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Ageism, Youth Liberation, and the Draft

Teenagers Against the Draft
[Teenagers Against the Draft, Boston, MA, 21 March 1981. Photo © Ellen Shub. All rights reserved.]

When I was invited to testify before the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service in 2019, I began my prepared opening statement as follows:

You have described this hearing as being about "Expanding Selective Service registration to all Americans", by which you mean whether to expand draft registration to young women as well as young men. But that you could describe a requirement applicable only to young people as being one that applies to "all" people is indicative of the profound and unexamined ageism that underlies any system of conscription based on the idea that old people are entitled to decide how young people's lives should be used. It is because of this ageism that opposition to the draft has been central to movements for youth liberation, not only in this country and not only in the 1960s but around the world and throughout history.

There are many good reasons to oppose conscription. The draft {coerces} {young people} {to kill or be killed} {at the direction of the state}. Each element of that summary is a reason to oppose any draft. It's only natural, given these multiple sources of opposition to the draft, that some people (anarchists, libertarians, and other anti-authoritarians) oppose a draft because they oppose state coercion; some people (pacifists and other anti-war activists) oppose a draft because they oppose wars in general or the particular wars for which soldiers are being drafted; and some people (young people and their allies in the movement for youth liberation) oppose a draft because it is ageist.

I don't need to, and won't presume to, tell young people why ageism is wrong. As an older ally, my role is to support them in their resistance and their efforts to liberate themselves, and to try to raise the consciousness of other older people about our ageism. In particular, I hope that this article will reach some older people who oppose the draft but haven't thought about ageism, youth liberation, or how they relate to the draft, other sources of oppression, and other struggles for liberation.

I'm an atheist, an anarchist, and a pacifist, any of which would be sufficient reason to resist the draft and preparations (such as Selective Service registration and the appointment and training of local draft boards) and contingency planning for a draft. But my first and primary motive for draft resistance was and is my opposition to ageism. I was an activist for youth liberation long before I was an anarchist, a pacifist, or a draft resister. My first book was a handbook for high school students on their legal rights which I co-authored in the summer of 1977, between high school and college. (It was commissioned by a student-centric faction of the Massachusetts Department of Education, but rewrites to tone down the radicalism of what we had written delayed publication until 1980.)

Race, class, and schooling, among other sources of privilege, all influence who is selected or channeled into the military. The "Selective Service System" is, by definition and intent, selective. But in no respect is its selectivity so absolute as with respect to gender (currently, although that may change soon) and age. With the exception of the "doctor draft", which conscripted somewhat older male doctors (although still with an upper age limit) and current Selective Service contingency plans for a draft of health care workers up to age 45 (but no older), only men under age 26 are required to register for, or at risk of, a draft.

The most universal selection criterion for conscription is age. Even in countries where (young) women as well as (young) men are drafted, only young people are drafted. The burdens of draft registration fall uniquely on young people, solely on the basis of age.

The most obvious assumption of military conscription is that the lives of young people in this country belong not to those young people; the lives of those young people instead are possessions of the state, to be used by the state when and where the state chooses to use them. The decisions made by those young people are not decisions made on the terms that they find in their lives. They are rather decisions that are made on the terms of the state because those people belong to the state....

Conscription does not exist without you and me... The most elaborate bureaucracy for Selective Service in the world does not function without people such as you and me willing to sign our lives over to that system. Without you and me, it's nothing.... American totalitarianism is participatory. Which means that if you don't buy it, it doesn't move. And I don't buy it.

["The Assumptions of the Draft", remarks by David Harris -- later convicted and imprisoned for violating the Military Selective Service Act by refusing induction into the military -- at the National Student Congress, 1968, reprinted in "The Movement Towards a New America", edited by Mitchell Goodman, 1970, pp. 445-446]

Even if they aren't drafted, men ages 18-26 are the only US citizens other than those under court supervision for having been convicted of crimes who are required to report to the government every time they change their address (although few comply with, or are even aware of, this Selective Service requirement).

Symbols of conscription (such as draft registration or the issuance of a draft card) have often become key political coming-of-age rituals and totems. Draft resistance, as the deliberate rejection of submission to military service -- one of, and often the most important, prerequisites of adult political and legal status -- is thus correctly and literally regarded as "childish". It's a renunciation of adult status by those who have attained the age of eligibility for its privileges.

Draft resisters are commonly dismissed as "having issues" with their parents, especially their fathers. To those who see the claims of the state through the Selective Service System to authority over their newly-adult bodies as resting on the same patriarchal ageist basis as their parents' prior claims over their bodies as children, that's precisely the point.

The "Solomon Amendments" in the USA, which impose lifetime ineligibility for Federal government jobs and funding for education on those who don't register for the draft by age 26, can be seen as formal legal expression of this permanent "sub-adult" status of draft resisters.

The focus of the draft on just one or a few year-of-birth cohorts at a time, and the extremity of the burden it thus imposes on the basis of age, makes it one of the most overt expressions of ageism in government policy. As Phil Ochs famously sang, part of the reason why "I ain't marching any more" was that, "It's always the old who lead us to the war; it's always the young who fall". In such circumstances, it's natural that awareness of the injustice of the draft has been central to consciousness-raising among young people about ageism, and that draft resisters have been in the forefront of many other struggles for youth liberation. "The military draft must be abolished" was part of the original manifesto of the Youth Liberation collective of Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1970, which fifty years later remains the single most influential and widely-accepted statement of the demands of the youth liberation movement:

Our lives are considered the property of various adults. We do not recognize their right to control us. We call this control adult chauvinism, and we will fight it....

This whole system is being run so badly [by old people] that the earth and its people are heading toward disaster....

Our basic goal can be stated in a few words -- We want the power to control our destiny -- we want self-determination over our lives. This is not only our right; youth self-determination is necessary if human beings are going to survive on this planet....

[Our] goal is to unfold a whole new dimension of human liberation... On the Left, adult chauvinism still permeates. Too few radicals relate to adult chauvinism as an important aspect of human oppression.... The Youth Liberation struggle will... join all other movements of oppressed people....

We are young. We want to live. We are the future.

[Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor, "The Oppression of the Young", in "The Children's Rights Movement: Overcoming the Oppression of Young People", edited by Beatrice Gross and Ronald Gross (1977)]

The connections between draft resistance and youth liberation were perhaps clearest in the adoption of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, by which those then of voting age (21 and older in all but four states) extended voting rights to all citizens 18 and older.

The 26th Amendment was a direct response to the argument that it was unfair to draft people too young to have a vote in whether to go to war or whether or how to conduct a draft. (See the questioning of Tom Hayden about the relationship between the draft and the 18-year-old vote by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, 23 October 1968, in Rebellion and Repression (World Publishing Co., Cleveland, 1969), pp. 48-49, excerpted here.)

To deny the vote to the young is all the more unjust because they are more likely than anyone else by the decisions the government makes and the things it does. A country may make a decision to got to war, or make a decision that will soon lead to war, in which young people will in a few years have to kill and die, but those young people will have nothing to say about the decision. A strong case could be made that on matters of war and peace no one should be able to vote who might not be called to fight.

[John Holt, Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974)]

This was an argument purely about ageism, and quite distinct from any of the arguments against the war itself, or even against the draft per se. The argument about age discrimination was so persuasive, even to voters who wanted to continue the war and the draft, that they amended the Constitution with unprecedented rapidity. Purely anti-war and anti-draft arguments failed to bring about any policy changes at a level remotely comparable to a Constitutional amendment.

The 26th Amendment was approved overwhelmingly by Congress after minimal debate, and ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states in less than four months in 1971. That was far quicker than any Constitutional amendment before or since. By comparison, the Equal Rights Amendment for women was approved by Congress only after intense debate in 1972, and failed to get the necessary ratifications even after ten years of debate in state legislatures.

A similar argument to that about the draft and the voting age -- "How can you say we're too young to handle alcohol when we're old enough to be made to handle all manner of weapons and kill or be killed?" -- led many states, during the same period, to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18, 19, or 20. All of those state laws were overridden by a Federal law raising the drinking age in all states to 21 in 1984, almost a decade after the last inductions of draftees into the military. As with the voting age, the drinking age was lowered in an (unsuccessful) attempt to assuage not criticism of the draft in general, but criticism specifically of the ageism of the draft. Unlike the voting age, the drinking age was raised once the draft (and its ageism) was no longer seen as an issue.

The USA was willing amend the Constitutional provisions for eligibility to vote, and to change the drinking age (no small matter, considering the importance placed on alcohol policy in the 20th-century USA) to try to legitimate the draft in the face of public criticism of its ageism. That gives some indication of how closely the draft has been linked in the public mind with broader issues of ageism and youth rights -- not just issues of peace and war.

Historians, political scientists, and activists sometimes acknowledge the contribution of the draft to youth consciousness-raising, but less often recognize the converse role that youth liberation plays in draft resistance and through it in broader anti-war movements. So far as I know, a proper history of the relationship between the youth liberation and anti-war movements of the 1960's and 1970's in the USA has yet to be written, despite their obvious symbiosis and despite extensive study of other ideological, organizational, and identity-based aspects of the anti-war politics of the period. It's taken for granted, I think, that we have a better intuitive understanding of their interplay than we do.

Such an analysis would necessarily include the ideology of youth liberation, the objections to the draft as ageist (including the common arguments for the legitimacy of the draft derived from analogies to the presumed legitimacy of patriarchal/parental authority, and the basis for their rejection), and the connections (and divergences) between anti-war, anti-draft, and youth organizations. It would need to consider the connections between apologia for the draft and apologia for patriarchy, and how objections to both have coincided or influenced each other. It would need to include the role of the draft in youth consciousness-raising, and the counter-cultural acceptance of overt draft resistance and norm of closeted or semi-closeted draft avoidance (along with the illegality of drugs), in creating a counter-cultural meta-norm of outlawry and in delegitimizing both governmental and patriarchal/parental authority in general. Last but not least, it would need to look at the social dynamics of the anti-war movement in relation to youth culture and community.

Ageism also underlies proposals for compulsory national service. As I said to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service:

People can best "serve" by making their own choices. "Service" should not be limited to options approved by the government for nonprofit status. We need youth leadership to save us from the threats of nuclear and climate-change calamities that we older people have created. We need to allow young people to lead, not force them to follow. Accepting youth leadership means allowing young people to make choices that older people would not have identified for them.

The greatest limitation on the ability to "serve", especially for young people, is student debt that forces people to seek higher-paying jobs. This is the new form of the channeling of young people's choices by the Selective Service System. The best way to enable more people to "serve" is to free them from student and vocational-training debt by recognizing education as a human right and shifting funding for education and job training from loans to grants.

As I tried to explain (more here) to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (which called no draft-age witnesses at any of its hearings), it's not as though we old people know what needs to be done, and all that it will take is for more young people to do what we tell them to do. We need more leaders among young people, not more followers; more young people who question the authority of the old; and more parents and other older people who work as allies to young people rather than trying to control or co-opt them. Humanity will survive, if it survives, only if we old people get out of the way, empower and assist young people to make their own choices rather than trying to constrain their choices as the Selective Service System has been designed to do, and are willing to consider following their leadership in new directions. The idea that young people but only young people should be required to serve, and that old people know which forms of service should and should not be acceptable, comes across as onerous and infantilizing.

Understanding that for some people draft resistance is part of the movement for youth liberation can, and should, inform our anti-draft organizing strategies and goals. By wielding the power of direct action and the withholding of labor and consent, draft resistance can not only constrain the ability of the state to wage (unpopular) wars, but can empower young people to realize that they have, as my mentor (both in draft resistance and in later years as an older ally to youth liberationists) Dave Dellinger titled one of his books, "More Power Than We Know".

What am I doing in the anti-draft and youth liberation movements at age 60? Why should that be any more of a question, or a surprise, than why white people are working to try to overcome white supremacy in themselves and others, or why men are trying to support feminism? Ageism is a problem of old people, and we old people have a responsibility, if we recognize that problem, to try to do something about it.

Ageism within anti-draft movements and organizations has been a pervasive problem and a source of recurring struggle. At least in the past, including in the anti-draft movement of the 1980s, there was little awareness or application to anti-draft activism and organizing of the ideas about "allyship" that were being developed by white anti-racists, feminist men, and other solidarity movements.

The role of older allies is not to "save" young people from the draft and other forms of ageist oppression, but to help them free themselves -- and help them free all of us, young and old -- from the draft and the larger, longer, and less popular wars that a draft enables.

More generally, the role of old people in the movement for youth liberation is to raise the consciousness of ourselves and other old people about our ageism, to strive to work as allies to young people seeking their own liberation, and to struggle continually within ourselves against our own ageism, including especially the temptation -- one of the distinctive perpetuators of ageism -- to assume that, because we were once young, we understand what it is like for other individuals, from another another generation, to be young today. As Phil Ochs sang of such elders, "I know that you were younger once / 'cause you sure are older now." And as Kahlil Gibran wrote (in a poem that was adapted into a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock) about the need for old people to overcome our possessive parental instincts and let young people lead us:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

Some notes -- not specific to the issue of the draft -- for those unfamiliar with the discourse of ageism and youth liberation:

On youth liberation generally: The single best starting point for understanding the discourse of "youth liberation" and its sources remains the book "Youth Liberation", Times Change Press, 1972, which includes the original manifesto and additional materials from Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor and the FPS news service, a related news service for high school "underground" newspapers modeled in part on Liberation News Service (which served the college-age and "adult" alternative press). The 1970 platform of Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor remains as timely today as the ten-point platform of the Black Panther Party (which includes point 6: "We want all Black men to be exempt from military service") from the same era.

Every hierarchy, every abuse, every act of domination that seeks to justify or excuse itself appeals through analogy to the rule of adults over children.... The flags of supposed experience, benevolence, anf familial obligation are the first of many paraded through our lives to celebrate the suppression of our agency, the dismissal of our desires, the reduction of our personhood. Our whole world is caught in a cycle of abuse, largely unexamined and unnamed. And at its root lies our dehumanisation of children.

[NO! Against Adult Supremacy, first published online by Stinney Distro, 2016; published in print by Dog Section Press and Active Distribution, 2017]

On terminology: In this article, I use the term ageism to refer to discrimination, bias, and oppression against younger people. The term "ageism" can also be used to refer to discrimination against older people. Discrimination against elders has some aspects in common with discrimination against youth, and some differences. Unfortunately, the same word is used for both, with no simple, widely-understood alternative terminology to distinguish these two age-based forms of discrimination. Adultism, "adult chauvinism", and "adult supremacy" are terms sometimes used to refer to the oppression of younger people, but all of these formulations are problematic for those who question the concept of "adulthood". Paternalism can be misunderstood as referring only to oppression by parents, eliding the paternalistic oppression of other older people who act in loco parentis (or as though they were). I think that "youth liberation" states the issue most clearly, with no risk of being confused with the rights of the elderly.

On intersectionalities with sexism and other sources of oppression: Some radical feminists, perhaps most explicitly and influentially Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex, have described "patriarchy" as rule of the family by the patriarchal husband/father, including both domination of women by men and of children by parents and other "adults". In this formulation, the struggle against sexism and the struggle against ageism -- in the family and in other social and governmental structures modeled on the patriarchal family and the illegitimate authority of the husband/father over women and children -- are part of a common struggle against the patriarchy.

Women and children are always mentioned in the same breath... The special tie women have with children is recognized by everyone. I submit, however, that the nature of this bond is no more than shared oppression. And that moreover this oppression is intertwined and reinforcing in such complex ways that we will be unable to speak of the liberation of women without also discussing the liberation of children, and vice versa.... We must include the oppression of children in any program for feminist revolution.

[Shulamith Firestone, Down With Childhood, in The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, 1970]

Controls on young people's sexuality are rooted in a combination of attitudes about both age and sexuality. Queer youth are among those most severely impacted by ageism, homophobia, and their intersections, and have often been in the forefront of movements for both gay liberation and youth liberation, as with the ground-breaking 1976 pamphlet produced by Youth Liberation and distributed as a special issue of FPS: a magazine of young people's liberation, Growing Up Gay. At the same time, queer "adults" have often been among the leading allies of youth liberation among older people, and among the leading allies of draft resistance among those people who are too old to be drafted themselves.

The children's liberation movement... repudiated child paternalism. Set against the backdrop of a cultural moment when adults--from hippies and radical feminists to civil rights to early gay rights--were seeking greater personal freedoms, it was perhaps only a matter of time before young people identified themselves as -- or were identified as -- an oppressed minority deserving of legal equality and, in effect, manumission. Even recalling what we know about the radical nature of the 1960s, it can be difficult to appreciate that child liberation was not a fringe idea.... These ideas took an even more radical turn when they were combined with the newly emerging discourse of Women's Liberation.... Gay Liberationists were inspired by Women's Liberation and many wished in their activism to engage the topics of childhood and pedagogy..... Gay Liberation repudiated child paternalism, the idea that children need the protection of adults and, in exchange, are eligible for fewer basic rights.

[When Gays Wanted to Liberate Children by Michael Bronski (Boston Review, 2018; also included in The Once and Future Feminist).

Allen Ginsberg was among the prominent older queer allies of young draft registration resisters in the 1980s; see his poems explicitly mentioning draft registration resistance, "Verses Written for Student Antidraft Registration Rally 1980" (in Plutonium Ode and Other Poems 1977-1980) and "Industrial Waves" (in White Shroud, Poems 1980-1985).

For additional analysis (mainly from an anarchist perspective, although this should not be taken as implying that all or most youth liberationists are anarchists) of a wide variety of intersectionalities of ageism and other sources of oppression, see NO! Against Adult Supremacy, first published online by Stinney Distro, 2016; published in print by Dog Section Press and Active Distribution, 2017.

Children in today's society are uniquely oppressed, but for the most part their oppression goes unnoticed even by people who consider themselves progressives or radicals. The fact that the relations between children and adults are based on inequality and compulsion is considered a separate issue from oppressions based on race, gender or sexual orientation, because it is considered somehow natural. Children are seen as incapable of making decisions for themselves and running their own affairs, due to their supposed lack of experience and immaturity, and therefore it is considered legitimate for adults to exercise some kind of authority over them. Anarchism, which is based on the principles of individual sovereignty, non-coercion, free association and mutual aid, can play an important role in helping to formulate an anti-authoritarian theory of parenting, education and child-rearing, and to begin the process of liberating children from an oppressive society.

[Marc Silverstein, "Anarchism and Youth Liberation", in NO! Against Adult Supremacy, Issue 1]

Understanding of these intersectionalities between the draft and various sources of oppression is not new, at least in some circles. A century ago, when the anarchist, feminist, sex radical, and anti-war activist Emma Goldman had her U.S. citizenship revoked and was deported from the U.S. in 1919, her speeches and other work against the draft during World War I (for which she had been convicted and imprisoned for two years for conspiracy to "aid, abet, and counsel" young men to register for the draft before she was deported) were a central part of the case against her.

On liberal and radical conceptions of, and responses to, ageism: Just as there is a difference between "civil rights" and "Black Power", or between between liberal feminist discourse of "women's rights" and radical feminist discourse of "women's liberation", so there is a distinction between liberal thinking and action for "children's rights" or "youth rights" and radical movements for "youth liberation". The ageism of the draft is obviously a denial of equal rights as well as a symptom and sign of deeper ageist attitudes. One need not be a radical youth activist, or a supporter of radical activism for youth liberation, to oppose the draft as ageist. But as a radical, I see "ageism" and its manifestations in attitudes, institutions, and modes of oppression as encompassing much more than discrimination or the denial of equal rights.

[This article includes portions adapted from my chapter, Draft Resistance and the Politics of Identity and Status, in We Have Not been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America, edited by Elizabeth Betita Martínez, Mandy Carter, and Matt Meyer, published by PM Press and the War Resisters League, 2012.]


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This page most recently modified 3 January 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.