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July 2000
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Iím turning 18 in a few months and Iíve heard that the law says Iím required to register for the military draft. I donít believe in going to war. What are my options? Is there such a thing as registering as a conscientious objector?

Your choices are not easy, but you do have them!

It is true that the law says that every male must register for the draft within 30 days of his 18th birthday. At present there is no actual draft. Congress would have to pass a bill calling for a draft, which 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.

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 doesnít sit well with many young people.

The government presents draft registration as a low or no risk proposition Ė a rite of passage to adulthood, like getting a driverís license. This cavalier attitude is reflected in Selective Service publicity material. One widely-used advertisement uses the slogan,"a manís got to do what a manís 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.

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

Either you register or you donít. 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.

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 risks. 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 avoid 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.

  • There is 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.

  • AFSC 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.

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