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Feminism and the Draft

By Marian Henriquez Neudel

(July 1983)

The importance of feminism to the anti-draft movement has mostly been explored on the premise that women are less violent than men, and that a society which operated on female values would be a nonviolent society. That assumption may or may not be justified - it is hard to conceive of a way to find out, in the absence of laboratory conditions.

But there are other, less speculative ways of looking at the relation of women to militarism, which deserve more careful exploration. For instance, it is generally taken for granted that, because wars are initiated by men, men also bear most of the risks and the casualties of war. In fact, a case can be made that all war is basically war against women and children. Most major religious traditions frown on the killing of noncombatants in war - and are mostly ignored. The ratio of civilian to military casualties in Vietnam was 10 to 1. We have no reason to believe those figures differed much from what earlier wars would have provided, if the combatants in World War II, the 30 Years’ War, or the Crusades, for instance, had been equally careful about keeping statistics.

Americans in particular may tend to ignore civilian casualties simply because it has been over a century since the war was fought on our soil, and our civilians exposed to combat. But, in countries such as Russia, China, France, Italy, Germany, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, which have been the scene of protected international or civil wars, civilians - a predominantly female category made up of children and old people of both sexes and adult women - have been massacred on occasions too numerous to count. Those massacres were made possible by the very fact that the victims were civilians - unarmed, untrained in combat techniques, and often physically incapable of combat.

Civilians, additionally, are likely to suffer disproportionately from the famine and disease that almost always accompanied war - the soldiers usually get whatever food and medical care is available before the civilians needs are tended to. From a militaristic point of view, typhus and starvation may be “side effects” of war; from the perspective of the vast majority of people who have ever had the misfortune of living where a war is going on, they are the war.

Susan Brownmiller, in Against Our Will, has documented extensively the presumption of the “right” to rate which armies routinely carry into war, and the fact that women who have been raped by soldiers on the “other” side are often punished for their quote fraternization” by the soldiers on their “own” side.

Additionally, women have served in “noncombatant” positions with military forces in virtually all wars - taking care of male soldiers as long dresses, nurses, cooks, provisioners, etc. Often, this expose them to all the dangers of combat without any opportunity to defend themselves or fight back.

Which brings up the second way in which women’s interests come into clear opposition to militarism. Not only do women arguably bear a disproportionate burden in terms of war-related casualties; but the honor and solicitude given to those who bear the burdens of war are reserved entirely for combatants (there is no “Unknown Civilian”), and the role of combatant and is reserved for men. Women have served in combat zones with the US Armed Forces as nurses (for instance) for over a century, have been shot at, have died in combat, have been decorated for valor (and have also, as in the case of Dr. Mary Walker, been denied decoration for valor solely because of being female). The issue of whether war jeopardizes our femininity comes up only in the context of whether we are to be allowed to shoot back. (Similarly, the needs and problems of women veterans have been virtually ignored by the Veterans Administration. And, oddly, while a man may be statutorily exempted from the draft because his father, or brother, or sister, died as the result of military service, his mother’s death under the same circumstances will have no effect.)

There is an uncomfortable parallel between this blatant prejudice and the controversy during the 70s over whether COs who had completed their civilian alternative service were to be given veterans’ benefits. Congress and the general public were outraged at the very idea, that young men who had refused to fight for their country were to be given the same pensions, medical benefits, and educational goodies as former soldiers. I don’t recall anyone even mentioning, and the course of that controversy, the fact that Confederate veterans of the Civil War had been eligible for veterans’ pensions, by act of the U.S. Congress, since about 1915. Apparently, it is more honorable to be a warrior - even a warrior who takes up arms against his country’s lawful government, and loses - and to serve that government as a civilian, under pay and working conditions required by law to be parallel to those in military service, because one has chosen not to be a warrior.

The solidarity of warriors, regardless of national or political affiliation, and even when fighting on opposite sides, is a staple of sentimental World War I and Civil War movies. But it is more than a literary convention; it is also a basic component of our political system. The women’s movement challenges that system by being outside the “old-warrior network,” and questioning its legitimacy. We are not the “other side’s warriors,” we are the victims and prospective victims of war. We are the civilians who were expected to “pay off” our warrior “protectors” by allowing them to monopolize resources, honors, and political power. We are the women who are no longer willing to make the payoff.

The draft resistance movement exists to encourage men to opt out of the warrior system and join us in devising new ways to distribute resources, honors, and power. Our warrior “protectors” have never done done a good job of shielding us from the dangers of war, except by fighting our wars elsewhere and endangering the women there. And, in the age of nuclear weapons, there is no “elsewhere,” and we are all equally exposed, equally unprotected, and equally on honored. The “Unknowing Soldier” from the next war will be a cloud of radioactive ashes inextricably mixed with those of countless “Unknown Civilians.” The women’s movement and the draft resistance movement must work together to prevent that war, by undermining the warrior polity.

[Marian Henriquez Neudel is an attorney in Chicago and a member of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild. She was active in the Midwest Committee for Draft Counseling (MCDC) and its successor the Midwest Committee for Military Counseling (MCMC). Originally published in Resistance News #13, July 1983. Reprinted by kind permission of the author.]

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