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John Whitehead's Commentary

Is the Military Draft a Form of Slavery?

John Whitehead
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) is right: If the U.S. intends to provide its military might to the world--and continue to take on Iraq and Afghanistan and potentially Iran and North Korea--we will have to do something about signing up more servicepeople.

Rangel has voiced his intent to sponsor a bill next year to reinstitute the draft, more technically termed "conscription," as a way to alleviate the disproportionate burden the current all-volunteer military places on minorities and lower-income families. But that's where Rangel went wrong. Reinstituting the draft is not the solution, for a number of reasons.

First, it's a question of constitutionality. Author and research analyst Anthony Gregory believes that forcing citizens to take up arms and fight involuntarily violates the Constitution. "Every major instance of the U.S. government's implementing the draft since the Civil War has stood in clear violation of the Thirteenth Amendment," said Gregory.

Indeed, the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution protects Americans from slavery and involuntary servitude. Passed in 1865, this amendment was targeted at ending an oppressive chapter in American history: the slavery of African Americans. Yet many contend it also extends to other instances of government oppression--particularly the military draft.

Also, many view conscription as a loss of all liberty. After all, what is left of the right to free speech, due process of law and other fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution if the government can force you to pick up a gun to fight with no right to refuse?

Second, it's a matter of morality. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1918 that a government draft does not violate the Constitution, many see a moral dimension with the government forcing citizens to take up arms against their will. In fact, as compelling as the constitutional arguments against the draft may be, they are secondary to the moral issues. As Gregory states, "The draft is a form of slavery. Forcing a person to fight, kill, and possibly die in a war--and threatening resisters with imprisonment and deserting conscripts with death--is a particularly immoral brand of enslavement, and it is murder for all conscripts who do not survive the war."

No less strident in his opposition to conscription, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) insists that "the draft, whether for military purposes or some form of 'national service,' violates the basic moral principles of individual liberty upon which this country was founded." And to those who suggest that young Americans owe it to their country to fight as conscripts, Paul responded, "Hogwash! It just as easily could be argued that a 50-year-old chickenhawk, who promotes war and places innocent young people in danger, owes more to the country than the 18-year-old being denied his (or her) liberty." He goes on to state that a real sacrifice exists by "forcing a small number of young vulnerable citizens to fight the wars that older men and women, who seek glory in military victory without themselves being exposed to danger, promote."

Third, it's a question of attitude: "want to" vs. "have to." With an active list of more than 15 million names (an estimated 93 percent of all men in the United States between 18 and 26), the U.S. Selective Service System has already announced its readiness to institute a draft should it become necessary. But as someone who served in the military as an infantry officer during the Vietnam era, I know the difference between a soldier who chooses to fight and one who is forced to do so. And I know which one I'd want to have covering my back. As Ivan Eland, national security analyst at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., stated, a draft "contradicts the principles of a free society by coercing people to fight for freedom. Soldiers who want to be in the military do a better job than those who don't, and the military services know it."

Finally, it comes down to what we want America to stand for. If individual freedom, self-government and the rule of law are our primary concerns, then it's clear where we should stand on the draft.

History has a funny way of circling back on itself. Thirty-some years after the Vietnam War, the U.S. government is once again engaged in a foreign war, pitted against a shadowy and elusive enemy. As the prospect of success in Iraq grows bleaker, the calls increase for U.S. troops to either pull out or stay the course and send for reinforcements, which would inevitably require instituting the draft. But if history has taught us anything, we should have learned that forcing Americans to serve in the military and fight a foreign war will not ensure victory--nor will it maintain our freedoms.

As President Ronald Reagan stated in a 1979 article in Human Events, the draft "rests on the assumption that your kids belong to the state. If we buy that assumption then it is for the state--not for parents, the community, the religious institutions or teachers--to decide who shall have what values and who shall do what work, when, where and how in our society. That assumption isn't a new one. The Nazis thought it was a great idea."

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His most recent books are the best-selling Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the award-winning A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, and a debut dystopian fiction novel, The Erik Blair Diaries. Whitehead can be contacted at Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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