Debating the Draft

Use military conscription as a launching point for discussions about freedom, maturity, and choice.

By Elijah Ammen

Compulsory Enlistment Notice

With the increase of drone warfare and the reduction of American troops in the Middle East, the likelihood of a military draft seems like an outdated concept that, in the current age, would be unnecessary and also politically repulsive.

But for young people, the draft is not just about the possibility of being required to serve in the military. A discussion of the draft addresses one of the most relevant issues in the life of a teenager: When are you a true adult?

Certain ages are associated with life landmarks—whether it's the age that you can vote, buy certain products, or get into an R-rated movie. These ages sometimes seem arbitrary or contradictory, and have often fluctuated. You can leverage this subject to discuss a variety of topics about maturity levels and personal choices, while still incorporating history and literature in a practical way.

Social Context of the Draft

On November 13, 1942, the age of the draft was lowered to 18 years old. In the face of World War II, the United States expanded the draft pool to 34 million registered members. While the draft had existed since colonial days, this was by far the greatest military commitment from the US. After WWII, the draft continued through the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, before being supplanted by a volunteer system, with the Selective Service System as a last resort, rather than the standard protocol. 

The lowered age prompted other social issues: If you could be drafted at 18, why could you not vote at 18? This led to the passing of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 as well. It's intriguing that the lowered draft age was primarily based on pure necessity of fighting-age men, and the campaign for the lower voting age was centered around the issue of the possibility of being drafted without a voice in your representation.

The lowered draft age also compounded the issues surrounding warfare. Many conscientious objectors spoke out against the increase in a draft, particularly since World War I and II and all peripheral conflicts of the Cold War were seen by some as the United States interfering in the affairs of other nations. The already horrific events of war were even more scarring to younger, less experienced soldiers, who had a more difficult time transitioning back to civilian life after war. 

Socratic Seminar and Fishbowl Discussion

This kind of controversy makes this topic a gold mine for Socratic seminars and fishbowl discussions. In case the issue of the draft is too broad, here are several subtopics to hone your young debaters' focus:

  • Is there ever a situation in which you believe the United States should reinstate the draft? (Check out NY Times learning blog post Draft Dilemmas)
  • Should countries use their militaries to stop humanitarian crises in other countries? (Taken from the lesson Drafting Board)
  • Should all age restrictions be lowered to 18?
  • What would your personal reaction be to a draft?

Depending on the amount of time you have and the level of rigor you desire, you can pepper the conversation with historical examples or hypothetical situations. If you are looking for how to orchestrate classroom discussions, you can check out our resources on Socratic seminars and fishbowl discussions.

Literature Connections

I have previously written about the phenomenal anthology, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. There is a plethora of resources on the book and I have discussed several of them in my previous article, but there's one story in particular that is an exceptional literary tie-in to the issue of the draft.

"On the Rainy River" is based on Tim O'Brien's mental struggle after being drafted, but before being deployed, as he contemplates crossing into Canada to dodge the draft. While your class discussions might focus on the logical or political issues around the draft, O'Brien's short story encapsulates the angst of a young man who is trapped—who disagrees with the war, but not enough to be a conscientious objector. A man who is a coward, but fears the disappointment of his community more than he fears the actual war. 

In a brilliant symbolic moment, O'Brien sees all the significant people in his past, present, and future. He chooses to go to the war, but that moment of indecision puts the reader in the mindset necessary to empathize with a young draftee at that time.

Interviews with Veterans

Finally, depending on the community where your students live, there could be a wealth of first-hand witnesses to being drafted. While some lessons focus on the regional reactions to the draft, there is nothing more powerful than hearing history from your friends and neighbors. 

Have your class find a veteran (whether drafted or not) and interview this veteran about the draft and his feelings on volunteering versus being drafted. You can have them use movie-editing apps to record and share the interviews, or just take notes. 

Either way, a conversation with someone who has actually experienced a culture where the draft happened will help cement these historical and literary moments in their minds and help them understand the personal significance to these events.

Lesson Planet Resources:

Military Intervention, Draft Dilemmas, The Things They CarriedDraft Reactions