Annie, Don't Get Your Gun

The question of whether women should be drafted forces society to think more deeply about both war and feminism

0ne of my favorite possessions, which I picked up a few years ago at a flea market, is a copy of the December 21, 1942, issue of Lift. At $1.00, it cost me ten times what it would have cost my mother, who graduated from high school that year, or my father, who was soon to enlist in the Navy. Recently, as my generation has begun to face the possibility of a peacetime draft registration that would include both sexes, I have found that my issue of Lift, once no more than a period piece, has gained a timely poignance. In its portrayal of a nation obsessed with war, and with the roles men and women should play in war, it suggests a number of disturbing comparisons with our present situation.

The sacrifices necessary to war pervade not only most of the articles but many of the advertisements in Life's 1942 Christmas issue. "Please don't call long distance this Christmas!" Bell Telephone requests. "It may be the 'holiday season'—but war needs the wires." An ad for the United States Rubber Company portrays a young mother explaining to her infant son that his father has been lent to his country "so that in the years to come, young mothers everywhere . . . will be able to say 'Merry Christmas' to their sons." The magazine's cover story, "Lonely Wife," is a photo‑essay whose text offers advice to wives of servicemen. Move into a smaller place, but make sure "your husband is the master when he returns on furlough." Take an evening course in camouflage. "Volunteer work is another good outlet." The males who remain at home are "wolves" to be kept "at bay"; in one photograph pretty Joan, the Lonely Wife, enterprisingly keeps a potential wolf's hands occupied by having him help wind her knitting yarn. Another photo, of five women playing cards, is captioned: "Company of other women, of little interest when husbands are around, is now appreciated by Joan." She is last pictured in church kneeling in solitary prayer before a war shrine, beseeching the Lord "to take into thine own hand both him and the cause wherein his country sends him."

Life's vision of a nation united in war—so different from the only American war I remember, Vietnam, during which my older brother's registration as a conscientious objector brought me nothing but relief—is also that of a society comfortably and securely stratified according to what we now popularly call role models. An ad for the New Haven Railroad shows a soldier in his berth contemplating "a dog named Shucks, or Spot, or Barnacle Bill. The pretty girl who writes so often. . . that gray‑haired man, so proud and awkward at the station . . . the mother who knit the socks he'll wear soon." One of the few light‑hearted articles in Life's Christmas issue is a feature on Las Vegas gamblers, which straight-facedly observes, "Keno is a woman's game. Like old‑fashioned lotto or moviehouse bingo, it requires little intelligence."

0ur society's ambivalence about drafting women derives from a certain amount of progress: we no longer hold an (insulting) consensus about what distinguishes women from men.' Since President Carter announced his intention to register nineteen‑ and twenty‑year‑old women for the draft, however, the debate seems to have taken on an unfortunate rigidity. If you are a "feminist," you may deplore registration and the draft, but you must concede that if men are to be drafted then women should also be drafted. (You are permitted some leeway in determining whether women should actually enter combat.) Only if you are a "non‑feminist," however, are you allowed the privilege of questioning the wisdom of doubling the number of potential warwagers. Yet to frame the debate in such terms is to take an occluded view of what feminism can be.

Most of the debate has focused on three issues: whether women, as people who do not have full rights in this country, should be subject to a draft; the physical differences between men and women and the possible differences in their performance in combat; and last, what weight should be given to traditionally sacrosanct notions of motherhood and femininity. President Carter, who would belong to the "feminist" camp, put his position on the first issue craftily: "Equal responsibilities deserve equal rights." The responsibilities would come first—in life, as in that sentence. And in the April Atlantic, James Fallows argued that if women are not drafted, "their claim for equal treatment elsewhere becomes less compelling." Others have spoken of acceding to women's registration as a way to justify and ensure the passage of the ERA. Nevertheless, in recent polls which tell us that more men than women believe that women should be required to engage in combat, one occasionally senses not support for, but a backlash against, the women's movement. Isn't there, perhaps, a certain eagerness to send women off to be killed, as if to say, What do you think of your liberation now? But the objection to "equal responsibilities first" may, in the end, conceal a prescription for anarchy: should minority groups or the poor be subject to a draft before gaining full rights?

The issue of women in combat is made problematic by the increasingly narrow definition of combat and the increasingly technological aspects of war. But the arguments against women in combat are overwhelming: lower endurance, weaker musculature, and, most compellingly, vulnerability to sexual assault. Modern warfare, after all, still requires considerable strength if not in every situation, in an unpredictable mix of occasions on which women would be at a perilous disadvantage. Women are as likely as men to be taken prisoners of war, and although no form of torture can be dismissed, women would certainly be more vulnerable to one torture—rape—than men. If the likelihood of rape has been belittled by some, even less attention has been paid to the related problems of pregnancy and childbirth in such a situation.

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