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

A recent article in Newsweek concluded, ambiguously, that registration could not be considered "egalitarian" unless "women take part in combat. The country could choose to move in that direction, but that would mean overcoming centuries of cultural tradition and accepting the very real physical limitations of women." Our society may have to "accept"—i.e. accommodate itself to—the notion that women should be able to serve as traffic cops, or plumbers, or jockeys; but in the case of international combat, who is being asked to "accept" a woman's physical limitations? A particularly gallant Soviet soldier? Or the woman herself?

The remainder of the debate has focused on the special place of women, particularly as symbols of motherhood, in our society. (One observer found little room for argument. In a recent interview with U.S. News & World Report, sociologist and military personnel expert Nora Scott Kinzer revealed that "we are brought up with a myth that women are nicer than men, that they are the keepers of the hearth and the mothers." The myth that women are the mothers will, I suspect, die hard.) President Carter originally called for the registration of those from eighteen to twenty-six, and then narrowed his request to include only nineteen‑ and twenty‑year‑olds. Of his several reasons for this, one was that fewer people in the younger age group have family responsibilities. James Fallows, who supports Carter's recommendation, allows that "it is troubling to think of women in combat, or of mothers being drafted, and a sensible draft law would have to recognize such exceptions." It is troubling to think of women in combat, or of nursing mothers being drafted; but after the child is no longer physically dependent on the mother, what justification remains for distinguishing between the responsibilities of parents? If the rights and responsibilities of men and women are not only equal but identical, why should women be the baby‑sitters first? Well, perhaps there's something to be said for drafting women: it might impress upon us the need for a responsible day‑care system.

Such valid feminist questions are not the only issue, however. As journalists inform us repeatedly of how capable our 150,000 women troops are—how skilled, how strong, how necessary to America's preservation—their understandable zeal to applaud the advances women have made in the most male of institutions has at times overshadowed our knowledge of the horrors of war itself. In The New Republic, Lisa Myers wrote of women not merely accepting, but winning, the right to be drafted. In the same issue, Deborah Shapley unfacetiously suggested that assigning women to combat, as to firefighting and police work at home, would "follow a great American tradition" of "women in all sorts of exciting and dangerous jobs." War isn't hell, sisters—it's fun.

Feminists who opposed the draft during Vietnam find themselves accused of cowardice and inconsistency if they oppose a draft now. President Carter has been disturbed (he said) that so many considered a draft inevitable when he proposed registration; but since he coupled this proposal with a military threat to the Soviets, one would have to be extremely shortsighted not to expect both a draft and the serious possibility of war. The suggestion. that a military solution to our over-dependency on foreign oil would be dangerous to the entire world, and morally shoddy, is one that can respectably be made by both sexes. And it is arguable by both sexes that a peacetime draft, whatever its social justifications, could ironically perpetuate the notion of war's "inevitability." Some "non‑feminists" believe that the image of a female soldier being brought home in a body‑bag is somehow more hideous than that of a male soldier. But it is hard for anyone to argue that a woman's life is more sacred than a man's, and so if the image seems particularly horrific it serves at least to illustrate how millennia of war have hardened us to the reality of young lives lost—lives that happened to be male.

I'll go a step further, admittedly onto boggy ground. The perception of war as natural, even inevitable, is historically a male one. If the world had always been composed solely of women—a prospect as dull as it is impossible—we might not have invented war, or at least not developed it into the world's costliest technological art. We will never know, of course. Women who are currently heads of governments may be as comfortable with the rhetoric of the Cold War as their male counterparts, but such women came to power by adhering to masculine traditions of how power ought to be wielded. That is less an observation about the God‑given nature of power than it is about the masculine corner on the market of ideas.

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