Feeling a Draft

Last October, the U.S. House of Representatives considered
re-instating a military draft for the first time since the Vietnam
War. The bill was soundly defeated, but many activists believe it
signaled a disturbing trend. The country’s all-volunteer forces are
overextended, and the ambiguous long-term goals of the Bush
administration’s seemingly endless war on terror will require more

Mainstream journalists and progressive pundits continue to
speculate that, as the demand for troops in Iraq continues into
perpetuity, recruitment numbers promise to keep plummeting. A
Washington Monthly editorial (March 2005) seconds
that analysis and goes on to advocate for military conscription,
arguing that the United States ‘can be the world’s superpower, or
it can maintain the current all-volunteer military, but it probably
can’t do both.’ Meanwhile, activists in the anti-draft movement are
circulating petitions and urging concerned citizens to call elected
representatives to register their objections. They’re also letting
people know that, draft or no draft, the time has come to prepare
for the worst.

Helen James, writing in Mothering (Jan./Feb.
2005), urges concerned parents to start compiling a conscientious
objector (CO) file for their sons and (who knows?) daughters —
just as she did 13 years ago for her then 9-year-old boy, Adam.
‘Should [he] ever want to prove the depth of his convictions,’ she
writes, ‘he’ll already have a scrapbook full of documents tracing
his beliefs over his entire life.’

In 1971, more than a year before there was a cease-fire in
Vietnam, Congress passed sweeping changes to draft law. Most
notably, a clause that granted full-time students exemption from
service was eliminated. If college students were called up today,
they would be allowed to finish the current semester before
shipping out, but only conscientious objectors would be able to
skirt the selection process.

Applicants for CO status must prove their sincerity to the draft
board: They must convince a group of strangers that they are
opposed to war of any kind ‘by reason of religious training and
belief.’ (Conscientious objection can also be founded in a
long-standing moral conviction, not necessarily an affiliation with
a specific religion.) As James points out, a CO doesn’t even need
to be opposed to violence. Death penalty advocates may be COs, for
instance. What’s important is that applicants prove that war — any
war, anywhere — violates their core values, and that those values
influenced their behavior well before they were drafted.
‘Conscripts may get as few as 10 days to put together supporting
evidence for a CO claim,’ James writes. ‘That’s where documentation
come in.’

Old letters, diaries, photographs — anything that demonstrates
a belief that war is unjustifiable — can be extremely valuable.
James began compiling her son’s file after taking a photograph of
him at an antiwar rally prior to the Gulf War. A handicapped
Vietnam veteran limped over to give her a hug and said, ‘If my
mother had done that for me, I wouldn’t be like this now.’

Today, Adam’s file contains the photo, poems he wrote as a
child, clippings of demonstrations he attended, a letter from a
counselor noting how Adam had abstained from summer camp war games,
and much more. Advocacy groups like the Center on Conscience &
War and the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors travel
around the country to hold workshops on preparing a convincing
argument. Their advice is to start compiling information right away
and, when it comes time for children to register, have them write
‘I am a conscientious objector to war in any form’ on their
Selective Service cards.

James says she didn’t create a file for Adam to push any one
political ideology or position, since ‘only he will determine what
values he will hold tomorrow.’ It’s a fair bet, though, that his
future won’t include military service. Adam, now a 22-year-old,
studies conflict resolution, attends Peace Day parades, and knows
that, if a military draft becomes reality, he’s ready to do


Center on Conscience & War

Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors

Mothers Against the Draft

War Resisters League

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