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Can a draft promote peace?

Colleges and UniversitiesWars and InterventionsDemonstrationArmed ForcesGovernment

Thirty years ago, when the United States was fighting the war in Vietnam, much of the peace movement revolved around the college campus. Then, anti-war protest was often associated with words like "counterculture" and "draft dodger."

Today's protesters arrive from a different era, the age of a volunteer army. This week in New York, a well-dressed middle-age man was part of the protest. He bore a sign that read: Corporate Attorneys Against the War. When other demonstrators decided to make themselves heard, they blocked Fifth Avenue by staging a "die-in."

In contrast during the Vietnam era, young people dominated the protests - mostly on college campuses. Burning draft cards was a preferred form of civil disobedience. The draft forced young people to focus on the question of war, and confronted them with making a choice. And college campuses were natural places to organize.

While experts differ about whether the draft helped encourage protest or simply served as a rallying point, it became emblematic of the anti-war movement. It's difficult for those with memories of Vietnam to think back without summoning the image of the Catonsville Nine burning draft records in their famous 1968 action for peace.

Though young men are required to register with the Selective Service, the draft was eliminated in 1973.

That is unlikely to change, although early this year Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, proposed bringing back the draft to raise awareness about the war.

Rangel, who opposed the war in Iraq, hoped that the idea of bringing back the draft would help spur similar thoughts about the war, if not actions. But most say it had little effect on the student population.

Student newspapers at George Washington University, University of Illinois and the University of Arkansas editorialized against Rangel's proposal.

"Basically, the bill was written to include as many people as possible in order to scare as many people as possible into opposing the war to avoid the draft," editorialized the University of Arkansas Traveler. "The tactic is, put bluntly, disgusting."

Most say that while the proposal may have caught students' attention, it had little lasting effect.

"A light bulb went off. It was a topic of conversation but never something imminent in their lives," says Michael T. Klare, professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

But as President Bush and his Cabinet moved closer to war and the military buildup began, students began to become "much more skeptical about the war, and the anti-war movement began spreading vertically and horizontally," Klare says.

Students from Hampshire College packed 24 buses to go to the anti-war protests in New York in mid-February, Klare says.

Observers of the peace movement contend that the role of the draft was often overrated as a large factor in the anti-war movement, especially among students.

"I haven't heard anyone mention the draft as a reason to protest the war," Klare says. "I think it was a moral issue for everyone."

"Most people protest on moral grounds, not because they are afraid of getting drafted and serving," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the coming book, Letters to a Young Activist.

The first time Congress considered drafting its citizens into military service, the idea was rejected. That was in 1790, and the United States had won its War for Independence with militias and volunteers bearing arms under George Washington.

It took the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln to institute a draft, and from then on the United States conscripted men to fight its major wars.

The draft came to represent many things - duty of citizenship, emblem of patriotism, rite of passage and finally symbol of dissent, during the Vietnam conflict.

Lincoln created the draft to fill the declining ranks of Union soldiers. The measure was unpopular, and to enforce the new law, authorities conducted house-to-house searches for draftees. Draft officials were harassed, and troops were used to break up anti-draft demonstrations.

In those days, the well-off could escape service by paying a $300 fee.

Those who could not, especially immigrants and minorities, felt that the draft targeted them unfairly.

The most infamous of the draft protests were portrayed in the film Gangs of New York. Rioters destroyed draft offices, beat and killed blacks and overpowered police over the course of three days.

The draft stopped after the Civil War but was revived for World War I and then, in 1940, for World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act.

It went through several revisions before it developed into the system that was employed during the Vietnam War.

The draft only applied to men who were 18 and a half through 25 years old. Anyone who could prove he was a full-time student making "satisfactory" progress toward a degree could get a deferment.

When the Vietnam War began, few protested the draft, especially because many students could get deferments, historians say.

The number of draftees during Vietnam was fairly low. From 1965 to 1966 about 29,000 soldiers a month were drafted. During World War II, the military drafted 200,000 men a month, and during the Korean war the military averaged about 80,000 draftees a month, according to The Draft, 1940-1973 by George Q. Flynn, a history professor at Texas Tech University.

But as the Vietnam War dragged on, and more and more servicemen died, protesters began focusing on the draft.

In 1965, protesters began sitting in at draft boards to disrupt hearings at the University of Michigan. In 1967, the Rev. Philip Berrigan entered a Baltimore draft board and smeared duck blood over records. The next year, he and others burned draft records in Catonsville, and other protesters followed suit in other cities.

Today, at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., Troy Pickard, a senior peace studies student, watched as the anti-war movement got off to a slow start. In January, only about 10 students were participating.

Pickard was hoping Rangel's proposal to bring back the draft would boost the ranks. It turned out it wasn't necessary. As the war geared up, students came out.

Now, there, as elsewhere, the numbers of protesters is growing.

"It's very much been a surprise to me, things have taken off," Pickard says.

"It's good to know that people will protest for what they think is right, not just because they don't want to fight," he says.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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