Conscription is a system to provide manpower to be used in the armed forces. In the United States, conscription was introduced in the Union Army during the American Civil War. The 1863 Enrollment Act permitted draftees to hire paid substitutes to fight in their place. In the United States during more recent times, conscription has simply been called the “draft.”
During the Civil War and again during World War I the draft mechanism was dissolved at the end of hostilities. In 1940, prior to U.S. entry into World War II, the first peacetime draft in our nation’s history was enacted in response to increased world tension with the result that the system was able to fill wartime manpower needs smoothly and rapidly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
At the end of the war, the draft law was allowed to expire, but it was reenacted less than two years later to maintain necessary military manpower levels as a result of the Cold War. From 1948 until 1973, during both peacetime and periods of conflict, men were drafted to fill vacancies in the armed forces which could not be filled through voluntary means.
Induction authority expired in 1973, but the Selective Service System remained in existence in a “standby” posture to support the all-volunteer force in case an emergency should make it necessary for Congress to authorize a resumption of inductions.
Vietnam War draft
Opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began slowly and in small numbers in 1964 on various college campuses in the United States. This happened during a time of unprecedented student activism reinforced in numbers by the demographically significant baby boomers, but grew to include a wide and varied cross-section of Americans from all walks of life.
Much of the protest movement was fueled by a system of conscription that provided exemptions and deferments more easily claimed by middle and upper class registrants – and thus inducted disproportionate numbers of poor, working-class, and minority registrants. By the end of 1967, as U.S. troop casualties mounted and the war ground on with no end in sight, public opinion polls showed a majority of Americans were opposed to the war and wanted it to end. In 1967, the continued operation of a seemingly unfair draft system then calling as many as 40,000 men for induction each month fueled a burgeoning draft resistance movement.
But where is that resistance from the youth of today? An undeclared war is being waged in a foreign land, thousands of military personnel are being sent to fight, thousands are dying, and thousands more are being maimed for life.
Yet, the youth of today are strangely silent. Could it be that the primary reason so many college age and young people are not participating is because they do not have a “vested” interest in this war? The Selective Service is still in place for males, but the draft is not. But it is folly to ignore the authority to reinstate the draft at any given moment.
The sole purpose of the Selective Service is to keep track of the number of available young males in case the draft needs to be reinstated. And, as the youth of today sit back comfortably assuming that they are “safe” from forced service to this country, the reality is that our military is stretched thin by our ongoing and misguided efforts in Iraq.
Of course, you will see some younger protesters at the rallies and marches, but take a closer look as you drive by. When I stand on the sidewalk along the Clinton street side of our Courthouse, I look up and down the row of protesters, and I see older individuals – many in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and, yes, even in their 70s.
Many of us protesting and rallying are from the Vietnam War era – we remember those days, and we are willing to stand on sidewalks and street corners in blistering hot weather as well as zero degree temperatures to protest a war that is not only unjust but also one of the greatest blunders ever made by a president.
So our youth, for the most part, turn their heads away from the horrors of Iraq, comfortable in their false sense of security and the notion that they are safe from being snatched into service. They are not yet affected; they are not the ones fighting and dying in an unjust war.
But those thoughts are misguided; the Selective Service hovers in the background with the power to rip complacent bodies into forced military service. A vested interest in this war and any other wars may very well arise only when the individual has the most to lose – his or her own life. What a shame that it takes extrinsic motivation to force the youth to do something that should arise from intrinsic values – caring about their fellow human beings.