be cranked up again. And in line with our testimony of female equality, we should insist that it be applied for the first time to women as well. We should call for it to be as allinclusive as possible and include all social and economic classes, not just the poor; this call would mean that there would be no exemptions for college students, that the draft would be truly universal. There would have to be a provision for conscientious objection, for those, to quote from our 1661 Declaration, who "utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons, for any end . . . whatsoever."

If, by wonder of wonders, we were to succeed, it wouldn’t be the millennium, but I would be able to say something I didn’t foresee over 35 years ago when the draft expired; that with it we will be much closer to that happy day than we are now. I find it hard to believe that another President George Bush could then manipulate the people of the United States into a disastrous war for Iraqi freedom. Those drafted into a truly democratic Army and their family and friends simply would not permit it. Finally, and most importantly, we would have delivered a massive blow to the war machine. Let us begin.

Larry Ingle

Larry Ingle, a member of Chattanooga (Tenn.) Meeting, is a historian and author of First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism and Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation.