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Dealing with the Draft

Learn More About the Draft:
Working to End Draft Registration and its Penalties
State Penalties for Nonregistrants - Chart
Conscientious Objection Resources
What Happened to Vietnam Draft Resisters

Related Issues:
Alternatives to the Military
Conscientious Objection
Recruitment and Enlistment
... and more issues

I’m turning 18 in a few months and I’ve heard that the law says I’m required to register for the military draft. I don’t believe in going to war. What are my options?

At present there is no actual draft in the United States. There has not been one since the early 1970s. Congress would have to pass a bill calling for a draft if conscription were to be resumed. This could happen if there was a perceived emergency or if the government wanted to "send a message" or threat to another government or foreign group.

There is no way to predict whether a draft will return. It very much depends on the political climate in the US and in the government. The current draft registration requirement was restarted by the government in 1980 as a response to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. It is ironic that the US government is now (in 2001) talking about going to war with Afghanistan.

If you are facing draft registration...

Your choices are not easy, but you do have them! The law says that every male must register for the draft within 30 days of his 18th birthday. For now, the government keeps a listing of contact information for registrants in case there is an actual call-up.

The maximum penalties for non-registration are stiff (prison and/or fine), although current government policy is not to prosecute people accused of failing to register for the draft. In fact, no one has been prosecuted since the mid-1980s; and only 20 young men were prosecuted between 1980 and 1985.

Instead, the draft agency has relied on a series of coercive federal and state laws that deny benefits (such as financial aid, certain government jobs, and participation in federally-funded job training programs) to young people in order to muscle them into complying. To make matters worse, many people are indefinitely barred from receiving these benefits since the Selective Service System (the government bureaucracy that administers the draft) does not allow a person to register after he turns 26.

There is evidence that these coercive policies have not worked. The New York Times (5/18/00) reported that registration rates have steadily declined in recent years. The prospect of being forced into the military just doesn't sit well with many young people.

The government presents draft registration as a low or no risk proposition - a rite of passage to adulthood, like getting a driver's license. This cavalier attitude is reflected in Selective Service publicity material. One widely-used advertisement uses the slogan,"a man's got to do what a man's got to do." The agency sends out reminder notices in the form of a birthday card (with a picture of a cake and candles). These notices are sent to lists of young people purchased from state driver's license bureaus and commercial agencies that market products to young people.

We are in an unusual situation in the history of the draft in the US: this is the first time that there has been draft registration without an actual draft. A draft today would function very differently than in the past (Vietnam War).

It is only after a draft is reinstated by Congress and you receive an actual notice calling you up for military service that you can try to obtain a "deferment" (a postponement of military service) or "exemption" (a release from military service). At that point you could present information about medical or family problems, your objection to fighting in all wars (conscientious objection), or other reasons for not being drafted.

The registration-only system does not leave much room for making choices, but there are choices!

The basic choice is whether to register. There is no legal procedure for "registering as conscientious objector." Some people register but place messages stating their opposition to war in the margins. You should understand that this is a form of protest and does not necessarily have any legal significance later if you should apply for a deferment or exemption.

The chief difficulty you face is that you have to make a decision now based in part on what you think may or may not happen later. Both registering and not registering have their r

isks. The risks associated with not registering are obvious: possible prosecution or the loss of benefits. On the other hand, persons who register may find it more difficult to resist the draft later. There is no "right" choice for everybody who is opposed to a draft.

You have to make a decision for yourself based on what you think you can live with.

There are several resources that can help you with this dilemma.

  • The Center on Conscience and War has a helpful worksheet that can help you sort out your beliefs about war.

  • The Fund for Education and Training provides financial assistance to persons who have been denied benefits because they have not registered for the draft.

  • The American Friends Service Committee produces a draft information packet. It includes information on the financial aid law, alternative sources of aid, what to do if the government identifies you as a non-registrant, etc.

Finally, you should write to your members of Congress letting them know that you think draft registration should be eliminated.

 

A - answer
September 2001
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