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Ageism, Youth Liberation, and the Draft

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 the draft. It's only natural, given these multiple sources of opposition to the draft, that some people (anarchists, libertarians, and other anti-authoritarians) oppose the draft because they oppose state coercion; some people (pacifists and other anti-war activists) oppose the 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 the draft because it is ageist.

I'm an atheist, an anarchist, and a pacifist, any of which would be sufficient reason to resist the 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) 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.

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.

(This was, of course, more true in the USA during the American War in Vietnam, when in general only the youngest of those deemed "adult" were being drafted. During periods of more total mobilization for war, such as World War II, when even middle-aged men were subject to at least some risk of being drafted, perception of the draft was much less closely linked to attitudes toward age and ageism.)

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.)

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 old 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 organizing strategies and our 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.

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 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.

[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 is sometimes used to refer to anti-youth bigotry, but is problematic for those who question the concept of "adulthood". I think that "youth liberation" states the issue most clearly, with no risk of being confused with the rights of the elderly. 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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