WITH THE RECENT decision to open combat positions in the U.S. armed forces to women, Selective Service registration is back in the news, in the courts, and in Congress. While much of the debate has focused on issues of gender—will young women be required to register?—the problems with draft registration are extensive and worthy of more thorough consideration.
For many people of faith and people of conscience, questions around Selective Service registration are not new, and, ethically speaking, nothing is different now that women may be part of the equation. For many, the questions around Selective Service registration have long been ones of preparation for war, militarization of our communities, and coercion of individual conscience.
The Selective Service act of 1917 launched the modern American version of the government raising an army in a time of war. In 1975, following the Vietnam War, draft registration was suspended, but it was reinstated under President Carter in 1980 and continues today. There is no option to register as a conscientious objector, no matter one’s religious beliefs.
Over the last 35 years, millions of young men have violated the law by failing to register. Only 20 of them have been prosecuted for the felony offense—19 of those were resisting for reasons of faith or conscience.
The last indictment for failure to register was filed in 1986. The government thought it would prosecute a handful of resisters to set an example and encourage compliance. The strategy backfired. When these conscientious objectors were interviewed on the evening news, claiming allegiance to a higher moral law, noncompliance with registration actually increased, much to the government’s dismay. It had underestimated the power of conscience. It failed to take into account a universal truth: When we follow the counsel of our conscience, we tend to make better decisions.
Key evangelical figures have come out staunchly against a proposal to register women for a possible military draft, arguing it would weaken America’s military readiness and is at odds with traditional male-female relationships.
“A nation relying on female combatants is a nation that has been brought to its knees by political correctness,” Andrew Walker of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission wrote on the group’s website.
IN 1976, STILL fairly early in his epic career, Robert Redford played Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, a tense and ultimately triumphant retelling of the Washington Post Watergate investigation that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Now, near the end of that same career, in the movie Truth Redford plays CBS News anchor Dan Rather, in the story of how Rather stumbled, fell, and was pushed out of big-time journalism in the course of pursuing the truth about George W. Bush’s mysterious Vietnam-era “service” in the Texas Air National Guard.
The great moral test for many men of the baby boom generation was “what did you do about the draft?” Questions about how he had eluded the draft dogged our first baby boomer president, Bill Clinton. Then the campaigns of 2000 and 2004 brought the historic test of the baby boom soul front and center, pitting Bush, a baby boomer born to privilege and pro-war politics, against two Democrats, also born to privilege, who volunteered for the military and actually served in Vietnam. Al Gore had a noncombat role and was only in Vietnam for five months, but still, he was there, in a uniform, sometimes carrying a gun. As a Navy lieutenant, John Kerry was honored for courage in battle.
Bush, on the other hand, joined a platoon of other fortunate sons in the Texas Air National Guard. He trained as a pilot, then stopped flying and didn’t show up for his mandatory pilot physicals. He got permission to transfer to a Guard unit in Alabama so he could work on a Republican senatorial campaign, but only one Alabama Guard member claims to have seen him. Finally, he disappeared to Harvard Business School and may have never completed his required days of service.
There were stories about Bush’s wartime shirking in 2000. In 2004, the irony and outrage were intensified when W.’s opponent, Kerry, a bona fide war hero, was subjected to slander from the notorious “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” PAC.
I've been thinking a lot about courage. See that fresh-faced, bold young woman on the right? Her name is Raz Bar-David Varon. She's an 18-year-old Israeli who just graduated from 12th grade. And as I write this, she's sitting in jail in Tel Aviv because she refuses to join the Israeli army.