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Compulsory National Service

Slave Labor Is Illegal. Resist Draft Registration.

Most of this Web site is concerned with military conscription. But one of the options most seriously considered by the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS) in 2017-2020 was whether to recommend compulsory national service for all young people. (The compulsory national service proposal didn’t get the super-majority of votes that the NCMNPS had established as its requirement for final recommendations, but the vote count and the votes of individual members of the NCMNPS on this and the other final recommendations remain secret.)

What if conscription weren’t just for military combatants, or if young people were required to “serve” for a specified period of time in some capacity satisfying government criteria, but could fulfill this legal obligation through non-combatant, civilian, or non-military “service” (or through a choice of military or civilian assignments)?

Would that change our opinion of the Selective Service System or of whether women should be required to register for the draft?

“I have two answers, and they’re both no,” I told the Vice Chair of the NCMNPS when she asked me this question during a hearing in April 2019:

First, many of those people who oppose serving the war effort oppose serving it in any capacity, whether as a combatant, a uniformed noncombatant, a civilian doing war work, or a taxpayer funding the war effort. When the country, which is to say the government, is on a war footing, work of service to the “national interest”, which is to say work which serves the government’s interests, is by definition work which serves the interests of the war effort. That’s what “mobilization” means. Labor, like money, is fungible. Every noncombatant who voluntarily or involuntary joins the ranks of the military, and every civilian doing work that would otherwise have to be assigned to a soldier, frees another soldier for re-assignment from noncombatant to combatant duty. That’s why many people who could qualify for assignment to noncombatant duty or civilian alternative service if they chose to seek classification as conscientious objectors choose instead to resist draft registration and the draft, and why many organizations and individuals who have supported conscientious objectors also have supported those who resist the draft. As I noted in my testimony to the Commission, “Even after I was convicted of refusing to register, I could have avoided prison camp if I had been willing to do “service” work that was politically acceptable to the sentencing judge. I resisted draft registration, and I persisted in that resistance, not because I wanted to opt out of personal participation in war, but because I wanted to prevent a draft and, by doing so, to limit the ability of the U.S. to wage war.”

Second, objections to forced labor and involuntary servitude generally, and to the particular ways those would be implemented in a national service scheme, aren’t limited to objections to their use for war. Many of the objections to conscription, including those based on its coercion, its ageism, and its class bias, apply equally to conscription for any purpose.

As a practical matter, any system of compulsory service for all young people of certain ages would be:

  1. Prohibitively expensive even at subsistence wages,
  2. Unproductive (unless tortured, and sometimes even then, slave labor is inefficient), and
  3. Unenforceable.

As I told the NCMNPS:

Any proposal that includes a compulsory element is a naïve fantasy unless it includes a credible enforcement plan and budget….

How much are you prepared to spend, and how much of a police state are you prepared to set up, to round up the millions of current draft registration law violators or enforce a draft?

And if the criminal penalties for noncompliance continue to be unenforced, and the only incentives for compliance or penalties for noncompliance with draft registration or a draft or national “service” remain financial, then the system will remain a de facto “poverty draft”.

More privileged young people are likely to qualify for, or to find ways to be assigned to, the safer “service” jobs and those that provide useful training and enhance upward mobility (teaching, for example), while the dangerous assignments (fighting forest fires, for example, or cleaning up toxic waste) will remain the sphere of those with less privilege. Any compulsory system is likely to land poor people and people of color at the bottom of the pile, as usual.

All of this applies to any compulsory or “universal” national service scheme with both military and civilian components, just as much as, or more than, any purely military system of conscription. Under a system in which only some people are selected by lottery for compulsory military service, and nothing more is required of those who aren’t selected, many of the people who win the draft lottery will go on with their lives without further resistance to the system that is conscripting others. But if every young person is required to “serve”, none of them will be able to evade the choice between forced labor and resistance, and the same percentage of noncompliance will mean a much larger absolute number of both public and quiet violators of any “universal” national service law than of the current Selective Service law.

Fifty years ago, in response to some of the first proposals to replace the military draft with a national service scheme with both military and civilian components, draft resistance organizer Paul Lauter and feminist Florence Howe wrote as follows in “The Conspiracy of the Young” (1970). The original working title of this book was, “Service and Rebellion”, and it’s one of relatively few anti-draft treatises from that period to explicitly address issues of coercion and youth liberation as well as those of war and peace:

National service, which purports to be an effort to enlist the enthusiasm and motion of young people, reveals itself as blind to their real enthusiasms and their real movement. Does the contradiction arise from adult ignorance, from the desire of adults to impose their own, long-held ideas on the next generation, or as part of the struggle between the order of bureaucrats and the anarchism of youth?…

And yet it is not easy for proponents of national service to support compulsion directly, primarily because it violates both the letter of the American Constitution and the spirit of individual freedom that has informed the social and political life of the country….

Promoters of national service skip effortlessly form the idealism of a voluntary program to the totalitarianism of a compulsory system…. For those to whom compulsion and force seem increasingly reasonable solutions to social problems, national service will naturally appear a convenient means of enforcing their assumptions, or at least their power.

This confusion between “service” and compulsion, and this evasion of the costs and methods of enforcement, continues to plague more recent proposals for national service. John Delaney didn’t get far as a candidate for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for President, but his proposal for national service was typical of these naïve fantasies. Despite being explicitly described as “mandatory”, it contained no mention of what the sanctions would be for noncompliance, or of how or at what price they would be enforced. Such pipe dreams make it ironic that opponents of conscription, rather than proponents, are typically those accused of being unrealistic!

Ageism and “universal” service

No service scheme could be “universal” without being compulsory. But few “national service” proposals would actually be “universal.” Almost all of them would be compulsory only for people of certain ages, specifically teenagers and/or young adults.

As I told the NCMNPS:

You have described this hearing as being about Expanding Selective Service registration to all Americans, by which you mean whether to expand draft registration to young women as well as young men. But that you could describe a requirement applicable only to young people as being one that applies to “all” people is indicative of the profound and unexamined ageism that underlies any system of conscription based on the idea that old people are entitled to decide how young people’s lives should be used. It is because of this ageism that opposition to the draft has been central to movements for youth liberation, not only in this country and not only in the 1960s but around the world and throughout history.

As I also pointed out to the NCMNPS in response to their questions, older generations have created the threats to the survival of life on Earth posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. It’s not as though we old people know what needs to be done, and all that it will take is for more young people to do what we tell them to do. We need more leaders among young people, not more followers; more young people who question the authority of the old; and more old people who work as allies to young people rather than trying to control or co-opt them. Humanity will survive, if it survives, only if we old people get out of the way, empower and assist young people to make their own choices rather than trying to constrain their choices as the Selective Service System has been designed to do, and are willing to consider following their leadership in new directions.

Doug Bandow, who testified against compulsory civilian national “service” at another of the NCMNPS hearings, has an excellent survey of some of the many tbings that are wrong with this idea in his article for Antiwar.com, Drafting People Into the Moral Equivalent of War: The False Promise of Universal National Service.

But isn’t “service” a good thing?

There are many kinds of service. According to an interfaith statement submitted to the NCMNPS by the National Council of Churches and other participants in the Washington Interfaith Staff Community:

There is no provision under the law to accommodate religious beliefs within the current Selective Service System registration process. This must change, and the simplest way to accomplish this is to abolish the registration requirement for all….

Many of our faith communities sponsor voluntary service programs. We applaud government programs to encourage service, such as the Peace Corps and Americorps. We oppose mandatory civilian or military service. We believe, and have learned through our experiences, that genuine service comes from the heart — not coercion.

Some high schools require students to do a certain amount of “service” in order to graduate. But young people who had attended such schools testified at Commission meetings that rather than engendering a “culture of service”, these requirements teach young people that service is an externally imposed obstacle to personal progress — a box you have to check off, hopefully with as little effort as possible. The idea that young people but only young people should be required to serve, and that old people know which forms of service should and should not be acceptable, is likely to come across to young adults as onerous and infantilizing.

Lauter and Howe’s critique of channelling and “national service” in “The Conspiracy of the Young” focuses on the issues of ageism, youth self-determination, who decides what is considered acceptable “service”, and what interests young people should serve. A critical distinction made by Howe and Lauter, and that underlies much of the opposition to “national service” by those who seek to serve humanity or their own consciences in ways the government might not approve, is the distinction between work that “serves” to mitigate or ameliorate the adverse consequences of current structures and work that “serves” to change those structures. Work for self-determination or other structural social change is unlikely to meet the government’s criteria for national service by young people, or the criteria of intermediaries credentialed by the government, such as those that meet government criteria for tax-exempt status which exclude “political” activities:

We began by talking about the apparently compelling logic of in devoting the resources of youth to the solution of national problems; and we have tried to suggest how, in a variety of ways, the notion has about the same cruel and destructive rationality as modern war. But there is another kind of logic to be built from the idealistic desire of millions of young people to serve, not society or the state or other abstractions, but people. It is precisely this impulse which national service betrays into the hands of the bureaucrats, the secretariats, and the masters of war, who wish only to use and control the young.

There is a fundamental distinction between work that “serves” to mitigate the damage that results from structural inequities, and work that serves the causes of humanity, justice, and liberation (“liberté, égalité, fraternité”, in the French revolutionary and republican formulation — the last of the three elements of which is especially often lacking in the USA — that remains apt despite its sexism) by working for structural change:

Social service work addresses the needs of individuals reeling form the personal and devastating impact of institutional systems of exploitation and violence. Social change work challenges the root causes of the exploitation and violence….

We need to provide services for those most in need, for those trying to survive, for those barely making it. We also need to work for social change so that we create a society in which our institutions are equitable and just, and all people are safe, adequately fed and sheltered, well educated, afforded safe and decent jobs, and empowered to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

While there is some overlap between social service provision and social change work, the two do not necessarily go readily together…. Although some groups are both working for social change and providing social services, there are many more groups providing social services that are not working for social change…. While there is always the risk of not securing adequate funding, there is a greater risk that if we did something to really rock the boat and address the roots of the problems we would lose whatever funding we’ve already managed to secure.

[Paul Kivel, Social Service or Social Change, in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, edited by INCITE!, first published 2007 by South End Press, reissued with a new preface and foreword 2017 by Duke University Press; also reprinted by the Barnard Center for Research on Women in The Scholar and Feminist Online, issue 13.2, 2016.]

We cannot expect any government to sanction work for structural change that threatens its power as eligible for government funding or tax exemption, or as qualifying to fulfill requirements for compulsory national service. For young people who seek to make change, national service — even if it allowed work for any government-recognized nonprofit organization to fulfill its requirements — is designed to channel ideas and movements that might threaten the government or other power structures into non-threatening, even if beneficial, activities:

Social movement theorists John McCarthy, David Britt, and Mark Wolfson argue that the “channeling mechanisms” embodied by the non-profit industry “may now far outweigh the effect of direct social control by states in explaining the structural isomorphism, orthodox tactics, and moderate goals of much collective action in modern America.”… The form of the US Left is inseparable from its political content. The most obvious element of this kinder, gentler, industrialized repression is its bureaucratic incorporation of social change organizations into a “tangle of incentives” — such as postal privileges, tax-exempt status, and quick access to philanthropic funding apparatuses — made possible by state bestowal of “not-for-profit” status. Increasingly, avowedly progressive, radical, leftist, and even some self-declared “revolutionary” groups have found assimilation into this state-sanctioned organizational paradigm a practical route to institutionalization. Incorporation facilitates the establishment of a relatively stable financial and operational infrastructure while avoiding the transience, messiness, and possible legal complications of working under decentralized, informal, or “underground” auspices. The emergence of this state-proctored social movement industry “suggests an historical movement away from direct, cruder forms [of state repression], toward more subtle forms of state social control of social movements.”

[Dylan Rodríguez, The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, edited by INCITE!, first published 2007 by South End Press, reissued with a new preface and foreword 2017 by Duke University Press; also reprinted in The Scholar and Feminist Online, issue 13.2, 2016; quoting McCarthy, Britt, and Wolfson, “The Institutional Channeling of Social Movements by the State in the United States,” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change vol. 13 (1991)]

I had this to say about “service” in my initial response to the NCMNPS call for public input and my testimony at its public event in Denver in April 2018:

The Commission also wants to know what the government could do to encourage “service”, particularly by young people. Here are some preliminary answers:
  1. “Compulsory service” is, by definition, slavery. If you want to encourage any positive definition of service, it must be voluntary, and completely separate from any system of conscription. You cannot have a system that serves both conscription and positive “service”. If you are doing something because of the carrot of financial rewards or the stick of threatened prosecution or other punishment, it’s servitude, not service.

    After my conviction for refusal to register for the draft, I was initially sentenced to six months’ incarceration, suspended on condition that I perform 2,000 hours of “service”. Although my probation officer testified — quite courageously — that she believed that my antiwar and nuclear disarmament work satisfied the conditions of my sentence, the judge later revoked my probation and ordered me locked up because he disagreed with the political statement made by my work.

    It was a lesson in the relationship between conscription and compulsory “service”, and of the politicization of the definition of acceptable “service”.

  2. “Military service” is, by definition, service to the cause of war. If you want to encourage any non-warlike notion of “service”, you need to separate it completely from military recruiting, military training, or incentives for military enlistment.

  3. People can best “serve” by making their own choices. “Service” should not be limited to options approved by the government for nonprofit status. We need youth leadership to save us from the threats of nuclear and climate-change calamities that we older people have created. We need to allow young people to lead, not force them to follow. Accepting youth leadership means allowing young people to make choices that older people would not have identified for them.

  4. The greatest limitation on the ability to “serve”, especially for young people, is student debt that forces people to seek higher-paying jobs. This is the new form of the channeling of young people’s choices by the Selective Service System. The best way to enable more people to “serve” is to free them from student and vocational-training debt by recognizing education as a human right and shifting funding for education and job training from loans to grants.

(For more on student debt as the “new channeling”, see the essays by Jeffrey J. Williams in Dissent magazine and elsewhere, including those reprinted in his book, How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, Fordham Univ. Press, 2014.)

Will compulsory national service bring us together or divide us?

Some supporters of national service argue that when people work together for a common purpose in a common project with people form diverse backgrounds, that tends to increase their understanding of, and acceptance of, that diversity.

But that ignores the consequences of compulsion. Neither the government nor any other institution can impose unity of purpose. The only unity consistently promoted by coercion is unity against those responsible for that coercion. Black, white, and Latino draftees during the U.S. war in Indochina united against their officers and, even more, against the politicians responsible for the war. Prisoners unite against their jailers, even across the deepest ethnic, racial, and class divides within prison communities and the larger society. But being forced together into the same overcrowded cages hasn’t united inmates of U.S. prisons and jails, or the communities from which they are taken, in any shared values other than a common hatred of the system that oppresses them and in whose name they are locked up.

“It’s not a hate I want to apologize for,” draft resister David Harris once wrote of his feelings about the Attorney General. “He made his living putting folks in a cage, and that has always seemed like a low way to live.” Many others of those consigned to the custody of the Attorney General, even those from “the other side of the tracks”, would share that sentiment. Are these the shared values proponents of national service want to promote? These are the values they will promote if they impose a compulsory national service requirement.

Who or what interests or institutions should young people serve? And who should decide?

To say that the people should be required to serve the national interest, as that interest is defined by the government, rather than that the government should serve interests defined for it by the people is, by definition, fascist. We say “No.”

We have the right to choose what interests we will serve, and how the government should serve us. That’s called, “democracy.” If the government doesn’t serve the people, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it”.

Records released by the NCMNPS in response to my Freedom Of Information Act requests suggest that, when it first convened, the members of the NCMNPS (appointed by Republican and Democratic party House and Senate leaders and lame-duck President Obama) initially inclined toward recommending some sort of compulsory national service for all young people. It appears that the NCMNPS gave up on that idea only when every lawyer they consulted, form either party, told them it would be unconstitutional.

The NCMNPS was disbanded when its statutory term as a temporary agency expired, but its former Chair, Army Reserve Major General Joe Heck, is now co-chair of a new lobbying campaign for national service also endorsed by several other former members of the NCMNPS. They’ve gotten the endorsement of the New York Times editorial board, and they’ve been trying to sell the idea to the Biden Administration.

Facile discussion of what young people “should” do (“Should Young Americans Be Required to Give a Year of Service?”, asked the Times in its headline) are both naïve and ageist.

Naïve, because they ignore the constraints which are (fortunately) placed on government policy by the willingness or unwiloingness of the subjects of government orders to carry them out. In the final analysis, what young people will do, whihc only they can decide, matters more than what the government or anyone else things they ought to do, or tells them to do. The Times noted an increase recently in Web searches related to national service, but missed its significance: young people are already looking for ways to resist any draft or compulsory national service. Consistently the most searched-for page on this site is, “What to do if you don’t want to be drafted.Many young men have already opted out, and it is already clear that any draft or compulsory national service would be unenforceable, as draft registration has already proven.

Ageist, because they presume that young epole can best “serve” by doing what older people tell them to do. Young people are not going to save themselves (or their elders) from the existential threats that older generations have created — nuclear weapons, global warming, etc. — by following orders or accepting assignments from a government in which they are outvoted by older people. Any hope that young people will save themselves, and save us older people from ourselves and the mess we have created, depends on their doing precisely those things that we, as their elsers, wouldn’t have thought to tell them to do.

Given the stated goals of many of their endorsers, we interpret efforts to make national service an “expected responsibility” as a step toward trying to make it a de facto or de jure requirement.

We say “No” to either a de facto or de jure “service” requirement for young people, to any form of compulsory national service, and to any penalties or denial or reduction of benefits for those who choose not to “serve” in the ways that the government defines as acceptable.

Links about compulsory national service:


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This page most recently modified 10 November 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, videos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.