Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Provide for the Common Defense

What you did was done in our name, at our request. We cannot bear your physical wounds, or psychological scars, but we can bear the moral responsibility with you. Your transgressions in war, they are our transgressions, too. We confess this together, and seek forgiveness together.


Let's talk about what happened yesterday in the Senate. No, not that filibuster; the 85-13 vote on the National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA re-authorizes $602B of military spending for the 2017 fiscal year. But it also includes an amendment (added in committee by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chair of the Armed Services Committee, and supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)) which expands the Selective Service registration requirement to women.

Meanwhile, in the House, something incomprehensible happened:

During the House Armed Services Committee review of this year’s defense-funding bill late last month, California Republican Duncan Hunter introduced an amendment that would, for the first time ever, include women in the draft. It was a curiouser episode than it first appears: Hunter, a vocal opponent of women serving in combat, offered the amendment as a dare, confident that progressives on gender equality in the service were all talk. He voted against his own proposal.

In theory, anyway, this was a clever ploy. A 1981 Supreme Court decision had specifically linked women’s exemption from the draft to their ineligibility for combat, and with that ineligibility gone, Hunter saw the draft issue as a way to cut to the heart of the whole matter of women warriors. He gambled that liberals would balk when faced with the reality that women might have to, as he said, “rip the enemy’s throats and kill them for our nation.”

The thing is, they didn’t. Hunter and his fellow opponents of women in combat were wrongfooted when it turned out that support for integration is more solid than they thought, and his “gotcha amendment”—as one opponent on the committee termed it—passed...

Representative Thornberry, the committee’s chair, had a problem with the accidental result of his own committee’s vote to expand the draft registration—he told the Washington Post that he “didn’t probably do everything I should have” to make sure it lost in committee. But he was also unhappy with the fact that the vote took place at all. A House Armed Services Committee aide I spoke with said that Hunter and Thornberry had agreed that Hunter would propose the amendment to make a point and then offer to withdraw it before a vote... But Hunter didn’t withdraw, and it sent Thornberry scrambling for legislatively murkier options for killing the measure before it could hit House floor, where it was predicted to pass.

The House Rules Committee, which reviews every bill that’s on its way to the floor, offered him a way out. But it wasn’t easy. Budget hawks in Congress have created a strict standing rule that if a cost-saving bill makes it out of committee, it can’t be changed in a way that makes it more expensive... And oddly enough, Hunter’s amendment to vastly expand a federal bureaucracy was going to save the federal government money, in a way liberals probably wouldn’t be overly keen on: Eligible Americans who fail to register for the Selective Service can’t get expensive federal services like Pell Grants, and enough people don’t register that the expansion was going to be a net-positive for the federal balance book.

In the end, Representative Pete Sessions, chair of the Rules Committee, engineered a solution. When Thornberry tried to undo the damage by introducing an amendment to the bill in the Rules Committee that would cancel out Hunter’s draft expansion...Sessions was sympathetic to his fellow Texan’s cause... [E]ven though Thornberry’s amendment was voted down by the Rules Committee, Sessions wrote its language into the original language of the bill, which makes it “considered as adopted” by the Committee. Neat trick. (...)

So now the conflicting versions of the NDAA (which also differ by some $16B in total budget) go to conference committee to be reconciled. What's going to happen there? Who knows?


But anyway. Democracy is not a spectator sport, so I'm interested in thinking through the implications of expanding the draft registration requirement.

First things first: The expected direct effect of this legislation is basically zero. If the draft were activated tomorrow, there would be riots in the streets. There was no discussion of instituting a draft last time we fought a counterinsurgency war, and there won't be the next time, either.

In policy debate (the format I debated in for three years in high school), there's something called the "offense-defense paradigm". In a nutshell, if team A says that plan X is a good idea because it will have effect Z and team B argues that X almost certainly won't cause Z -- but provides no argument that X will do anything bad -- then team A wins in the offense-defense paradigm, since team B's 'defense' only mitigates the magnitude of A's 'offense', but doesn't flip the net balance from positive to negative.

example: "The good things won't happen" is just defense; "The good things won't happen, and other bad things will" is defense and offense. If only one team has offense, that team generally wins, even if they lose the debate on multiple defensive points from the other side. Defense, however, is useful together with offense if you can mitigate their offense while keeping your own at full strength. "The good things will only happen 1% of the time, and other bad things will 100% of the time" is a case where your defense is making your offense much more effective. Of course, in practice, it often gets much more complicated than this, most judges will agree that terminal defense is possible in practice, &c.

I'm interested, for the purposes of this post, in weighing the offense of this matter, laying aside for the moment the fact that the chance that we'll actually see a draft in the foreseeable future is practically nil.


One line of reasoning holds that this case is open-and-shut on grounds of gender equality. Any civic responsibility expected of men should be expected of women as well. According to Wikipedia, this case has been made in suits brought in federal court by both the National Coalition for Men and female citizen Elizabeth Kyle-LaBell, respectively. Presumably they disagree as to whether (1) the requirement to register is unfairly imposed on men or (2) the ability to register is a privilege unjustly denied to women. To me, the latter seems to support a richer conception of citizenship, but hey, what do I know?

The Supreme Court case which set case law here is Rostker v. Goldberg, of the men-suing-for-unfairness variety in 1981. Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, wrote:

The question of registering women was extensively considered by Congress in hearings held in response to the President's request for authorization to register women, and its decision to exempt women was not the accidental byproduct of a traditional way of thinking about women... Congress' determination that any future draft would be characterized by a need for combat troops was sufficiently supported by testimony adduced at the hearings...

[S]ince women are excluded from combat service by statute or military policy, men and women are simply not similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft, and Congress' decision to authorize the registration of only men therefore does not violate the Due Process Clause. The testimony of executive and military officials before Congress showed that the argument for registering women was based on considerations of equity, but Congress was entitled, in the exercise of its constitutional powers, to focus on the question of military need, rather than "equity." (...)

That went out the window when the Joint Chiefs lifted the Combat Exclusion Policy in 2013, voiding the reasoning of the Rehnquist Court. My intuition is that a legal challenge would now be successful on Due Process grounds, but, depending on how it shakes out in Congress, it might not make it to the Court before the issue is mooted by Congress.


Okay, okay, but ignoring the fact that it's practically meaningless and legally inevitable, would the expansion of the draft be a good idea, on net? (This, I think, is the most interesting question to ask.)

I'm pretty staunchly anti-war and anti-killing. (If this comes as a surprise to you, welcome! You must be new here!) I'm in favor of expanding the draft to include women. Explanation follows.

First, I think that the line of "Gotcha, feminists! Not so happy when women have to kill with their bare hands, are you?" is crap. Feminism is about equal rights and equal responsibilities, not scoring points for women at the expense of men. Equalizing the Selective Service requirement is a (symbolic) step forward for equality; whether it's a gain or a loss on the "good-for-women vs. good-for-men" scale is a red herring.

aside: Again, though, I'm of the opinion that civic responsibilities like jury duty or voting or yes, the draft, are a privilege, even when they are a burden. This philosophical point is moderately complicated and maybe I'll expound upon it in a future post.

Second, there's a lot of noise about how women are inherently inferior at combat, and other arguments citing a study by the USMC which apparently suggests that mixed-gender units are less effective than single-gender units. Re: "inherently inferior", that's what the code 4-F is for, and it's at the discretion of Military Entrance Processing Command, not civilian armchair generals. Re: mixed-gender units, this clip from the West Wing:

(transcript here)

Third, well, this is important enough to get its own section...


Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is not a fan of the NDAA:

The idea that we should forcibly conscript young girls into combat, to my mind, makes little or no sense. (...)

In a press release on his website:

Despite the many laudable objectives in this bill, I could not in good conscience vote to draft our daughters into the military, sending them off to war and forcing them into combat. (...)

And does anyone remember February, when Ted Cruz tried to make women in the draft a campaign issue? I do.

[T]he idea that we would draft our daughters to forcibly bring them into the military and put them in close combat, I think, is wrong. It is immoral. (...)

That kerfuffle prompted an editorial by the National Review titled "Only a Barbaric Nation Drafts its Mothers and Daughters into Combat":

Ground combat is barbaric. Even today, men grapple with men, killing each other with anything they can find. Returning veterans describe countless incidents of hand-to-hand combat with jihadists. In his book about the Battle of Ganjgal, Into the Fire, Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer describes just such an encounter with a Taliban fighter. The Taliban tried to capture Meyer, and they ended up wrestling in the dirt. Meyer describes what happened next:

I pawed at the ground with my right hand and found a rock the size of a baseball. I clutched it and swung blindly at his face. The blow stunned him. Before he could recover, I pushed off his chest, lifted the rock high in my right fist, and smashed it down like a hammer, breaking his front teeth. He looked me in the eyes, the fight knocked out of him, his head not moving. We both knew it was over. I drew back my arm and drove the stone down, crushing his left cheekbone. He went limp. I pushed up on my knees and hit him with more force. This blow caved in the left side of his forehead. I smashed his face again and again, driven by pure primal rage.

That is war. It is not a video game. It is not a movie, where young Hollywood starlets karate-kick their way through masses of inept thugs and goons. When we order women into ground combat, we are ordering them into situations where men larger and stronger than they will show no mercy — crushing the life out of them like Meyer crushed that Taliban. (...)


Here are some things I believe:

  • Only a barbaric nation drafts its mothers and daughters into combat.
  • The idea that we should conscript young girls into combat makes little or no sense.
  • I would not in good conscience support drafting our nation's daughters into the military, sending them off to war and forcing them into combat.
  • Only a barbaric nation drafts its fathers and sons into combat.
  • The idea that we should conscript young boys into combat makes little or no sense.
  • I would not in good conscience support drafting our nation's sons into the military, sending them off to war and forcing them into combat.
  • Ground combat is barbaric.
  • War is not a video game.


content warning (this section only): Graphic violence, including against children. Rape.

This section is...really heavy, probably too heavy for me to handle on some days. My conclusions are in 4B below, if you want to skip there without the graphic details.

Roger Fisher wrote, in 1981 -- the same year Rostker v. Goldberg was decided:

An early arms control proposal dealt with the problem of distancing that the President would have in the circumstances of facing a decision about nuclear war...

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that [nuclear launch] code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.” (...)

Ted Cruz believes that it is wrong to ask our daughters to go to war for us. But I don't think he appreciates how wrong it is to ask our children, no matter their gender, to go to war for us. If we're put in the scenario where he's weighing his vote on activating the draft, I don't want his hand steadied by the knowledge that he's sending America's sons to war, but not America's daughters.

I fervently hope that we never again have to ask our citizenry -- men or women -- to take upon themselves the moral injury involved in learning to see a six-year-old girl as an enemy combatant. Because when we ask our fellow citizens to go to war, too often we're asking them to give up a precious and irreplaceable part of themselves:

Stephen Canty, now 24, is living in Charlottesville, Va., and trying to make sense of his own wartime experience. He told of manning a vehicle checkpoint one day, when along came a middle-aged man on a moped with two bruised little boys on the back. They had makeup on and their mascara was running because they were crying, and the Marines knew they’d been raped. “So you check ’em,” Canty said of the men and boys, “and they have no weapons, and by our mission here they’re good to go -- they’re OK! And we’re supposed to keep going on missions with these guys.

“Your morals start to degrade.”


“You learn to kill, and you kill people, and it’s like, I don’t care. I’ve seen people get shot, I’ve seen little kids get shot. You see a kid and his father sitting together and he gets shot and I give a zero fuck.

“And once you’re able to do that, what is morally right anymore? How good is your value system if you train people to kill another human being, the one thing we are taught not to do? When you create an organization based around the one taboo that all societies have?


“My thought was, you did what you had to. But did I really? I saw him running and I lit him up. It’s the right thing to do in war, but in every other circumstance it’s the most wrong thing you could do,” he said. Faced with those kinds of moral challenges, “your values do change real quickly. It becomes a war of moral injury.” (...)


'Innocence' sounds too glib. 'Wholeness' isn't right, either. But there is something immense that one gives up when one practices numbness to the pain that one actively inflicts on another. From Drew Faust's This Republic of Suffering:

[I]n the Civil War, it was killing, not dying, as Orestes Brownson observed in 1862, that demanded “the harder courage,” for it required the more significant departure from soldiers’ understanding of themselves as human beings, and, in mid-nineteenth century America, as Christians.

Leah Libresco, writing specifically about modern war:

[W]hen I deliberately take a life, whether on the battlefield or in my home, I am overriding my conscience and my instincts, which are repulsed by murder. These moral habits help me behave correctly, and any attempt to transgress them could weaken them in the future. Thus, I harm myself by weakening my safeguards against immoral action.

Whether or not my decision was necessary (and I would agree that it can be necessary to kill to prevent grievous harm, i.e., when someone would otherwise kill your child, assassinating Hitler, etc.) the harm I have done to myself remains. The act remains a transgression and is not justified or excused by its necessity.

I do think any kind of killing, whether in war or in peace, is wrong and sinful, even if it may be necessary. However, this type of sin is less terrible than the sin of civilians who deliberately, without sufficient reason, place soldiers in situations where every choice is sinful. (...)


theological note: I'm using "sin" and "soul" in the same secular sense Leah meant them, back in her days as an atheist. They map pretty cleanly to the Catholic meanings, but I think that they don't need to depend on any particular theology to have significance here.

I agree with Leah here: There is always a sin in killing that wounds one's soul, but there is a larger sin when I ask another to take that self-inflicted moral injury for me without truly appreciating the sacrifice I'm asking.

If we call American citizens in a draft, I want our leaders and our citizenry to understand this like I understand on nights like tonight, after reading war stories until my heart is raw. I want them to flinch away from conscripting the innocent into a war which will leave too many of them permanently damaged -- some physically and some psychologically and some in the core of their moral selves. I want them to feel revulsion in their gut at the idea of demanding such perversion of goodness and such sacrifice from their fellow citizen.

If we must go to war, we'll look that horror in the eye and accept it.

But if we can't, then we have no business calling the draft.

Make no mistake -- I have nothing but respect for the women and men that serve in our armed forces. I respect them for making an incredible sacrifice that so many of us civilians cannot even begin to understand. To me, respecting their sacrifice means doing what I can to keep still others from needlessly having to do the same.

But we have leaders who don't see as I do. They only recoil from the horror of war when they imagine it breaking the soul of a young girl -- not a young boy. And that's dangerous. We have leaders who truly in their hearts believe that dulce et decorum est, so long as it's only fathers and sons who pro patria moriantur -- but who recoil instinctively from the idea that mothers and daughters might have their moral souls broken in America's war. And I'm deeply afraid that, in their half-empathy, they'll be too quick to go to war and too dismissive of its cost. So what is to be done?


I don't want the hand that signs draft orders to be steadied by the fantasy that male moral sacrifice in war -- "defending our women and children" -- is natural or glorious or the sort of thing we could ever be excused for asking our fellow citizens for. The cost is too great for us to tell that lie to ourselves. It may be necessary, but it will never, ever be good. And if the only way to drive that point home to Ted Cruz and his ilk is to put America's young women on the rolls of the Selective Service alongside America's young men, then so be it. Because then even he will understand.

I'm anti-war and anti-draft, but if limiting the draft to men helps men like this send our soldiers to war and sleep well at night, then I support the expansion of the Selective Service. It can only do good if it gives us pause and forces us to consider the true cost of what we ask for when we ask for war. We shouldn't need to do this to be properly repulsed by war, but at this point, I'll take it.

If in some nightmare dreams, you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung her in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in her face, 
Her hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from her froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.