Our Duty to Die: A Critique of the Draft

Imagine you stand before faceless men, and you are arguing to save your own life, but when you sound too much like you are arguing to save your own life, they stamp a red X on your papers. You have lost the right to remain alive.

There are seventeen million of you—barely men, mostly boys, and when the war is declared and the draft is reinstated in 2018, you sit in silence as you watch the news. Maybe it’s winter break. You’re home from college, and you can hear ceramic pots clanking in the kitchen sink, and somebody’s socked feet are thumping on the floorboards overhead. You feel hot. Your hands sweat. The news anchors are speaking and speaking and speaking but their faces do not move. You silently recall everything you ever learned about Vietnam in history class.

Now imagine you have never killed someone. Imagine you are going to kill someone. Your mother calls your name, and as you get to your feet—are your feet even moving?—you think that no, no you can’t imagine what it’s like. The person at the end of the barrel looks surprised, mouth forming a little ‘o;’ then there’s the sound, or at least what you think is the sound, of a person dying. Blood seems much brighter in the movies. This is a face you will remember for years: the shape of surprise, how eyes look when someone realizes they will be dead soon, and no name, never a name, just the body and blood of a child whose mother you will never meet.

You sit down in front of your dinner plate. While everybody else picks up their forks, you can see yourself dying. You are the person at the end of the barrel. Or maybe you don’t see it coming, the shot comes from miles away, and the blood on your palm when it pulls away from your gut is warm. Or maybe you don’t even know it happens. There are bombs. And grenades, and nuclear weapons; and people aren’t hard to tear apart: it only takes a trigger, and you realize, finally, that you are afraid to die—you are only twenty and you are selfish for being afraid to die.

When you grow older—that is, if you survive this—they will love to remind you that you are a coward. First you will find the grocery store stares that drag, then there will be the underhanded murmur at a family reunion, maybe a disingenuous squeeze of the wrist, then your great-aunt praises your cousin, then your uncle mourns your cousin, because your cousin was drafted and your cousin is dead, and you are standing there with a red Solo cup of ginger ale and a freshly pressed gingham shirt. Oh God. Somebody’s asking why you ran away. Somebody’s asking why you let people die. Somebody’s—

Saying your name. You look up then. Your mother has been saying your name. Everyone at the dinner table is looking at you, and your sister’s spoon spills peas, and your father’s knife pauses mid-slice in the heart of his steak, red and wet and squelching. You feel sick.

You’ll be fine, your mother promises, you’re going to be just fine. There are so many of you. (But perhaps this is the scariest part—that there are so many of you.)

The letter comes in the mail weeks later anyway. It shouldn’t be scary—just a crisp, off-white rectangle, and your thumbs wrinkle the edges slightly when you pull it out—but you feel like your father has just spooned out your heart with his steak knife. There one second, then a gaping hole the next. You read the induction notice once, lips slightly parted. Now you read it a second time. Your mouth has gone dry. You can hear you sister slamming the fridge door in the kitchen. There’s the sound of orange juice gulping into a glass, then your mother yells something muffled from the upstairs office, maybe your sister’s name, maybe yours. You fold the letter and try to slip it back into the envelope. Your hands are shaking though, and when your sister walks into the living room and asks what’s wrong, carrying a half-full cup of orange juice, you cannot find the words to speak. After all, this is supposed to be the stuff of fiction.

It is 2018, and the government has decided you will die for them. In a sick repetition of Vietnam, you now have two options— die, or refuse to die. Say you think long and hard and decide you refuse to die at the age of twenty. This, however, brings you to the faceless men, the local Selective Service board, who you are standing in front of while wearing your father’s dress coat and pants your mother starched creases into. They ask you questions you’re not quick enough to answer. You start to slip. You feel like there’s something you don’t know. The rules to a game, maybe, that the kids in gym class refuse to tell you before they start pelting rubber balls, and you’re suddenly overly aware that your mother is waiting for you outside, tapping her two-inch nude heels on the tile. You sweat through your father’s dress coat and when it’s done, when you’ve finished making your case, you know exactly what’s going to happen.

Your mother stands up after you close the door. Her red lipstick reminds you of the red X. This reminds you of the fear rising thick and heavy in your throat, which reminds you that you might be dead soon, so you don’t say anything. Words, after all, have yet to be on your side. In another world, our existences owe the military nothing.

Illustration of letter being opened
Illustration by Téa Wimer

Regardless, the draft is a difficult concept to grapple with. While living as citizens, we are expected to give pieces of ourselves to the state in return for protection, laws, and other things that theoretically make our society flow smoothly. The act of coexistence demands a mutual relationship that keeps us moving in unbroken circles, and the draft, according to the government, a necessary manifestation of this relationship. Once again, this theoretically makes sense, and yet I am afraid for the erasure of the individual.

As it stands, we owe our lives to the government in the kind of life-pledge that could mean nothing but could also mean everything. The draft seems harmless because it is currently not in effect. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, all men on American soil—and women soon—must register with the Selective Service System, which administers the draft when necessary. The process is simple—some states automatically register you when you get your driver’s license, and registration is offered online as well. So why fear it? The last man was inducted into the army in 1973. The year is 2018. We scratch our name into the lists of seventeen million and sleep easily at night.

Yet despite that the draft is currently inactive, the Selective Service System still dangles our lives above our heads—the legal structures that allowed Vietnam to happen have not shifted. We have a sense of security that the worst will never happen to us, that Vietnam will remain a high school history unit instead of reality. We forget what this life-pledge means because most of us have never lived through a draft. Registering with the Selective Service System now seems as harmless as going to the post office or filing taxes, as simple and boring as updating a license plate, and this is why the draft is insidious.

It is also virtually impossible to evade. Failure to register for Selective Service denies you access to federal financial aid, jobs, driver’s licenses, and U.S. citizenship if you don’t have it already; furthermore, if you want to opt out as a conscientious objector, or somebody who objects to military service on religious or ethical grounds, you aren’t allowed to do so until the draft is actually activated. While we won’t be walking around with draft cards tucked into our front pockets, there are still serial codes printed on our backs, and the government only has to fish a number out of a bingo cage before shipping us off.

Remember this when you register online after your eighteenth birthday.

Many think of the draft as an egalitarian method to secure enough people to protect the country in wartime. Many others think of it as a basic duty to the country. Perhaps my ideas are skewed, but randomly plucking young people from kitchens and classrooms and forcing them to partake in war is not a representation of equality. It is an expression of cruelty. It is the systematic destruction of an individual’s ability to choose how to live in accordance with one’s beliefs—simply by existing within America, you are expected to kill for America if she calls on you. And what is your duty regardless? Simple existence is not submission. This is a mutual relationship where both sides give and take, and the state cannot exist without the people, which means the people should—and must—challenge what the state demands of us.

The year is 2018 and the situation has worsened—the War on Terror has only emphasized the sense of military worship that permeates American life. We don’t question what a soldier has done when they return home from war. We thank them for defending us from what, and who, we don’t understand. The military—and the draft as well—have become symbols of what it means to be an American citizen, and we are so indoctrinated to this idea that we rarely question the implications of registering with the Selective Service System. For a country that inflates and venerates democracy as much as the United States does, forcing human beings to take part in war is perhaps one of the most undemocratic, and inhumane, structures that exists here today.

Choice, and choice alone, is the core of the argument against the draft. In order for the draft to exist, we detach ourselves from the idea that humans are individuals with unique sets of values, but in no collective should individual lines be blurred. We often forget that people have the incredible ability to choose. When it comes to war, people should, above all else, have the right to choose how they are involved. They are not property to be shipped across the sea to kill or be killed. They are not chess pieces of the state—including those who choose to be soldiers, who are praised in parades yet remain nameless to the rest of us. They are people, like you and me, who love and hate and are often afraid.

We often forget the people who will be forced to go to war when the draft returns. They will lose a piece of themselves that cannot be salvaged. You’ll lose a piece of yourself, too, when you reduce others to property. We’ve been here before with the Thirteenth Amendment—neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. And though the state may have decided that the draft is not involuntary servitude, the state has been wrong before. Society should be ever-changing and constantly assess its widening cracks. The draft is a crack that, one day, we all just might fall into.

Forty-three years have passed since Vietnam ended, and in that time, any and all opposition to the draft has fallen silent. We feel comfortable. We don’t think about how we comply with a legal system that has the constitutional right to force us to fight. And if we continue with our complacency, then we won’t stand a chance when the draft returns.

I pretend I am pulling the envelope out of the mailbox. Maybe it would do you some good to pretend there’s one waiting for you, too. Because no matter your morals, killing somebody—or being killed—is a transformative action. You only have so many years here. You only have so many replays in your brain of the boy you shot overseas. Dying is an irreversible bruise, and while I may have few concrete answers for things, I at least know that human life isn’t light—human life is heavy.

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