Selective Service in ignored history of controlling men’s bodies

show your back: Selective Service and controlling men's bodies

The U.S. Military Selective Service Act requires men, only men, to register with the government as preparation for being used in a national emergency.  In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld sexist selective service registration.[1]  The Court noted that Congress decided not to require women to register after wide-ranging public debate and extensive Congressional hearings.  The Court judged that sexist selective service registration is not an “accidental byproduct of a traditional way of thinking about females.”  Citing a Congressional finding that “in a wartime scenario, the primary manpower need would be for combat replacements,” the Court declared that combat restrictions on women fully justify sexist selective service registration.

The U.S. military has now lifted its ban on women in combat positions.

Don’t misunderstand.  Lifting combat restrictions on women will make no difference to the ancient political regime of disposing of men’s bodies in war. A Chinese poem from more than 1200 years ago told of men’s fate:

Our lots were drawn again.
Some of us were first conscripted
when we were just fifteen,
sent north to guard the Yellow River.
Now we’re forty and headed to the west.
Back then the village elders honored us.
Now we come home with white hair
and then they ship us out again
to where the blood is lapping like a sea.
The emperor wants to expand his realm
though back where we come from
whole villages are overrun with weeds
while women try to work the farms
and the fields are a tangled mess at harvest
watercourses choked, crops gone.
Soldiers from the mountains are good fighters,
so they are driven on like dogs and birds.
It’s good of you to ask about us
but do we really dare complain? [2]

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Pennsylvania law requiring a wife to give prior notice to her husband before she had an abortion.  A justice joining the ruling opinion of the Court wrote:

“Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.” Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 565, 89 S.Ct. 1243, 1248, 22 L.Ed.2d 542 (1969).  The same holds true for the power to control women’s bodies. [3]

The word “men” in “giving government the power to control men’s minds” clearly means in context “humans.” That was a common use of the word “men” in the past.  The word “women” in “the power to control women’s bodies” means women.  That’s the way ruling elites spoke in the past, and continue to speak.  Government control of men’s bodies is marked with seas of blood and manly silence.

Here it is bitter winter
and the Guanxi troops have not returned.
Tax-gatherers go back and forth,
but where will the taxes come from?
It makes us question whether
there’s any sense in having sons.
Daughters can marry neighbors.
Boys seem born to die in foreign weeds.
Have you seen how the bones from the past
lie bleached and uncollected near Black Lake?
The new ghosts moan, the old ghosts moan —
we hear them at night, hear them in rain. [4]

The traditional way of thinking about men is that men’s lives are less valuable than women’s lives just in being.  That’s not inconsistent with favoring the birth of sons.  The empire depends on men working to provide material goods for rulers and women, and men soldiers fighting for ruler’s and women’s freedoms.

Listen, and you will hear ghosts moaning.

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[1] Rostker v. Goldberg, 453 U.S. 57 (1981).  U.S. post offices contain pamphlets encouraging men to register with Selective Service.  An eligible man who doesn’t register with Selective Service has committed a felony under U.S. criminal law.

[2] Excerpt from Du Fu, “Song of the War Carts,” English translation (with changes in capitalization and punctuation for ease of reading) by Young (2008) pp. 43-44.  The poem was written in China about 750 GC.

[3] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), opinion of Justice Stevens.  The quote from Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969), is from the opinion of the Court.  It ruled that the U.S. Constitution prohibits making mere private possession of obscene material a crime.  Whether private possession of obscene material is by a man or a woman is irrelevant to the Court’s ruling.

[4] Excerpt from Du Fu, “Song of the War Carts,” sourced as previously from Young (2008) pp. 43-44.


Young, David. 2008. Du Fu: a life in poetry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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