Youth Liberation and Military Conscription

By Edward Hasbrouck

When I was invited to testify before the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service in 2019, I began my prepared statement as follows:

“You have described this hearing as being about ‘Expanding Selective Service registration to all Americans,’ by which you mean whether to expand draft registration to young women as well as young men. But that you could describe a requirement applicable only to young people as being one that applies to ‘all’ people is indicative of the profound and unexamined ageism that underlies [the] system of conscription…. It is because of this ageism that opposition to the draft has been central to movements for youth liberation.”

I don’t need to, and won’t presume to, tell young people why ageism is wrong. As an older ally, my role is to support them in their resistance and their efforts to liberate themselves, and to try to raise the consciousness of other older people about our ageism. In particular, I hope that this article will reach some older people who oppose war and military conscription but haven’t thought about ageism, youth liberation, or how they relate to the draft, other sources of oppression, and other struggles for liberation.

There are many good reasons to oppose conscription. The draft {coerces} {young people} {to kill or be killed} {at the direction of the state}. Each element of that summary is a reason to oppose any draft. Some people (anarchists, libertarians, and other anti-authoritarians) oppose a draft because they oppose state coercion; some people (pacifists and other anti-militarists) oppose a draft because they oppose wars in general or the particular wars for which soldiers are being drafted; and some people (young people and their allies in the movement for youth liberation) oppose a draft because it is ageist.

I’m an atheist, an anarchist, and a pacifist, any of which would be sufficient reason to resist the draft. But my first and primary motive for draft resistance was and is my opposition to ageism.

The Selective Service System is, by definition and intent, selective. But in no respect is its selectivity so absolute as with respect to age (and currently gender, although that may change soon if Selective Service registration is expanded to include young women as well as young men). Men ages 18-26 are the only U.S. citizens other than those under court supervision for having been convicted of crimes who are required to report to the government every time they change their address, although few comply with, or are even aware of, this Selective Service requirement.

Draft resisters are often dismissed as “having issues” with their parents. To those who see the claims of the state to authority over their newly-adult bodies as resting on the same patriarchal ageist basis as their parents’ claims to authority over their bodies as children, that’s precisely the point.

Ageism also underlies the common argument that a threat to conscript the children of the powerful would turn them against war, out of fear for their children’s or other young people’s lives. This is an ethically repugnant argument even aside from its ageism: It is tantamount to arguing that we should use the children of the rich as human shields against war, or that we should kidnap the children of people in power, hold them hostage, threaten to kill them, and try to ransom them for peace. And like the draft itself, this would impose on young potential draftees the burden of their elders’ errors in making war.

The injustice of the draft has been central to consciousness-raising among young people about ageism. “The military draft must be abolished” was part of the original manifesto of the Youth Liberation collective of Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1970, which fifty years later remains the single most influential and widely-accepted statement of the demands of the youth liberation movement.

The connections between draft resistance and youth liberation were perhaps clearest in the adoption of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which extended voting rights to all citizens 18 and older.

The 26th Amendment was a direct response to the argument that it was unfair to draft people too young to have a vote in whether to go to war or whether or how to conduct a draft. This argument was so persuasive, even to voters who wanted to continue the war and the draft, that they amended the Constitution with unprecedented rapidity – while continuing to draft only young people. 

Understanding that for some people draft resistance is part of the movement for youth liberation can, and should, inform our anti-draft and anti-war organizing strategies and goals. By wielding the power of direct action and the withholding of labor and consent, draft resistance can not only constrain the ability of the state to wage unpopular wars, but can empower young people to realize that they have, as my mentor Dave Dellinger titled one of his books, “More Power Than We Know.”

What am I doing in the anti-draft and youth liberation movements at age 60? Why should that be any more of a question, or a surprise, than why white people are working to try to overcome white supremacy in themselves and others, or why men are trying to support feminism? Ageism is a problem of old people, and we old people have a responsibility, if we recognize that problem, to try to do something about it.

Ageism within anti-draft movements and organizations has been a pervasive problem, a source of recurring struggle, and an impediment to realizing the full success of draft resistance. There has been  little application to anti-draft activism of the ideas about “allyship” developed by white anti-racists, feminist men, and other solidarity movements. With the issue of the draft once again on the agenda of Congress and the Supreme Court, it’s time to apply those lessons.

The role of older allies is not to “save” young people from the draft and other forms of ageist oppression, but to help them free themselves and help them free all of us, young and old, from the draft and the larger, longer, and less popular wars that a draft enables.

It should go without saying that the primary victims of the draft in the USA are not draftees but the much larger numbers of people, mainly civilians, against whom draftees are deployed to wage war around the world, and the civilians at home, especially women and children, who are impacted by the violent masculinity in which soldiers are trained. That this is not taken for granted, and that draftees are conceptualized primarily as passive victims of the draft rather than as potentially empowered agents of obstruction of the war machine, is symptomatic of the ageism of most older observers.

The ageist view of young people as “victims” in need of protection from the draft denies them agency and blinds older people to the success of young draft resisters’ nonviolent noncooperation with a system that seeks not only to oppress them but to weaponize them to oppress others. Draft resistance is about young people protecting us all from war.

Since 1980, widespread but largely closeted and unnoticed resistance to draft registration has won a profound victory over the U.S government and the war machine: It has rendered draft registration unenforceable and prevented a draft. But that victory is only partial. The greater victory will be when the failure of draft registration and the consequent unavailability of a draft as a military “fallback” option is widely enough recognized that U.S. war planning and war making begin to to be constrained accordingly.

The failure of older allies to publicize and follow through on the success of draft registration resistance in preventing a draft, and thereby to realize the potential of that resistance to rein in military planning and adventurism, is directly attributable to their ageism.

Misconceiving their goal from the start as protecting “vulnerable” (read: powerless) young people from the draft rather than helping young people protect the world from wars that depend on young people as warriors, older ageist anti-draft activists have assumed that as long as the threat of a draft has been eliminated, there is no reason for anti-draft activism. As a result, they redirected their priorities for activism away from the issue of the draft, just when the success of draft registration resistance had brought it to the brink of a larger victory. Since the government was never forced to admit that draft registration had failed, it has continued to plan and initiate war after war on the false but unchallenged assumption that, if it needs to do so, it can always fall back on a draft.

More generally, the role of old people in the movement for youth liberation, as part of the larger struggle for peace and justice, is to raise the consciousness of ourselves and other old people about our ageism, to strive to work as allies to young people seeking their own liberation, and to struggle continually within ourselves against our own ageism.



Dellinger, Dave. More Power Than We Know: The People’s Movement Toward Democracy. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975.

Hasbrouck. Edward. Statement for the public hearings on “Selective Service” and military conscription of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS), Washington, DC, 25 April 2019.

Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor. Youth Liberation. Washington, NJ: Times Change Press, 1972.


Edward Hasbrouck is an independent scholar and activist for peace, human rights, and youth liberation. A longtime member of the War Resisters League, he publishes the leading Web site of information about the draft, draft registration, and draft resistance, “” ( As a non-lawyer legal worker, he is also a member of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild. In 1983-1984, he “served” a six-month sentence in a Federal Prison Camp for knowing and willful refusal to present himself for and submit to registration with the Selective Service System.