WASHINGTON -- The only child of one of my previous wives turned 18 last week, a milestone that, when I attained it a long, long time ago, was an occasion for panic, despair, and terrific music like Phil Ochs's Draft Dodger Rag to sing on the one-way journey to the Selective Service office and the jungles of Viet Nam:
(Sarge, I'm only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen,
And I always carry a purse.
I got eyes like a bat, and my feet are flat, and my asthma's getting worse . . .
Yet today, 40 years later, in an age when barely one per cent of young American men and women voluntarily bear the burden of George Bush and Barack Obama's endless Asian wars, it is little remembered that the existential threat of forced military service once hung over every teen-aged male in the land.
In 1970, for example, my student deferment expired and I was classified 1-A by my draft board and therefore in prime condition for slaughter. Luckily, I drew No. 211 in the annual draft lottery; that year, only boys with numbers up to 195 were mustered. Many chose Canada. The names of 50,000 of the millions who did serve are etched on a long wall here in Washington at which pilgrims still gather every day to remember and weep.
Now, suddenly, the military draft is back in the news. Even though not a single lad has been compelled to join the American Army, Navy, or Air Force since 1973, male citizens still are required to register at age 18, under penalty of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and the forfeiture of eligibility for various government loans and civil-service jobs. Nationwide, 87 per cent of young men complied with the requirement in 2011. The District of Columbia ranked last of all states and territories except the far-flung Northern Mariana Islands with only 56 per cent registration. In any event, no draft dodger has been ragged to court in this country since 1986.
At issue now is whether females as well as males should be subject to conscription in the event of a Third World War, assuming the conflict against the godless hordes of (fill in blank) lasts longer than it takes to read this paragraph.
On one side, we have 20-term Congressman Charles Rangel of Manhattan, who has survived not only vicious hand-to-hand fighting in Korea with great distinction for bravery, but formal censure by the House of Representatives for corruption and tax fraud as well. Last week, Rangel introduced a bill, to wit: "To require the registration of women with the Selective Service System in light of the Department of Defence elimination of the rule excluding women from direct ground combat assignments in the Armed Forces."
Universal conscription, Rangel argues, "would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation." Currently, 15 per cent of the U.S. Armed Forces is female, and more than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the opposite flank are Representatives (and combat veterans) Mike Coffman of Colorado (a Republican) and Peter DeFazio of Oregon (a Democrat), who are marking up their own legislation that would abolish selective service altogether, at a claimed savings of $24 million a year.
Intrigued by this legislative skirmishing, I showed up in the House cafeteria the other day to take the pulse of the body politic and found it filled with members of the American Legion who were even older than Charlie Rangel.
"If there's another war, should they draft the girls?" I asked a table full of World War II and Vietnam vets.
"Equal rights!" chirped Ken Knight of Alexandria, Va., an old Navy man. "Let 'em have 'em!"
"My wife says women are more vicious killers than men," piped in Mike Mitrione of upstate New York, who did 20 years in the army.
The elder statesman of the platoon, which had come to lobby for veterans' benefits, was Charlie Powell, Jr. of Newport News, Va., age 89. Powell made half a dozen Atlantic crossings as a member of the merchant marine during the Second World War, having failed to be accepted into the Marine Corps because he had eyes like a bat.
"If I did get in the Marines," he said, "I probably wouldn't be here today."
"If there's another war, should they draft the girls?" I asked him.
"I don't see no reason why they shouldn't," the old salt answered.
None of this was good news to the only child of one of my previous wives, who is a female named Hannah. (Her father, my ex-wife's ex-husband, joined the Air Force at 18 before they could draft him and served as a tail gunner on B-52 bombing raids over Hanoi. He never fired his weapon.)
"If there's another war, should they draft the girls?" I asked her on the phone to Boise, Idaho, as she turned 18 without a Sarge in sight.
"I don't want to say anything bad about the sex I'm part of," Hannah replied. "But I think there are parts of the military that only boys should have to do."
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.