EDITORIAL: The Draft – National Service, National Security, Social Justice and the Even the Military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Policy for Gays


In recent weeks, as the Pentagon continuously (and involuntarily) extends enlistments and calls up reservists in various categories, the media, as well as some politicians, have again questioned whether our all volunteer military is able to meet our legitimate national security needs. There are repeated suggestions that the draft be reinstated. The Pentagon and Administration deny that they have any intention of pushing for restoration of conscription. At first glance, they sound credible. The uniformed services do not want to have to nanny potentially millions of rookie soldiers who do not want to be there.


There were similar calls to reinstate the draft, even from some key senators, shortly after 9/11. They were dismissed, to resurface again as our efforts to “win the Peace” in Iraq bog down and as casualties mount.


The problem with an issue like this is the “iceberg” effect. Underneath the surface are all sorts of troubling questions about national security and social justice, as well as governance—the fear that, post 9/11, government is quashing previous hopes for a libertarian future. There is also a genuine public naiveté about the issue. Young adults and teenagers today generally haven’t a clue as to the devise nature of the issue and the threat that it poses for them.


An issue like this is best explore inductively—follow the problem through and see where it leads. But I am struck that it is inevitable that pressure to reinstate the draft will grow, and gradually will be supplemented by proposals to create mandatory national service.


I discussed the draft in all three of my in-print books, but I’d like to provide an editorial overview now, up to date for 2004, of the potential debate points.



The draft has always been the one way that the state can compel involuntary servitude. The state can force you to risk your life (or risk being disfigured or maimed for life) to protect your fellow citizens from enemies. The state can force young men alone to accept this risk. That idea harkens back to days when men were expected to validate themselves by proving that they could protect women and children in various group warrior-like  activities and rites of passage. A stint in the military was seen as suitable preparation for the reward of having one’s own family—a benefit not as pertinent today given the values of many people. The Supreme Court has in the past ruled that a male-only draft is constitutional. Today, the Selective Service System is still in business (it has even had job postings!), ready to act if a draft is ever reinstated.  Men ages 18-1/2 to 25 are still required to register with Selective Service, and their registration must be validated for employment in certain areas. The libertarian perspective has always been that self-interest should motivate individuals to organize to defend themselves, but that persons do not have the moral right to compel others do join in their defense.


The draft has, in the past, been believed necessary to provide the sacrificial manpower needed to fight the nation’s wars and been activated (or remained in place) for most major conflicts between the Civil War and Vietnam.  During World War I, sedition laws (unconstitutional by today’s standards) provided jail terms for those “subversives” who criticized the draft. During the Korean War and Vietnam eras, the draft was believed an effective secondary deterrent against the Soviet Union: it the nation were fully prepared to fight conventional war to keep the dominoes from falling, nuclear confrontation might be less likely. Nixon would abolish the draft in 1973 after we disengaged from Vietnam, although Carter would see to it that the ability to restore it was provided when the Soviet Union was active in Afghanistan in 1980.


Is the military really likely to be unable to perform its mission in the future without a draft?  That is a mixed and loaded question.  In the 1990s, the Clinton administration resisted calls to end Selective Service on the theory that some day the military might need conscription to obtain critical skills (like medical and language) in a real emergency. (This was so as more soldiers would be fired under “don’t ask don’t tell.”)   Now we are somewhat grounded in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and let me say that I don’t necessarily accept liberal arguments that going into Iraq was a blunder. (The WMD issue, and whether we should have had more UN support, provides material for future papers.) But were we to find ourselves in another large ground war—especially Korea (the 2002 Bond film Die Another Day), but perhaps in some other area now underestimated as a threat, perhaps some kind of now unexpected resurgence of Communism—then the case for the need for much more conventional ground power becomes more telling.  (For example, were Saudi Arabia or Pakistan to full under fundamentalist control, there would be additional enormous economic (Saudi Arabia, because of the oil supply) and security (Pakistan, because of small nuclear weapons) pressures on any administration [even a Kerry administration] for long term ground military intervention, as well as calls for other new sacrifices—like maybe gasoline rationing—by the civilian population.) The War on Terror at home gets into another issue, civilian defense, which ties into the secondary debate on national service.  But our culture may be unprepared for the shock it would take from another major domestic attack, such as WMD’s within our own borders, or from major destruction or takeover of oil facilities in the Middle East. (What seems to be saving us at home is the fact that the number of  radical Islamic or other terrorists here is actually very small.) And Ross Perot’s 1992 term “shared sacrifice” is likely to become more relevant in the future as other problems become harder to manage: global warming, the likelihood of running out of oil, and an increased aging population.




The draft was thought to provide some kind of leveling effect on society, bringing people from all economic levels and cultures together to meet a collective common obligation—ultimately, defending the homeland. Of course, the record of fairness is dubious and mixed at best. During the Civil War, rich kids in the North could buy their way out of conscription (and recall the spectacular draft riot scenes in the 2002 Miramax film Gangs of New York). Racially the military would not be integrated until after World War II.  During the 1960s, there were marriage and parental deferments, which President Johnson abolished early on, but the controversial student deferments continued until the lottery was instituted at the end of 1969. Student deferments, in the 1960s, provided a social wedge and controversy similar to the debate over the military gay ban in the 1990s. Deferments hinted the idea that brainy kids studying science or engineering for the defense effort were “better” than kids allowed to be drafted and used as cannon fodder. Deferments, however, actually contributed to social changes that would accept more flexible gender roles.


Today, the recalls, extensions and call-ups are being called a “backdoor draft.” Indeed, because many people who join the military today do so to get college or educational benefits (and avoid the debts later of student loans), the volunteer military still acts, in some ways, as a “draft” of poorer people.


Lately, ideological commentaries have hinted that the growing gap between the rich and poor adds to economic instability and national security problems. Conservatives (not to mention libertarians) have resisted attempts to re-tax the rich, but may be tempted to argue that pinning more responsibilities back onto individuals and to make them “pay their dues” is an effective way to restore fairness. Some liberal politicians have also called for a draft for this reason. Universal military service seems like a tempting step towards this ideal of social justice (and sharing the casualties). Commentators ranging from Charles Moskos to Michael Moore (in Fahrenheit 9/11) have suggested that a draft should target rich kids first (maybe, Moore says, that would keep the politicians from fictitious wars like Iraq). Opinions vary on whether it should include women, but most likely a future draft would.


Arguments to reinstate the draft often tale on a moralistic tone, or at least a call for citizenship—freedom cannot be taken for granted, and many more well-off people look at the world as a kind of candy store. Nevertheless, on 9/11/2001 the passengers of Flight 93 really did prevent the hijacked plane from being flown into the Capitol or White House (the Air Force, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, could not have reached it in time), so ordinary middle to upper class citizens do come through when they have to.


Proposals like this sound like plans for forced socialization, a concept more appropriate for less pluralistic, if still democratic societies like Israel.



The natural extension of this plan for universal fairness would be some kind of universal national service. I’ve seen this idea suggested as a way to instill ethics in college students, especially in the wake of all of the financial scandals. Sometimes mandatory community service is used in the public school systems. The Mormon Church has a variety of this idea for its own members, two years mandatory missionary work for boys (which they pay for), with the definite moral idea that they owe the world service before they have the right to lead lives of their own (as in the films God’s Army and Latter Days).


The most “obvious” place to extend the national service idea is in security related areas, especially now associated with the War on Terror. One imagines jobs like security screener, air marshal or even border patrol agent becoming “national service jobs.” After 9/11, some columnists predicted that needs like this could not be filled without some kind of quasi-military setup. Already we have other government programs (most of all the Peace Corps) that fit into national service. But then the idea can extend to other community needs where there can develop serious shortages of people, such as aides in nursing homes (exacerbated by a rapidly aging population) or maybe even special education attendants.


What properties would characterize a “national service job” anyway? It makes a worthy thought experiment. The most important feature would be some kind of regimentation into a chain of command, with the likelihood of being away from home and sometimes living in communal, quasi-military housing. (That was certainly a feature of the Civilian Conservation Corps or the WPA of the New Deal, and sometimes happens with other quasi-military jobs in the CIA, merchant marines, even civilians who work on Navy ships.) In most cases the worker would be expected to keep a low public profile (and give up a public presence on the Internet). On the other hand, the worker’s room, board, and medical, dental, and vision care might be provided as in the military. In fact, this kind of proposal would be less attractive if universal health insurance, especially single payer, were ever adopted for society as a whole. All of this requires a measure of enlistment by the individual participant.


Extra benefits (like college tuition) would be available for service that went beyond the minimums. Non-military and non-law-enforcement service might be structured more flexibly: say, a one year requirement by age 21, two years before age 30, three years before age 50. Military service could offer better post-service benefits than non-military. One practical suggestion might be that the Peace Corps be more open to older applicants with no significant prior and similar volunteer service.


Of course, such a sweeping proposal runs into obvious problems. Agencies like Homeland Security would probably say that many of these jobs should not be structured that way. Furthermore, should a huge government bureaucracy supersede voluntary programs that already work effectively?  Indeed, they would override President Bush’s idea of faith-based initiatives.  Some of these existing programs, like the Citizen Corps and Americorps, already have government support or origination. To me, a wide-scale mandatory national service program begins to seem unworkable when I look at it in detail, but yet it is almost certain to be proposed again by eager politicians.



Then, what measures, if any, should be undertaken to share the sacrifice?


A couple of observations come up immediately. The most obvious is the myopic short-term focus of our financial markets. A subordinate result is an incentive to make “easy money” as a middleman and to leverage new technologies in an unethical manner. Haven’t some young adults found the easy living in sending spam? Public policy could address favoring long-term rewards compared to short term earnings in all kinds of SEC or financial reporting areas. The secondary effect would hopefully to encourage people to think more about the actual “real wealth” or service created by the work that they do.


Even within the context of libertarianism, one can make a case for cramping down on all the cheating, so well documented by David Callahan in his book The Cheating Culture (see the reference below).  Much of the injustice and the unfair advantages enjoyed by “rich people” probably comes from the cheating.


Companies could be encouraged to look for evidence of prior service in screening for future employees. In some jobs now, former military service or other similar service is a desirable prerequisite. Even in areas like film and theater, actors or stuntmen sometimes need skills that they would have learned in the military or similar area.


But we should also make note of the “free market cultural revolution.” As salaried professionals become marginalized by rapid technological change, offshoring and economic turbulence, some are forced to take interim jobs that force them to face the regimentation of “ordinary people.” Since my own forced “retirement” I have had to face the prospects of drug tests, time clocks, limited breaks, wearing uniforms, graveyard shifts, undesirable neighborhoods, proving that I could balance a register after a shift. This becomes even more of an issue as the length of time since I have worked in my former field increases. That’s not such a bad thing. One could suggest that, once one has made it to a reasonable salary level and loses a job, unemployment compensation should be predicated on “paying your dues” by taking any minimum wage job available (even a “national service” job) for a period. Former workers could also be penalized if they continue to work at a company that they know if predicated on an illegal business model.



It surprises me how often commentators point to the idea of resuming the draft and then fail to take into account the ramifications of the military gay ban, which since 1993 has become the infamous “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. What do they expect to happen? Will gays be excused? Or will they be punished if they don’t shut up and serve.


I broached this question which Charles Moskos, who answered to me that the ban should be lifted if the draft were reimposed. If fact, he suggested that it would be, if gays got behind the draft.


I come from the early Cold War “McCarthyism” period. In those days, armed forces examination stations looked askance upon claims of homosexuality. (This was well dramatized in the 1996 film Stonewall.)  In fact, around 1965 the Army, in its draft physical, stopped “asking”—an event that partially accounts for my eventually becoming eligible to serve and getting “drafted” (in 1968) despite my expulsion from William and Mary in 1961 for admitting “latent homosexuality” to the Dean of Men.  Apparently the “asking” resumed around 1974 with the all volunteer Army, and lasted until 1993 with the “Clinton policy.” 


It’s only fair to add here that the Clinton “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, carried on pretty much in the Bush administration, has been widely abused by commands seeking witch-hunts (“naming names”), especially against female soldiers suspected of “lesbianism” after rejecting sexual advances. Discharges are going down during the War on Terror, but even so commands have been calling up reservists (the “backdoor draft” again!) with hard to find language, medical, and engineering skills to replace gays who have been discharged. From a national security standpoint, this makes no sense and may be very dangerous. 


The military gay ban has been predicated on, besides “unit cohesion” (an argument used to support military racial segregation until 1948), the idea that the sexual modesty or privacy of largely heterosexual soldiers is compromised in an environment of forced intimacy. Such an argument can have troubling consequences even today, in certain jobs (or in some future national service): for example, if a publicly known homosexual works in the personal intimate care of a retarded person (or adult with Alzheimer’s) does that violate the legal privacy rights of the person, who cannot (because of incompetency) even give legal consent?


But all of this leads back to a major moral issue. If citizens have some contingent civic obligation to be available for service, then gays, by expressing and experiencing their sexual values, are taking themselves out of being able to “pay their dues.” The same kind of thinking can infiltrate other areas, such as blood donations, an even, indirectly, the debate over gay marriage (and “family responsibility”). You can call this the “supersized fries” problem.  A variation of this debate would occur in a mandatory national service arrangement, where (open) gays might be allowed (and even required) to serve in “civilian” services but still not in the military. A variation of this argument would occur with conscientious objection—a situation that has the (First Amendment) drawback of favoring the practice of religion.  All of this leads us full circle back to a moral precept of libertarianism: that no one, no state, has the right to force service out of anyone for “collective” purposes—and that statement would nullify all these other concerns. Many of our moral issues, however, revolve around notions and practicalities of collective good. 


Review of David Callahan’s The Cheating Culture is here.


Check the brief discussion of Americorps (the supposed college aid, and funding issues now) in “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” by Stephanie Mencimer, Mother Jones, Dec. 2003, p. 51


©Copyright 2004 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use.   Email  JBoushka@aol.com


Chapter 2 “Sputnik, the Draft and the Proles: 1968” from my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book;  running footnote blog with additional current events on the draft (forward chronology at end).


Read letter to rep. Moran on national service and draft


Blogger entry on September 2006 issue of Congressional Digest Pro & Con, debate on national service and the possibility of resuming the draft. Followup entry Memorial Day 2007.


Everyoneserves.org website. Note the petition (is that a petition to take away my freedom from involuntary servitude? Or do we have a renewed concept of public morality and shared sacrifice. Think about it!)


General Douglas E. Lute admits draft could be considered (Aug. 2007), blogger entry here.


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