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Compulsory National Service (civilian or non-military)

Slave Labor Is Illegal. Resist Draft Registration.

Most of this Web site is concerned with military conscription.

But 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 National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service 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 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.

Regardless of John Delaney's chances as a candidate for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for President, his proposal for national service is typical of these naïve fantasies. Despite being explicitly described as "mandatory", it contains 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.

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 Commision 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.

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.

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

Links about compulsory national service:

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