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.

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.

But now women have a little more power as a class. And many of them would tell me that to distinguish between masculine and feminine temperaments is to endanger the progress that women have made. I have no certain evidence—although we may eventually be provided it—that the lesser aggressiveness or physical expression of hostility in women is a biological trait. It is indisputably a socialized trait. But the crucial fact at our disposal is that only a handful of women have fought in combat in all of human history. The explanation for this fact is both that it was a predictable corollary to the discrimination against women in most endeavors, and that war has been specifically a man's game. Only men, after all, can be accused of unmanly behavior if they object to war. It seems to me that in 1980, women interested in effecting a human liberation might have a piece of history in their hands waiting to be molded. What if they gave a registration and none of us came?

I am not the first person to make an argument along these lines: that feminism and pacifism can be profitably linked. The idea is as old as Lysistrata. In 1938 Virginia Woolf attempted, in her long essay Three Guineas, to answer a question put to her by a man: How are we to prevent war? Interestingly, Woolf 's tentative answer involved not the powers thatbe, but those who traditionally held no power. Because women comprised an unofficial "Society of Outsiders," she felt they owed their government nothing in wartime: "not to fight with arms," "to refuse in the event of war to make munitions or to nurse the wounded," and "not to incite their brothers to fight, but to maintain an attitude of complete indifference." She justified this last, most controversial assertion by claiming that indifference garners more attention than hot-blooded partisanship. She also claimed that as a man cannot appreciate a woman's maternal instinct, "it is a fact that she cannot understand what instinct compels him . . . . As fighting thus is a sex characteristic she cannot share, so it is an instinct she cannot judge."

Modern feminists would have trouble accepting that position. Some would answer that parenthoodfor everybody is as trumped‑up an "instinct" as courtly love. Others would answer that the paternal instinct, equal to the maternal, has been unrightfully quashed by society. But does it necessarily follow that fighting cannot be a sex characteristic? Nature doesn't keep a scoreboard. The logic that asserts such differences are impossible is one with the logic that makes women deny their lesser physical strength. We are not lesser human beings, after all, if we're shorter or don't enjoy playing with tin soldiers. In any case, some of us—myself included—would disagree with Woolf that we have no right to dissuade our brothers from fighting.

What is absolutely timely in Three Guineas, however, is Woolf's understanding that women have traditionally abetted war by supporting it once begun‑by behaving like Joan, the Lonely Wife, who knitted socks and sewed parachutes. Women have helped perpetuate the male assumption that war is inevitable. How are we to prevent war? In answer, Woolf decided to offer one symbolic guinea to each of three causes: one to provide women with formal education, not just tutoring at home; one to help women enter the professions; and a third guinea "to assert the rights of the respect in their persons of the great principles of justice, equality and liberty."

While this may sound like familiar and tattered rhetoric, the conditions Woolf put on the gift of her guineas were far from conventional. She would support an education of women, but of a different sort: "not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital." Women needed to enter the male‑dominated professions to gain financial self‑sufficiency, and the attendant likelihood that they would then be heard. But women outside the professions should still, Woolf felt, be paid for their services. "Is the work of a mother, of a wife, of a daughter, worth nothing to the nation in solid cash?" she demanded.

Finally—and this point is especially compelling—she cautioned that women must not indiscriminately follow the example of men trapped in professionalism; they must earn sufficient money and properly apply their power, but must not become pugnacious and greedy. For the professions, she wrote, tend to "make the people who practice them possessive, jealous of any infringement of their rights, and highly combative if anyone dares dispute them...and do not such qualities lead to war?"

It seems a far‑fetched reaction to a call for draft registration, perhaps, for me to reiterate Woolf's question. But I think it is an explosive question for the new generation of women who are both draft‑eligible and professionally inclined. To be man's equal, must we share his wardrobe. of three‑piece suits and military uniforms? It. may be understandable, but is certainly regrettable, that "equality" in so many cases means conformity to the male habit. To earn the right to speak our minds, must we agree that we've always been "highly combative," or that we ought to let them teach us how to be? Too often we've been told that to be dedicated professionals, we must eagerly sacrifice all for our jobs and neglect our children (if our offices allow us time to give birth at all). Now, to be dedicated citizens—and feminists—we must accept the male notion of citizenship as including compulsory military service. We are not nearly assertive enough, I think. If we were, we would balk at the all‑encompassing view that equality means identicality—and that identicality, to return to the clothing metaphor, means that both sexes wear pants, not skirts.

Women's registration is having a tough time in Congress. That enlisted women soldiers now train for quasi-combat situations, however, and in increasing numbers, may make the objections to women's registration eventually seem academic. On a recent forum on women in war at Harvard Law School, Undersecretary of the Air Force Antonia Chayes, who hopes and expects to see women employed in every aspect of the military, put the point bluntly. In another generation, she said, the objections to women's registration "will all seem rather quaint."

Even if Congress refuses Carter's proposal this time, lawsuits have already been threatened against the government to argue that a solely male draft is unconstitutional. Yet the point is not to protect women, but to devote our energies to preventing any war, particularly between superpowers, in the nuclear age. And women, still the Society of Outsiders, can be specifically instrumental in that prevention. Today I will offer a fourth guinea to the Society to Prevent Woman's Indiscriminate Imitation of Man. For such imitation, which is not synonymous with citizenship, will liberate neither sex from the next "inevitable" war.