Who Wants You? The Draft, National Service and Democracy

By Hayley Wood

Poster for U.S. government effort to recruit soldiers during WWI. Painting by James Montogomery Flagg.For those hearkening to the words of America’s First Couple and to their own consciences, the summer of 2009 was the Summer of Service. This past June, Michelle Obama delivered the kick-off speech for the Obama Administration’s United We Serve initiative. The serve.gov website, inviting users to find or define their own local volunteer projects, was up and running, just waiting for the inspired to click on and pitch in. The initiative, overseen by the federally funded Corporation for National and Community Service, is defined on its website as “a nationwide service initiative that will help meet growing social needs resulting from the economic downturn.” With the conclusion of the initial launch period, which ended symbolically on September 11, crafters of the program hope to have forged “a collaborative and focused effort to promote service as a way of life for all Americans.”

The national climate, as far as the executive branch of U.S. government can influence it, is ripe for reflection and conversation about national service, military service included. Enter Vital Pictures of Boston, whose past work includes Race: The Power of an Illusion. The Vital Pictures team is working on a multi-platform media project that will examine the history and philosophical underpinnings of national service in general, and the history of the U.S. military draft in particular. Who Wants You? The Draft, National Service and Democracy (the documentary’s working title) will examine American conscription history from the Civil War through Vietnam. Vital Pictures received a “Liberty and Justice for All” preproduction grant from Mass Humanities in 2008 for the research phase of the project.  The topic is huge, encompassing five wars, the Cold War, and the domestic, social aspects of American life, including the ever-present considerations of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Even the most cursory peek beneath the surface of such a topic reveals knots of complexity and surprising facts that often counter more commonplace beliefs about who served (and serves) and why.

The American War of Independence, prior to the bureaucratic establishment of the Continental Army and Navy, was fought by local militiamen who would serve for short periods of time, on an emergency basis, fairly close to home. The Civil War brought about the first national draft, and draftees could pay substitutes for their service—introducing in stark terms the basis by which the privileged could evade active duty. The draft’s next incarnation was the 1917 Selective Service Act, introduced to recruit men for World War I. Local draft boards were formed to make decisions about exemptions and deferments, and along with them came draft resistance, a movement energized by working Americans.

The draft stayed in force—and was relied upon—for World War II, with 60% of its recruits being draftees. And even for this “good war,” men resisted the draft. (The story of the 40,000 conscientious objectors is told in an excellent PBS documentary that also received Mass Humanities funding: The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It.)

The draft remained active for the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. The word “draft” for many conjures images of scruffy sixties radicals burning draft cards; popular notions about the disproportionate populations of poor and African American soldiers for that conflict originate with the Vietnam War and pop culture depictions of it. That view is shared today by many of those critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though racial and class demographics of the U.S. Armed Forces are remarkably similar to those of the population at large. Recruits from zip codes with median incomes between $35,000 and $79,999 are overrepresented among 2003–05 wartime enlistees, according to the Heritage Foundation’s “Who Are the Recruits?” report, issued in 2006.

In 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War, Congress ended the draft and instituted the All Volunteer Army. However, mandatory registration with the Selective Service persists: all 18-year-old males must register or risk a fine of $250,000 and/or five years’ imprisonment. No male U.S. citizen may receive federal financial aid for college without registering.

Logo for AmeriCorps Week 2009, Courtesy of the Corporation for National and Community Service.With real and perceived threats to American security, the question of conscription and whether or not the All Volunteer Army is an effective means of defending the United States (however one defines “defending”) is a complicated one. One core belief that the Vital Pictures team will address was written in 1783 by George Washington in a document prepared for Congress entitled “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment”: “It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our democratic system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property but even his personal service to the defense of it.”

It may be this ethos that fuels the Obama Administration’s service initiatives—and it may also be an implicit faith in the responsibility of the collective to address collapsing services. On March 18 of this year, Congress passed the Generations Invigorating Volunteering and Education (GIVE) Act, H.R. 1388, “updating and strengthening” (not to mention funding) national service programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the implementation of this law will cost $6 billion over the 2010–2014 period. A quick Internet search on this bill and its passage will give a whiff of the fear of mandatory service—a model that the U.S. public is far from embracing.

Focusing on a small set of families whose members have served in America’s armed conflicts from World War II to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vital Pictures team will merge a historical overview of the draft with personal accounts of how military service experiences affect individuals and their families. With their strong track record as documentary filmmakers and creators of enduring educational websites about complicated social issues, there’s no doubt that their efforts will contribute to national conversations about service of all kinds. As Christine Herbes-Sommers puts it, “it could place the notion of service in historical context, deflect some of the uninformed criticism and hostility, and help more Americans see service in its many forms—military and civilian—and its promise more clearly.”