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Draft registration demands resistance

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[Fred Moore of the National Resistance Committee being detained by military police for picketing and leafletting outside the regional office of the Selective Service System in Denver, CO, during a draft resistance outreach and speaking tour in 1985 with Ann Wrixon, Matt Nicodemus, and Richard Ramirez.]

Reflections on Resisting Draft Registration

By Ethan Foote

(first published 10 June 2021; revised 22 June 2021)

Some time around my eighteenth birthday, I received a letter in the mail from the Selective Service System informing me of my legal obligation to register for a possible future draft. It was the fall of 2005, in the middle of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq that followed the 2003 invasion. I had come to view the invasion and occupation as a war of aggression, sold to a fearful public through lies and waged in the interest not of national defense but of empire, or a system of military-political-economic domination. To me, Selective Service registration was a part of this system, and it represented a bureaucratic normalization of war and militarism. I took one look at the letter and resolved not to comply.

The Selective Service System is the federal agency tasked with collecting and maintaining information on those who may at some point be subject to a draft, or military conscription. Under U.S. law, if you’re male (as assigned at birth) and a U.S. citizen or immigrant non-citizen, you are legally required to register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of your eighteenth birthday.

Of course, the government hasn’t actually had a draft in place since the 1970s, during the Vietnam War. And not since the 1980s, after Jimmy Carter reestablished registration in his last year in office, has it prosecuted anyone for not registering — a move that proved widely unpopular. After decades of non-enforcement and inefficiency, even government officials who were once in charge of administering draft registration have admitted that it has failed its stated purpose. In the words of former Selective Service director Bernard Rostker, registration is “less than useless.”

And yet the requirement to register remains law. Its actual value to the government is as a recruitment tool, a sort of introduction to the military brand that might entice actual enlistment. Having abandoned the threat of prosecution as an enforcement mechanism, the government instead enforces registration through a series of backdoor channels that allow it to circumvent due process and punish non-compliance automatically — in effect, extrajudicially, and to a degree of severity that depends on various arbitrary factors.

Thanks to a series of laws known as the Solomon Amendments (after the congressman who authored them), in 1982 Selective Service registration became a condition of eligibility for federal student loans, such that young men applying for federal financial aid must certify on their FAFSA forms that they have registered. In December 2020, Congress at long last passed legislation that eliminates this condition and while the new rule has until 2023 to take effect it is now on course to do so by the end of 2021. Despite this welcome change, other consequences for failing to register remain in place, including ineligibility for most federal employment and a patchwork of state-level penalties. Many states require registration as a condition of eligibility for state-level higher education benefits, state jobs, and, perhaps most onerous of all, a driver’s license. Others go so far as to automatically register any man between the ages of 18 and 25 when he applies for a driver’s license, learner’s permit, or non-driver identification.

The cowardice of the government’s strategy is breathtaking. Rather than risk negative publicity by actually charging non-compliers with a federal crime and according them the rights of the accused, it threatens young men with the prospect of not getting a college degree, since virtually no one can afford college without loans and federal loans are the most attractive. And not having a college degree means not being qualified for most jobs. Then, it allows the states to have an administrative field day with federal law, such that it applies differently to each young man depending on where he happens to live. And in case being economically denied access to higher education doesn’t do the trick, you can be denied access to even more basic, everyday necessities. If you think getting anywhere in this country without a college degree is hard, try getting anywhere without a driver’s license.

Contesting a parking ticket? You get your day in court. Contesting participation in war? You become a second-class citizen by fiat.

Registration is an extortion racket and a deep affront to individual rights, and I support those who have resisted it for these reasons alone. But these weren’t my reasons, at least not the main ones. I refused to register because of the bigger picture of which I believe draft registration is a part.

The Selective Service System was was created in 1917 as part of the Selective Service Act, which Woodrow Wilson signed into law following the U.S. declaration of war against Germany. In other words, it originated as an indispensable part of U.S. involvement in a war bloodier and stupider than anything the world had ever witnessed, helping the government send those who resisted to prison and those who didn’t off to Flanders to be killed, maimed, or permanently shell-shocked in a conflict as pointless as it was unimaginably destructive.

In 2005, my immediate frame of reference was a conflict that came after more than a hundred years of American overseas empire, of which World War I marked not the beginning but only a major juncture. I was a young person at the time of another pointless war — pointless under the terms of its official rationale, if not its real one. And a war that was, if not exactly unimaginable in the scope of its destructiveness, offering plenty to beggar the imagination nonetheless.

It cannot be stressed enough that the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath constitute not merely a war carried out on wildly false pretenses, fueled by fear and racism, and resulting in a civilian death toll in the hundreds of thousands, but the wholesale destruction of an entire society. Iraq’s institutions, its ancient culture, its fragile ethno-religious balance, and the very aspirations to democracy that the U.S. presence was supposed to promote were, like the human lives they once sustained, obliterated. Their obliteration was structural and deliberate, part of a scorched-earth campaign not to vanquish terror or despotism but to achieve what ten years of famine-inducing sanctions and the 1991 Gulf War before that could not: the realization of a corporate state in Iraq, in which war is both a means and an end in itself.

Over massive opposition from the Iraqi people, following the invasion the Coalition Provisional Authority promptly set about privatizing almost every economic resource the country possessed — by decree. Handing out the spoils to one politically-connected American corporation after another, to other such firms it handed out U.S. taxpayer money to manage this project of imperial plunder mendaciously termed “reconstruction.” When the project eventually provoked an insurgency against coalition forces, mixed in with a sectarian civil war fueled by the fact that competing Sunni and Shi’a militias offered more to freshly jobless, destitute people than their foreign occupiers did, the insurgency itself simply became the next profitable private sector of the occupation, as everything from combat to torture was outsourced to military contractors operating in an unaccountable shadowland of U.S. and international law.

Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s push for war, were never found, nor was any evidence of a link between Saddam and 9/11, while, to the protracted conflict that engulfed Iraq, the lives of nearly a million Iraqis and nearly five-thousand U.S. service personnel were lost.

The additional details of this catastrophe are too numerous to recount. Like all U.S. conflicts, it was but one chapter in a long, sordid story of U.S. involvement in the region; the same is true of U.S. operations in Afghanistan since 2001. Empire is a sprawling, proliferative web — in time as well as space — of interests, alliances, and actors. It perpetuates itself by continuing to create both enemies and dependents, in the form of both governments and real, flesh-and-blood human beings, whose acts of desperate violence and need for protection alike U.S. policymakers cynically manipulate to entrench U.S. domination, whether over the course of years or of generations.

The dependents include Americans. However we feel about war, our collective wealth and prosperity are tethered to the hugely profitable defense, security, and surveillance sectors, to the state-capitalized military-industrial complex that the Iraq War did nothing short of revolutionize by blasting away the boundaries between war planners and corporate elites.

But dependence on empire is psychological as well as economic, and it persists even after wars have ended — indeed, even after war, as a national way of life, has lost its appeal.

Never much ones for recent history, Americans seem by and large to have forgotten about the Iraq War. An egregious abdication of the responsibility to think bookends the entire event, as cultural amnesia now allows politicians, media figures, and ordinary citizens to escape accountability for having supported the invasion, or to act like they never supported it at all. At best, we’ve reached a sort of lazy consensus that the whole thing was a bad idea and redirected our limited attention for this stuff to the situation in Afghanistan, now going down as an American defeat on par with Vietnam. The war criminals have all walked, some of them even managing to slyly rehabilitate themselves when they joined in the pearl-clutching over a new, rival breed of monster, Donald Trump.

Since the Bush years, politics and culture have changed dramatically. Back then, to be a flag-waving nationalist meant you supported the idea that the U.S. can and should police the world, an idea that of course has its liberal-progressive iteration. Now you can be a flag-waving nationalist and, if you even think about that idea at all, hate it every bit as much as you hate immigrants, people of color, women, Jews, anyone to your left, whomever. (You can even blame them for it too.) That’s because endless war has been, above all else, a disappointment to anyone who hasn’t made money from it, and a disappointment that would eventually have to be accounted for politically. A disappointment that, for many, got rolled in with other aggravations until it all eventually emerged as hate. Enter The Donald.

The sense of wounded national pride, conscious or otherwise, that results when empires run up against limits has real consequences. After the bellicose thrill of 9/11 had worn off, the ensuing succession of national nervous breakdowns finally culminated in a president whose no-filter denunciations of endless war and foreign entanglement were hugely popular with the same crowd that used to love those things. His commitment to non-intervention proving selective, opportunistic, and corrupt, in the end Trump would not so much give peace a chance as give it a bad name. More disturbingly, as he seized the mantle of non-intervention with one hand, he seized the double barrel of presidential lying and presidential violence with the other — and aimed it stateside.

Trump, the boorish isolationist, flipped the script and turned the forces of jingoist aggression inward, mobilizing them both within and outside the state against domestic targets instead of foreign ones. Rather than smash collective resistance on the streets of Baghdad, he tried to smash it on the streets of America’s cities, ordering brutal crackdowns by the National Guard and federal law enforcement on protestors marching en masse for racial justice. And rather than interfere, to any notable extent, with another country’s democratic processes — as so many past presidents have—he interfered with our own. Instead of hiring lawless Blackwater mercenaries to wreck another country, Trump, confronted with unfavorable elections results, rallied the volunteer force of right-wing lunatics he’d spent four years building to stage an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Trump preferred unleashing militarized force at home to invading faraway lands. Yet underlying his behavior and that of Bush and Cheney are different forms of the same basic abuse of power: marshaling lethal force on a mass scale in the service of self-interested political ends, with falsehoods as the greatest weapon of all.

And yet I am still more likely to go to prison than any of these men.

This is what I mean by “the bigger picture,” the broader state of affairs I sought to protest by refusing to register. Insofar as draft registration has any purpose, it is to supply manpower for American empire, and the evidence is in: empire causes the destruction of human life and human flourishing all over the world and the degradation of politics at home, whether the president’s orders are to raze another country to the ground or to turn the guns on fellow Americans. Draft registration, therefore, demands resisting.

Ineligible for student loans from the government, I had to look elsewhere. I was lucky enough to discover the Fund for Education and Training (FEAT), which supplies educational loans at the same rate as the government to those who, like me, refused on principle to register for the draft. I later volunteered for FEAT’s parent organization, the Center on Conscience & War (CCW), and I now serve on its board. In addition to opposing conscription and recruitment, CCW’s primary mission is to defend and extend the rights of military conscientious objectors, those who are currently serving but have come to believe that participation in war in any form is wrong. These brave men and women in uniform constitute the front line of war resistance, and if the wave of CO applications from those serving in the National Guard units deployed to put down Black Lives Matter protests says anything, it’s that, whatever form militarism takes, there will always be those in the military with the courage to not go along with it.

I’m proud to be a fellow traveler of conscientious objectors, though I would not qualify as a conscientious objector myself. I do not, to use the Department of Defense’s definition, hold “a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief” that would, if I could adequately demonstrate this objection to the government, exempt me from combatant and/or non-combatant military service in the event of a draft, disqualify me from enlisting, or, were I already serving, qualify me for discharge. (Nor is there any option to apply for CO status at the time of registration.)

Conscientious objection is a long and living tradition of opposition to war, full of unbelievably brave individuals who have often paid a high price for acting on their beliefs in the form of abuse, imprisonment, torture, and death. But it isn’t the only such tradition (nor are conscientious objectors the only war resisters to have been the targets of state violence). It’s one legitimate position among many from which to oppose war and conscription. No one should feel like they have to be a potential CO in order to resist the draft. Such a mentality needlessly limits the ranks of resisters and plays right into the hands of militarism.

War planners would prefer potential registrants approach the situation by asking themselves, “Can I imagine a war in which I could justifiably participate? If so, I should sign up.” But if you’ve seen the rap sheet of U.S. wars to date, you can almost certainly imagine any number of future criminal scenarios in which you’d want no part—scenarios that, given this record, are indeed all too realistic. One should instead invert the moral calculus and ask, “Can I imagine a war in which I couldn’t justifiably participate? If so, I should refuse to sign up.” Let the burden of justification fall on those who support war, not on those who would oppose it.

There is a chilling effect on draft resistance when conscientious objection is the standard would-be draft resisters impose on themselves. In the face of such damning and overwhelming evidence against the system of which draft registration is a part, the standard should be much, much lower. The officially sanctioned category of those who object to war in any form belongs to the much larger, rougher category of those who say “fuck this stupid war, and the next one.” We can all resist together, whether we object from a place of conscience or simply from a place of disgust.

On the question of whether war and killing can ever be justified, I remain agnostic. I feel similarly, for that matter, on the question of whether draft registration, in the abstract, has any merit as a strategy of legitimate national self-defense. (After all, there are other countries with onerous service requirements that haven’t disgraced themselves with militarism as the U.S. has.) As important as these questions are, they weren’t relevant to my decision not to register. What was relevant was American militarism as it actually exists. That, and not the theoretical existence or non-existence of just war, is what I felt to be at issue.

If you’re 18, find America’s wars at all objectionable, and can avoid or deal with the consequences of not registering, you should not register. If you can’t deal with the consequences, or if you’ve already registered, you can still resist by not reporting address changes to the Selective Service, which you’re legally required to do between the ages of 18 and 25 but for which there is virtually no enforcement. And in the event of an actual draft, every military-age man, regardless of prior registration status, can expect to be targeted and will therefore face a choice of whether or not to resist if he is ordered to report for induction into the military.

We can all also oppose the current push to expand draft registration to women, countering the facile refrain of “gender equality” with the argument that no one, of any gender, deserves to be subjected to the coercive, Constitutionally dubious apparatus of draft registration in order to get a federal student loan or a driver’s license, or in order to prove that they are just as capable as people of another gender of sharing in the burdens of citizenship. And we can support proposed legislation to repeal draft registration and abolish the Selective Service System altogether.

As a tactic for constraining the government’s ability to wage war, resisting draft registration, and even resisting an actual draft, has its limits. Even without the advertisement for enlistment that registration provides, the government is able to wage unjust wars just fine with an all-volunteer-force, which is effectively what we’ve had since Vietnam. But it’s also able to wage unjust wars because of public ignorance. When people don’t know about the horrific suffering their government’s wars have inflicted, or who made money from those wars, or that the despot their government just deposed used to be its puppet, or how to tell when their government is lying through its teeth, or that a given war even happened at all, then war happens again.

Certainly many people have never even heard of the Selective Service System. They need, and deserve, to know that it’s a part of the war machine. Non-compliance with draft registration merits a higher profile as part of a broader movement on which the survival of American democracy and the planet alike depend, a movement to oppose new wars, de-militarize our society and economy, and dismantle empire—American and otherwise—by building global political and economic alternatives that free people from its grip, wherever they stand in relation to it. War, militarism, and empire demand resisting in ways big and small.

[Ethan Foote is a musician and composer based in Washington, D.C. In 2005, as an act of protest against war and empire he chose not to register with the Selective Service System. His decision led him to discover the Center on Conscience & War (CCW), on whose board he now serves, helping to extend and defend the rights of conscientious objectors and other opponents of conscription and war. In 2019, he testified before the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service as one of the uninvited witnesses who were allowed only 2 minutes each during the “public comment” period at the end of the hearing. An earlier version of this article was published on Waging Nonviolence in partnership with the International Peace Research Association (IPRA); this updated version is published here by kind permission of the author. Copyright 2021 by Ethan Foote, CC BY 4.0.]


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This page most recently modified 19 August 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, videos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.