Bodies That Matter
The Impending Draft as a Moral Crisis for White
By Tamara K. Nopper
August 19, 2004
Lately there have been talks about an
impending draft that would force people to serve in the US
military and its “war on terror.”
With two bills—the H.R.163 and S.89 sponsored by
Representative Charles Rangel and Senator Ernest Hollings,
respectively—being debated, folks have been scrambling to get
their kids conscientious objector (CO) status.
Given that if either bill passes, women and college
students would be “draftable,” there appears to be a
particular urgency to resisting the draft.
But which draft are people talking about?
There has been a draft going on in this country for a
while, one that has been successful in maintaining military
enlistment despite the progressive critique of war and
is the “poverty draft,” the draft that posits the military
as one of the few options for people to get their basic needs
met or lures people with the promise of $50,000 in college money
or job training. That
many people—57%—never get a dime of tuition money and that
many job skills learned in the military are not transferable to
the civilian sector tends to go under the radar of many who are
now currently concerned about “the draft.” As counter-military recruitment activist Mario Hardy Ramirez
points out, the poverty draft has been more successful in
getting people of color, particularly Blacks, in the military
than any forced draft has.
This might explain why, when I answer phone
calls at the counter-military recruitment and peace organization
I volunteer at, parents concerned about a draft tend to be white
and, from what it sounds like, middle-class.
They ask for information on how to get their kids CO
status, sometimes wondering if I can refer them to a lawyer to
help out with their kid’s paperwork. At times they want lawyers to do all of the work for them,
and are willing to shell out the money so that their daily
routines are not interrupted as their kid obtains CO status.
Some parents and even grandparents are looking into CO
status for a young person who is in their pre-teens or even
three years old.
While non-whites have historically opposed
war and forced military enlistment and are actively doing so
today, the concerns of people of color tend to differ
dramatically from the scenarios just given.
When I talk to people of color about military enlistment,
whether over the phone or in person, they are usually talking
about someone they know already in the military who went because
they couldn’t get a job or they were broke or they had people
to provide for.
I have parents talking about how they want to provide their kids
with college money but couldn’t so their children enlisted.
Or some parents tell me how their kids feel it is
necessary to go into the military to “prove” they deserve to
exist or be here, notions often couched in highly nationalistic
or gendered/sexual terms of being a “real American” or a
“real man” or a “strong woman.”
Or parents tell me about how their child went into the
military against their wishes but may have been enticed by a
school counselor or a military recruiter who is omnipresent in
their kid’s school, neighborhood and hang-outs.
Many people of color, then, are not talking
about the impending draft, but are talking about the poverty
draft, one that poses to people, particularly people of color
and even more specifically Blacks, that the military is the only
option to get out of their situations.
And the US military does this through a series of tricks
and an annual budget of at least 2.7 billion just for
recruitment alone, which is funneled into various
“youth-friendly” packages such as hip hop material, video
games and phone cards.
The US also romanticizes or downplays the devastation
it’s responsible for in non-white communities.
In the US alone, the military has been a major force in
maintaining slavery and suppressing slave rebellions, taking
over indigenous lands and bodies in the Americas, suppressing
and incarcerating Black and Brown bodies during the LA Riots, or
helping in the incarceration of almost 2.2 million people, half
of them Black. Basically,
non-whites, particularly Blacks, then, are forced to pledge
loyalty to or work for a military system that has shaped
contemporary situations they find themselves trying to deal
And yet, despite the way liberals want to
slice it, these contemporary situations are not a “people of
color situation” one that can somehow be divorced from the
reality of whiteness and white bodies.
That is, the anxiety of whites who fear an impending
draft can not be understood unless we look at the situation as
one in which, to the “general public,” some bodies matter
more than others.
in this privileging of certain bodies are racist/sexist
assumptions about other bodies.
If one pays attention to public discourse, laws and
public policies, military strategies and sociological
interpretations, it is the non-white body that, for different
reasons depending on their race, is treated as not human, one
that can somehow handle a lot of violence, pain and suffering,
or has some ethereal power that is so beyond the human world
that violence doesn’t affect it.
In a white supremacist world, then, it is
only white bodies that can experience human levels of pain and
it is only white bodies that matter.
Thus, for whites, the draft poses a potential
moral crisis, one that speaks to the possibility that more white
bodies might have to experience the violence, pain and death
that communities of color, particularly Blacks, have experienced
through the military—whether enlisted or not.
And the possibility that two sympathetic types, the white
woman and the white college student, may be more at risk of
experiencing violence and may not live to fulfill their manifest
destiny as good citizens is also informing the current moral
crisis for whites.
Basically, the draft poses a moral crisis
that is blind to the fact that non-white bodies have been
shouldering the burden of war, militarization and anxiety about
military enlistment for centuries.
It is a moral crisis that neglects the fact that white
women make up about only 13% of all white people who are active
enlisted members in the military, whereas the percentages of
women in their respective racial groups are higher, with Black
women making up almost 25% of all Black people who are actively
enlisted. And it is
a moral crisis because what served as the safeguard for many
white people during the Vietnam War, the university, may no
longer be able to serve that function in the capacity it once
Overall, then, what the current anxiety about
the draft demonstrates is that some bodies matter, and
unfortunately for the majority of the world, it is white bodies
that matter the most. Thus, the current talk about the draft reflects a moral
crisis for white people, one in which they are frightened by the
possibility that they might have to experience some of the
violence, pain and death that people of color, and in particular
Blacks, have been experiencing for a while.
This is what we saw during the Vietnam War, a war in
which whites began to protest en masse when white corpses came
home in body bags and an era in which many whites fled to the
university and became part of the white intelligentsia that now
gets to interpret today’s wars to the public.
Therefore, the struggle is two-fold.
First, the institutionalized anti-war and peace movement
must find ways to address the larger issues that force
communities of color in disproportionate numbers into the US
military, issues that the US military is also responsible for
helping to maintain and enforce.
Second, it is imperative that activists have a larger
conversation about bodies that matter and how such racist/sexist
notions inform who the military aggressively recruits as well as
the current moral crisis of white people being expressed in talk
about the draft.
both do not happen, the institutionalized anti-war and peace
movement will simply remain a place in which the ever-impending
threat of a moral crisis for whites dominates the agenda, an
agenda that gets its coherence from the pain and suffering of
non-white bodies, a pain and suffering that supposedly does not
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The Persistence of the Color Line
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By Randall Kennedy
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is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the
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He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr.
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finest chapter in
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