Working to End Draft Registration and its Penalties
by Dean Jones and J. E. McNeil
You have an option other than refusing to register or just accepting that you have to. You can lobby to end registration for the draft. In the Spring of 2001, Rep. Peter DeFazio [D-OR] introduced HR 1597, the Selective Service Standby Act, which seeks to end the registration requirement and grant amnesty to nonregistrants. Rep. Ron Paul [R-TX] introduced HR 1607, a repeal of the Military Selective Service Act, ending registration and all federal penalties for not registering. These bills are pending while their sponsors line up more support within Congress.
"Why bother lobbying Congress?," you might ask. Most Congressional members want to know what their constituents care about. Letters and visits from people who live in their districts even teenagers, who will eventually reach voting age are recorded. You can make a real difference if you take on the challenge of educating your U.S. Representative about this important issue.
The need to end peacetime registration is clear and urgent.
First, people who do not register are punished. While there have been no federal prosecutions for failing to register for the draft since the mid-1980s, nonregistrants lose student loans, grants, other benefits, and even admission to some colleges. They can be denied access to government jobs, job training, and drivers licenses. They dont even have to be citizens to lose out. Immigrants (even undocumented ones) can be barred forever from citizenship. Persons affected by these laws continue to be barred from receiving benefits, even after they reach the age at which they are no longer permitted to register (age 26), exceed draft age, or reach the age at which they could no longer be prosecuted. This situation has created a class of people who are permanently barred from receiving benefits.
Second, draft registration teaches that preparing for war is normal and necessary. Secretary of State Colin Powell has stated that registration is there, not for a likely draft, but because it is "important to maintain the link between the All-Volunteer Force and our society at large"(House International Relations Committee, March 7, 2001).
The current registration system poses special challenges for those who will not kill because of conscience. It does not provide legal options for being recognized as a conscientious objector. They must register and, in the words of Colin Powell, "signal . . . potential adversaries, who watch for signs of U.S. resolve," though their conscience tells them otherwise. Mandatory draft registration steps on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
There are pragmatic reasons for supporting these bills that seek to end the peacetime draft registration.
First, the draft registration system fails on its own terms. Currently the SSS boasts an 89% compliance rate (down from 95% in 1995) for all those between the ages of 18 and 26. However, their boast may not be true. The main way they make sure that their records are correct is by matching with drivers licenses, which are updated as seldom as every five years. Did you change your address with the DMV and Selective Service the last time you moved? Then Selective Service cant have your correct address, can it? 89%? Right.
Second, registration is unnecessary and is a waste of taxpayers money--$24 million annually, totaling more than $500 million since the programs inception in 1980. Some of this money is being spent to convince Congress to transfer the Selective Service from being a civilian agency to being under the direct control of the Defense Department and to lobby states to add new penalties for nonregistrants, such as the denial of drivers licenses. Because of the way the U.S. military uses its forces, it is unlikely that a draft would be seen as militarily useful in any foreseeable war.
And who gets the worst of the deal? That 11% gap on registrations is mainly low-income youth living in urban areas and immigrants. Even Selective Service has figured this out. Gil Coronado, Selective Service Director under President Clinton, admitted: "If we are not successful of reminding men in the inner cities about their registration obligation, especially minority and immigrant men, they will miss out on opportunities to achieve the American dream. . . .Unless we are successful in achieving high registration compliance, America may be on the verge of creating a permanent underclass." Clearly, the damaging effects of draft registration reach a broad segment of the population.
In 1980, when peacetime draft registration was reinstated, President Carter described it as a "hedge against unforeseen threats." After more than 20 years of unjust and inequitable administration, the greatest threat may be the Selective Service itself. The threat it poses to conscientious objectors, low-income youth, immigrants, and others is real and expanding.
Conscientious objectors have been taunted, imprisoned, and even killed for the stand they have taken. Draft registration puts words in the mouths of those who want peace and freedom, forcing us to "send a message" that we are willing to kill for our country. Remember the words Martin Luther King spoke from the Birmingham jail: "Freedom will never be handed to us. We must strain forward, grasping with all our being to take hold of it. We must pry it from the hands of those who clutch it."
Although there is not now a draft, this is not the time to sit back to enjoy an imagined period of peace. Registration is always a step toward violence and injustice. As long as the law requires draft registration, we are compromised.
About the Authors
Dean Jones and J.E. McNeil are on the staff of the Center on Conscience and War based in Washington, DC.
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