Background on Draft Registration and "Selective Service"
Draft registration ceased entirely from 1975 to 1980, and the Selective Service System was cut back to "deep standby" status with only minimal headquarters staff and no local draft boards. But since 1980, all male US citizens and most other male US residents have been required to register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of their 18th birthday, and notify the Selective Service System each time they change their residence until their 26th birthday. Draft registration is one of the ways that all young men (and possibly soon young women as well) have to interact with the military and think about their relationship to military "service".
Today the Selective Service System includes:
- National staff who administer draft registration, contingency planning, and recruitment and training of local draft boards;
- Volunteer directors for each state, and volunteer local draft boards in every county, largely recruited through organizations of military veterans, who would judge claims for exemption in the event of a draft, such as requests by draftees to be classified as conscientious objectors and allowed to perform non-combatant or alternative non-military "service"; and
- Volunteer high school administrators and prison officials deputized as "registrars" to get young men in their institutions to sign up for the draft.
It should go without saying that the only reason young men are required to register with the Selective Service System is so that they can be conscripted into the military, if Congress and the President decide to reinstate a draft.
Although "Plan A" for Congress, the Pentagon, and probably the President is the poverty draft, "Plan B" for all of them remains conscription. For example, Rep. John Murtha, chair of the Subcommittee on Defense of the House Committee on Appropriations, said in late 2008 that "I voted against the all-volunteer army because I didn't think we could sustain a deployment in wartime without a draft.... We'll never be able to fight a conventional war where you have two fronts without a draft. You can't do it.... In a wartime, everybody ought to serve."
It's unclear how long they'll be able to rely on "volunteers". Enlistments and re-enlistments are falling short of the military's goals. Morale in the military is down. More and more soldiers are failing to report for active duty when called up, deserting, going AWOL, or requesting reassignment or discharge as conscientious objectors. "Stop-loss" measures to extend soldiers' terms are increasingly unpopular, and undercut recruiting. It's one thing to sign up for the National Guard or the reserves as a "weekend soldier", and something very different to sign up for 2 years in combat.
Only outsourcing and privatizing war-making to mercenaries and contractors (partly by using private "guards" and "security contractors" in combat roles, and partly by outsourcing non-combat support work to civilians, freeing a higher percentage of soldiers for combat) has enabled the military to continue the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, etc. this long, on this scale, without a draft.
The Selective Service System maintains and regularly tests contingency plans for a general "cannon fodder" draft of young men (based on the current list of male registrants between 18 and 26) and/or a separate Health Care Personnel Delivery System, like the "doctor draft" during some previous U.S. wars, of men and women up to age 44 in 57 medical and related occupations (based on professional licensing lists). These plans could be activated at any time that Congress decides to reinstate either or both forms of a draft.
Most of those worried about their vulnerability to a draft are young men, and their friends and loved ones. But health care workers -- men and women of all ages -- are at much more imminent risk of a draft. According to one military doctor, writing in a 2004 medical journal article explaining Selective Service plans: "A physician draft is the most likely conscription into the military in the near future." Also in 2004, a Selective Service spokesperson said, "Talking to the manpower folks at the Department of Defense and others, what came up was that ... they thought that if we have any kind of a draft, it will probably be a special skills draft."
So the more immediate issue is not how soon the military might run short of cannon fodder, but how soon they might run short of doctors, nurses, and 57 other occupational categories of health care workers. The Selective Service plans for a Health Care Workers Personnel Delivery System (HCPDS) are quite different than those for a general draft, and could be implemented much more quickly than a general draft: health care workers would be presumed already to be qualified, eliminating the need for pre-induction physicals or other screening. Selective Service says that the HCPDS would, "Require minimal training for HCPDS draftees, because they are already skilled personnel."
Knowing and willful refusal by young men to comply with the registration requirement is a crime, but nobody has been prosecuted since 1986. To convict anyone of draft resistance, the government would have to prove that they knew they were required to register. This would be difficult unless someone has told the government, or said publicly, that they are deliberately refusing to register. In May 2016, Selective Service officials finally admitted publicly, in interviews with U.S. News & World Report, what has long been obvious: The government abandoned enforcement of draft registration in 1988. Passive resistance has made registration unenforceable, and has made the registration list all but useless for a fair or inclusive draft.
Most men who register for the draft do so only if it is required for some other government program. Men who haven't registered for the draft are ineligible for Federal student aid and some other Federal programs. In some states (although not in California), men of draft age are required to register in order to obtain a driver's license, or are automatically registered (sometimes without even realizing it) when they get a driver's license. Male immigrants of draft age must register before they can be naturalized as U.S. citizens.
Few young men comply fully with the draft registration law. In practice, there is no penalty for late registration, as long as you register before your 26th birthday. Men are supposed to notify the Selective Service System every time they change addresses until they turn 26, but almost nobody does. Most draft notices sent to the addresses in SSS records would wind up in the dead letter office, or would be delivered to registrants' parents' homes (or former homes), rather than to the intended draftees.
Draft registration in the USA was reinstated under President Carter in 1980, supposedly as part of the preparations for intervention by the USA in Afghanistan on the side of the Islamic fundamentalist warlords and mujahideen who were then fighting against the Soviet Union. The US government put me in prison for refusing to agree to fight on the side of the people who would later become the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It's no wonder that people of my generation have no faith in the ability of the government of the USA to decide for us in which wars, or on which (if any) side, we should fight.
Be warned: What follows will be, in part, a personal story. The "I" of this Web site is Edward Hasbrouck. Feel free to contact me directly if you want to talk to me about my personal motives, choices, and experiences, or the history of the prosecutions of draft resistance organizers.
Most people who weren't involved in draft resistance organizing haven't been paying much attention to draft registration. I'm able to tell this story because I was a participant in it, as an organizer with the National Resistance Commitee (in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco), co-editor of Resistance News, and one of those few nonregistrants -- even among those who publicized their resistance -- who were singled out for prosecution. But I don't want to claim more of the credit for our victory over draft registration than is due, or that my motives were "representative" of anyone else, then or now. I did no more than many others, many of whom -- women especially -- remained invisible, either by their own choice or as a result of the sexism of the media and our own movement. And the actions of the millions who quietly sat out draft registration were, in the long run, more significant than those of the couple of thousand who openly defied the registration law.
When draft registration was reinstated for young men in 1980, following a five-year hiatus, President Obama was in one of the first cohorts required to register. Obama later wrote about the campus anti-draft organization at Columbia for the student newspaper, and may have attended a talk about nonregistration given by my friend and comrade in draft resistance organizing, Matt Meyer, at a meeting organized by the Columbia Students Against Militarism in November 1982, at one of the peaks of publicity about prosecutions of nonregistrants.
President Obama says he registered, but the response by his peers was dramatically different than the response to the previous Vietnam-era draft and registration system had been. Opposition was immediate.
There were mass demonstrations and other nonviolent actions against the reinstatement of draft registration, including marches and rallies in Washington, DC, and San Francisco, CA against draft registration by several tens of thousands of people on each coast on 22 March 1980. "Refuse to Register" and "I will not register" picket signs screen-printed by Fred Moore for the NRC were prominent at the San Francisco march, where Fred was one of the speakers.
[Front ranks of the West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration on Market St. in San Francisco, 22 March 1980. Photo by Chris Booth for Resistance News.]
[West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration passing the main Post Office and draft registration site (today the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals courthouse) on 7th St. at Mission St. in San Francisco, 22 March 1980. Photo from "It's About Times" newspaper, via Foundsf.org.]
[Crowd at the West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration listens to speakers including Fred Moore of the National Resistance Committee. Civic Center Plaza, San Francisco, 22 March 1980. Photos by Chris Booth for Resistance News.]
[Lesbian Anti-Draft Action contingent in the West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration, 22 March 1980. Photo by Chris Booth for Resistance News. The next banner, partially visible, is from the Oakland Feminist Women's Health Center. President Carter had proposed requiring both women and men to register for the draft, and straight feminists and many other women were also among the organizers and marchers in San Francisco and Washington.]
[East Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration, Washington, DC, 22 March 1980. Left photo by permission of Craig Glassner. Right: Vietnam-era draft resister and Resistance organizer David Harris speaks to the croud in front of the US Capital. David Harris also took part in an East Coast organizing meeting for the National Resistance Committee the following day.]
Other speakers included the feminist poet Denise Levertov, whose "A Speech: For Antidraft Rally, D.C., March 22, 1980" was reprinted as a prose poem in Candles in Babylon (New Directions Press, 1982) and other anthologies and collections.
I was in Washington that day with Mike Lawrence and Bill Steyert, who I worked with as fundraising canvassers for the Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE) in Chicago, holding this flourescent piss-yellow on black "Piss on the Pentagon" banner on the steps of the Treasury Department headquarters to the enthusiastic cheers of passing marchers. Our employers at CBE didn't know about or approve of the banner, and docked our pay but didn't fire us for missing a day of work without permission to go to Washington for the march.
The mass registration start-up weeks in July-August 1980 (for men born in 1960-1961) and January 1981 (for men born in 1962) provided an ideal focus for anti-draft organizing and action. There were informational pickets and on-site draft counseling at Post Office throughout the country.
Hundreds of people were arrested in sit-ins, and other direct actions against registration during the mass registration weeks. The "Boston 18", arrested at the Post Office and Federal courthouse in downtown Boston during the January 1981 registration week, eventually spent 30 days each in Federal prison for obstructing draft registration.
A nonregistrant who was later one of those prosecuted, Rusty Martin, student body president at the University of Northern Iowa, was one of the speakers at the march and rally for nuclear disarmament in New York City on 12 June 1982 by more than a million people -- the largest single political gathering in one place in U.S. history. ("We drove out from Iowa and I went straight to the UN rally.... I was looking at an amazing mass of people," he remembers.)
[Nonregistrants (left to right) Rusty Martin, Jerry Mehalovich, Jeff Patch, and Gary Eklund burn draft registration forms outside the main post office in Des Moines, IA, on 21 July 1980, the first day of the registration week for men born in 1960. Men born in 1961 were supposed to register the following week. Unlike burning draft cards prior to 1975, burning registration forms is legal, and was a common expression of protest of draft registration. At many post offices, protesters removed all the registration forms from counter display racks, often replacing them with anti-draft literature printed to resemble the official forms. At least several hundred young men who were required to register, and perhaps as many as several thousand, actively publicized their resistance or informed the government of their refusal to comply with the law, but only 20, including Rusty Martin and Gary Eklund, were ever prosecuted.]
Pop culture references to the widespread opposition to draft registration ranged from Frank Zappa's single "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted" (written early in 1980 while the possibility of requiring women to register for the draft along with men was still under consideration, and with lyrics including, "My sister don't wanna get drafted, she don't wanna go") to the Dead Kennedys' "When Ya Get Drafted". The most explicit draft resistance anthem was the Clash's single recorded in New York, "It's Up To You Not To Heed The Call Up" which was also included later in 1980 on the blockbuster triple album set, "Sandinista!".
More than a million potential draftees born in 1960-1962 opted out by boycotting the initial mass registration periods in July-August 1980 and January 1981. The rate of compliance with draft registration declined after that, even when the government mounted well-publicized show trials of a few of the "most vocal" registration resisters, who it was able to single out and convict on the basis of their public statements (and after personally serving them with notice of another "final" chance to register without penalty).
The government's enforcement strategy was spelled out in a memo drafted by David J. Kline, Senior Legal Advisor in the Department of Justice, and sent over the signature of his boss, Lawrence Lippe, Chief of the General Litigation and Legal Advice Section of the Criminal Division of the DOJ, to Assistant Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen on 11 January 1982:
The total number of nonregistrants will doubtless remain very high when measured against the Department's prosecutive resources. However, an initial round of well-publicized, successful prosecutions should have a dramatic effect in further reducing the number of non-registrants....We first would have to accept the simple fact that, although some persons will be prosecuted, there will be others who are neither registered nor prosecuted. Nevertheless, such a policy, geared to present funding levels, might well yield sufficient general deterrence so that the Selective Service system receives sufficient registrations to maintain the credibility of the system.
I was one of only 20 people prosecuted under this policy. Most of us were convicted, solely on the basis of our public statements such as this letter I wrote to the government -- nonregistrants who kept quiet faced almost no real risk of prosecution, even then. I spent about 6 months in the custody of the Attorney General, mostly in a Federal Prison Camp, in 1983-1984.
I was prosecuted by former Marine Lieutenant and platoon leader in Vetnam Robert Mueller, then a junior Assistant U.S. Attorney and later the Director of the FBI. Mueller's boss, William F. Weld -- then U.S. Attorney, later Governor of Massachusetts, and currently "Libertarian" candidate for Vice-President of the USA -- also attended my trial to observe Mueller's performance in court. (For some reason Weld insisted on sitting next to my mother in the courtroom, which she found creepy.) My case was Mueller's first high-profile trial, and my head was a significant early stepping stone in his political climb. The instructions from the Justice Department to U.S. Attorneys were to seek indictments of nonregistrants only in the most "sympathetic" Federal districts, so as not to stir up anti-nuclear, anti-war, and student activists. I've never found out how Mueller and Weld got permission to go after me in Boston, but infer that one or both of them must have had strong feelings about draft reisters.
While in prison, I was denounced as a yuppie in the pages of the New York Times by Rep. Gerald Solomon (sponsor of the laws denying Federal student aid, which I had never received anyway, to nonregistrants), for having taken the risk of speaking out about my resistance to the draft. (More about my personal reasons for refusing to register for the draft.)
The show trial backfired. Prosecutions served only to publicize and encourage the resistance. Nonregistrants learned that only those who spoke out would be, or could be, prosecuted, and that the government was powerless to round up the millions of people who were violating the law. Mass nonviolent direct action provided, and continues to provide, safety in numbers for draft registration resisters.
There were protests, rallies, marches, or vigils in more than 100 cities and towns throughout the U.S. in June 1982 in response to the first indictment of a nonregistrant, that of Ben Sasway in San Diego on 30 June 1981, as well as a sit-in and blockade of the headquarters of the Selective Service System in Washington, DC, on 18 October 1982.
There were shows of support and solidarity with draft resistance everywhere that nonregistrants were prosecuted, even in locations Federal prosecutors had chosen as likely to be "sympathetic" to the prosecution of draft resisters. In Des Moines, IA, for example, 200 people surrounded the Federal courthouse and more than 20 people were arrested for blockading the courthouse to prevent the "political trial" of Gary Eklund.
My arraignment (photo), trial, and sentencing in Boston were attended by draft resistance activists and supporters from throughout New England, New York state, and further afield, including campus and community activists, radicals and liberals, women and men, and several generations of resisters. That's John Bach, who had been imprisoned for almost three years for resisting the draft during the U.S. war in Vietnam, next to me in the courthouse elevator on the way to my sentencing. Also at my sentencing were Elmer Maas and Dean Hammer of the Plowshares Eight, and several participants in later "Swords into Plowshares" disarmament actions. Dave Dellinger, who was imprisoned for refusing to register for the draft during World War II and later had been one of the Chicago 8, came to my trial from Vermont and was one of the speakers at a teach-in at MIT the evening before -- as he had been one of the speakers at a teach-in at the University of Chicago the day I was first arrested, at an anti-war and anti-draft demonstration against Robert McNanamara in 1979.) Three people -- the "Chain Gang" of Eric Weinberger, Sean Herlihy, and Elizabeth Boyer Davidson -- were arrested for chaining themselves in the courthouse doors to prevent the trial from proceeding. Other persons unknown locked the bars over the courthouse doors with U-locks and plugged the keyholes with glue the night before I was to be sentenced.
Hundreds of letters were sent to Judge David S. Nelson urging him to reject the prosecution's request that he sentence me to prison. Judge Nelson initially ordered me to do 2,000 hours of community service. Almost a year later, after Judge Nelson objected to the political message expressed by my work, he imposed the six-month prison sentence that he had originally suspended, despite the quite brave testimony at my probation violation hearing by my probation officer, Esther W. Salmon, that she believed that my peace work satisfied the terms of the judge's order.
While only 20 nonregistrants were prosecuted, several thousand registration-age men had taken the same risk by publicizing their refusal to register and/or informing the government about their refusal to comply with the law. But these visible and confrontational forms of resistance were just the tip of the iceberg of widespread but quiet defiance of the call to register for the draft.
Any thought of further prosecutions was abandoned for good in 1988 when the Department of Justice refused to waste time investigating any more nonregistrants. Since then, the resistance has been almost completely spontaneous. As a grassroots movement of individual direct action, without leaders or organizations, it has also been almost entirely invisible. As a result, most recent reporting on the prospect of a draft has overlooked the significance of the ongoing resistance.
Since 1980, noncompliance with Selective Service registration and address update requirements has been sustained continuously at rates many times higher than the resistance at the peak of the Vietnam war or any earlier war or draft in the USA. Mass direct action (noncompliance with registration) has prevented, and continues to prevent, reinstatement of the draft, and has rendered registration completely unenforceable.
Throughout the decades since then, resistance to draft registration has been sustained -- almost entirely by spontaneous individual action, and in the absence of any ongoing draft resistance organizing or propaganda -- at levels far exceeding the resistance to the draft at the peak of the American Wars in Vietnam and Indochina.
Unable to get young people to register voluntarily, the Selective Service System has tried to shift to a system of "passive" registration. At the urging of lobbyists for the Selective Service System, some states require young men to agree to be registered with the Selective Service System if they want obtain a state's license. Most of those who register in other states do so in order to qualify for student loans, government jobs, or job training, or in order to protect their immigration status and eligibility for U.S. citizenship. (All male U.S. residents are required to register for the draft, including non- citizens).
The shift from predominantly grant-based funding for higher education and vocational training in the 1960's and 1970's to predominantly loan-based funding in the 1980's and after roughly coincided with the reinstatement of draft registration, with which it has since been linked. It has served to channel loan recipients into needing higher-paying jobs to pay off their debts, and to make it more difficult for them to choose unpaid or underpaid public service work. This is a major reason why, despite the continued interest of young people in activism, it is harder for them to choose lower-income careers today than it was for those in the 1960's who typically graduated from college with minimal, if any, debt. In today's circumstances, few people who want to further their education feel they have much choice about whether to register for the draft (although they do have a choice, and we urge them to exercise that choice), and their registration is no indication of their willingness to be drafted. Many more people would resist if they were drafted than are willing to risk negative consequences (including forgoing Federal student loans) for resistance at the time of registration.
Almost no one complies with the legal requirement to notify the Selective Service System of address changes until a man reaches age 26. We presume that, like almost all his peers, President Obama himself violated this law, although he may have done so unknowingly, couldn't have been prosecuted without proof of knowledge of the law, and could no longer be prosecuted or penalized, even if he now admitted knowingly breaking the law, since the statute of limitations for either nonregistration or failure to report address changes expires on one's 31st birthday.
Most registrants have effectively "unregistered" by moving without telling the Selective Service System where they have gone, and most induction notices would end up in the dead letter office. That will make it even harder for the government to try to crack down on those who haven't registered, or who refuse to report for induction, since the government must prove to a jury that anyone accused of a draft law violation actually got a notice of what they were supposed to do (register, report address changes, or report for induction).
Selective Service assumes that all registrants are willing to report whenever and wherever they are called up, to fight and kill whomever they are told to kill. In reality, many registrants will resist if drafted. Others registered in the hope or expectation that they will qualify as conscientious objectors.
Many people registered only out of fear, and will report only if compelled to do so -- which will prove as impossible as compelling young men to register has proved. Others were registered involuntarily and essentially "passively", under state laws (passed in response to lobbying by Selective Service) that require draft-age applicants for state driver's licenses to consent to having their drivers-license information used to register them with the SSS. (California is the largest state without such a state law, although proposals for such a California law have been made repeatedly.) These people's registration status indicates nothing about their willingness to be drafted or the likelihood that they would resist a draft.
Still others have registered in order to qualify for Federal student loans, job training, government jobs, and other programs. People who register solely in order to be able to afford to go to college, or to get or keep a job, can't be presumed to be willing to be drafted.
Some people dismiss the actions of millions of young people who have quietly ignored the requirement to register for the draft or tell the Selective Service whenever they move as presumably apolitical, insignificant, or "cowardly", or as draft "evasion" rather than draft "resistance". But such an analysis ignores the reality of political life and the risks of overt resistance for the poor people, people of color, and undocumented immigrants who make up the bulk of this ongoing but quiet resistance to draft registration.
The most detailed and explicit rebuttal to these erroneous assumptions about the significance of quiet resistance, the "hidden transcripts" of subaltern political thought and action, and their relationship with the "public transcripts" of overt resistance has been made by James C. Scott:
Much of the active political life of subordinate groups has been ignored because it takes place at a level we rarely recognize as political. To emphasize the enormity of what has been, by and large, disregarded, I want to distinguish between the open, declared forms of resistance, which attract most attention, and the disguised, low-profile undeclared resistance....
For many of the least privileged minorities and marginalized poor, open political action will hardly capture the bulk of political action.... The luxury of relatively safe, open political opposition is rare... So long as we confine our conception of the political to activity that is openly declared we are driven to conclude that subordinate groups essentially lack a political life.... To do so is to miss the immense terrain that lies between quiescence and [open] revolt and that, for better or worse, is the political environment of subject classes....
Each of the forms of disguised resistance... is the silent partner of a loud form of public resistance.
[Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Yale University Press, 1990, Chapter 7]
Desertion is quite different from an open mutiny that directly challenges military commanders. It makes no public claims, it issues no manifestos, it is exit rather than voice. And yet, once the extent of desertion becomes known, it constrains the ambitions of commanders, who know they may not be able to count on their conscripts.... Quiet, anonymous,... lawbreaking and disobedience may well be the historically preferred mode of political action for... subaltern classes, for whom open defiance is too dangerous.
[Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press, 2012, Chapter 1]
Draft registration has failed, by any measure. Congress should repeal draft registration and abolish the Selective Service System. If it doesn't, the President could and should proclaim an end to draft registration. In the meantime, people potentially subject to the draft should continue to resist.
Selective Service claims that compliance with draft registration exceeds 90 percent, but they count as "in compliance" every registration they receive, no matter how many years late and no matter whether they have current address information to draft the registrant. The majority of those subject to draft registration register late, often years after their prime draft eligibility, and almost none of them notify Selective Service when they move. The important measure of current compliance is, "For what percentage of would-be draftees in the prime ages does Selective Service have a current valid address, such that they could deliver an induction notice reliably?" Although Selective Service deliberately avoids researching this question, the likely figure is less than 50% -- far too low for a draft to be politically salable, or enforceable.
There has been no independent audit of compliance with draft registration since one by the General Accounting Office (GAO) in 1982, which resulted in a report entitled, with typical GAO understatement, "Failure Of Registrants To Report Address Changes Would Diminish Fairness Of Induction Processing". The most recent GAO report on Selective Service was in 2012, but it didn't attempt to investigate or verify compliance with registration. The GAO did, however, reiterate the belief of Selective Service System officials that at least 90% compliance with registration is required for "fairness and equity" of a draft, while registrations were received for only 69% of 18-year old men. In its last previous report on Selective Service registration in 1996, the GAO had reported somewhat higher "compliance", but had noted the concern of the Selective Service System that compliance would be lower in time of war or national crisis. According to the GAO, "SSS officials stated that unless the mass registration program can achieve high levels of compliance (at least 90 percent of the targeted population), the fairness and equity of the ensuing draft could be called into question."
The most recent Selective Service "test exercises" have been for activation of the Health Care Personnel Delivery System, not for a draft based on the current registrations of young men. But when the SSS has conducted "tests" of its ability to carry out a general draft, it has assumed that all the test induction notices that weren't returned by the Post Office were successfully delivered to the potential draftees. That's absurd: in many cases, mail is still delivered to an old address even if the addressee has moved. That's especially true if other people with the same last name still live there, as is likely to be the case for many young people who registered at their parents' address, but who have since moved out.
The real question thus is not, "Will Congress enact a draft?", but, "Will would-be draftees submit to a draft?" The clear evidence is that they will not. As was the case during the first USA-Iraq war in 1990-1991, we still won't go (PDF). Draft resisters are often accused of naiveté, but those who believe that they have the power to impose a draft are deluding themselves and refusing to face the facts.