A Prescription for Conscription? Lessons from the Draft in the American Civil War and Compulsory Service in Subsequent Conflicts
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The purpose of this unit is to examine the concept and historical record of conscription throughout the history of the United States in order to gain insight into an issue that has profoundly affected thousands of men and families and may ultimately affect thousands more in the future. The drafts conducted in the Civil War are the first uses of national conscription in the history of the United States of America. For this reason and because the Civil War is a prominent part of my United States I History curriculum, the Union and Confederate drafts will be primary points of study in this unit. However, the employment of the draft in subsequent conflicts in the history of the United States will also be included to highlight issues associated with conscription. Because the debate over initiatives to re-institute conscription for the military and/or national service are current issues that may specifically affect students, this unit is an excellent opportunity to apply historical examples and historical thinking to a contemporary issue.
For American men who grew up in the 1960’s and early 1970’s the idea of being drafted into military service was all too real. Men, as young as 18, faced compulsory service and the likelihood that they would be compelled to fight in the Vietnam War. While most men chose to serve, some chose to publicly protest, and others elected to evade by leaving the United States to hide out in Canada.
Currently while young men are not facing the prospect of a draft, they very well could be. The reality of how our military is deployed in a war on terror suggests that a draft is more plausible than in more peaceful times in our nation’s history. However, even if we were enjoying a Pax Americana today (as far away and dreamy as this seems) I think conscription is worth exploring with young people in an intellectual and emotional sense. Specifically, I wonder, “How can one justify or deny the notion of conscription from an ideological and/or personal point of view/” I remember the seriousness of my friends and me having to register for the selective service (the preliminary step in initiating a draft). We were just in high school in 1980, when Congress during the Reagan administration issued such a law. That was a big deal to my friends and me. ‘We might be drafted!’ was a sobering thought to many of my classmates and me. Just as John Knowles vividly portrayed in
A Separate Peace
, we imagined and voiced the spectrum of reaction to war: patriotism, fear, denial, and anger toward adults who appeared to be selfishly playing with our lives.
Because of the War on Terror, a draft today would be more of a concern to my students. This war has American troops occupying sensitive locations in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, significant troop levels from our All Volunteer Force (AVF) maintain their traditional assignments in accordance with our longstanding alliances in Europe and the Far East. Given these commitments and potential troop-level increases to deal with possible crisis in Iran or parts of Africa, public officials have raised concern that our AVF is stretched too thin. If such is the case, will government officials call for the conscription of young males or females? If that were to happen would my students be able to physically and emotionally deal with the process and outcomes of conscription? Short of observing them experience this phenomena first-hand, it may be impossible to say. However, through examining the historical precedents of conscription and the fundamental arguments for and against it, my students might gain valuable forethought and insight that will prepare them for handling conscription. Preferably a draft and war will not have to be experienced firsthand and these ideas can instead be saved for discussion to future generations.