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Deciding whether or not to register with the Selective Service System

Options to consider, and reasons some people choose each of these options

Whether or not to register with the Selective Service System (SSS) is a serious decsion that may result in some serious consequences, regardless of whether or not you register. We have some general advice and many other resources elsewhere on this Web site to help you make your decisions. But it’s important to understand all of your options (including options you might not have thought of and that the government is unlike to point out) and the potential consequences of whatever actions you take (ditto), so that you can make informed choices.

Whether or not to register with the SSS is not a simple binary choice, and registering is not necessarily (or usually) the safest choice. There is a complex maze of options, each with its own pros and cons, uncertainties, and risks. If you decide to register, you still have choices to make as to when to do so: When you turn 18? When you get a driver’s license? If and only if you are selected for prosecution for nonregistration, and contacted by the Department of Justice (by a registered letter or a visit from the FBI)? Shortly before your 26th birthday? If you decide not to register, you have a choice of whether to do so quietly or to come out as a nonregistrant by informing the government or making public statements.

Motives and choices of actions are layered. You may have one set of reasons for why you oppose the draft, another set of reasons for choosing whether to act on that opposition by registering or not registering or delaying registration, and yet another set of reasons for whether to “come out” publicly about your actions or to remain closeted about your decision not to register or to wait to register until just before you turn 26.

Most people who register are registered involuntarily as a result of some other action, such as applying for a driver’s license. Few people make a deliberate choice of whether or not to register. This also has legal implications: Most people who haven’t registered with the SSS have not actually committed any crime, because they lack the requisite “specific intent”. Knowledge and willfulness are explicit elements of any violation of the Military Selective Service Act. Actual personal knowledge of the requirement or order alleged to have been violated will be the most difficult element to prove if a defendant has not incriminated themselves and exercises their right to remain silent.

Of those who make conscious decisions about registration, the following are only some of the choices they make, and only some of the motives different individuals have for each of these choices:

Some People Consciously Choose to Register.

Some people, of course, believe in the legitimacy of the military draft and the purposes for which it is or might be used. Others have doubts about the draft or its uses, but believe that, if there is to be a draft, they should share in the risk of being drafted. Others believe that the draft is wrong, but believe even more strongly in their duty to comply with the law, even when they believe the law to be wrong.

Some people make a deliberate choice that some specific benefit of registration such as obtaining a driver’s license (in some states), in-state tuition at a state college (in some states), naturalization as a U.S. citizen, or a Federal or state job, is worth the risk of being drafted (especially if they think the chance of a draft before they turn 26 is low). Others see no practical alternative to applying for a driver’s license in their state, naturalization as a U.S. citizen, or some other government program for which Selective Service registration is a prerequisite.

Others oppose the draft, but choose to register in the hope that, if the draft is activated and they lose out in the draft lottery, they will be able to make a successful claim for classification as a conscientious objector and will be assigned to alternative service that they will find acceptable, or that they will be successful in a claim for some other deferment or exemption, such as for being medically unfit.

Some people who haven’t registered earlier register shortly before their 26th birthday to protect themselves against collateral sanctions for nonregistration later in life. This is an important decision point and option that most people approaching age 26 are unaware of.

Some People Consciously Choose Not to Register.

People who consciously choose not to register also do so for a wide variety of reasons.

In the early 1980s, twenty nonregistrants were indicted, most of them stating primarily secular reasons for opposing the draft, but some pointing to religious beliefs as the primary basis for their opposition.

Of those young people who oppose the draft, some feel that any degree of cooperation with Selective Service is a violation of their beliefs against participation in war and/or against acquiescence to the government’s authority to conscript them for war or for any purpose. Others don’t register because there is no opportunity to register as a conscientious objector (CO). Some would register if they could register officially as a CO, or if they were aware of the procedures that are available under the Privacy Act to force the SSS to keep a record of their intent to seek CO status and assignment to alternative service if they are drafted.

Many people — perhaps the largest category of people who deliberately choose not to register when they turn 18 — are risk-averse pragmatists who assess the risk of being drafted if they register and there is a draft as being greater than the risk that they will be prosecuted and convicted if they don’t register.

This category of nonregistrants includes people who don’t think that they would be likely to be recognized by the government as qualifying for any deferment or exemption (even if they might, in theory, have an arguable claim to one — especially in time of war, some seemingly deserving and well-argued claims will undoubtedly be denied, and Congress could enact changes in the criteria or procedures for CO claims or other deferments or exemptions as part of the same law in which it authorizes activation of the draft), people who are unwilling to participate in or submit to the system of classification and examination or justify themselves and their beliefs to the government, people who don’t think they would be willing to comply with orders to do alternative service work even if they were classified as a CO, and people who expect that they would refuse to comply with orders to report or to submit to induction.

Most (but not all) of those who choose not to register when they turn 18 figure that, especially if they don’t make written or public admissions of their knowledge of the registration requirement or criminal intent, they will be able to register later, until their 26th birthday, without penalty, if they are unlucky enough to be targeted for prosecution or if they want to apply for some government program or benefit that requires registration.

Some feel that the draft (and Selective Service registration) is unconstitutional, or that war (or particular aspects of war, such as deployment of nuclear weapons) violates international law, and that it is therefore not merely their legal right, but their legal duty, to refuse to comply with illegal orders. Others frame this argument in moral rather than legal terms, feeling that militarism and war (or, again, certain aspects of war) are immoral and that it is their moral duty to refuse to participate in immoral activities.

Government officials have repeatedly interpreted registration as and indication of support for U.S. military policies, and there are those who refuse to make such a symbolic statement of support for U.S. wars and war plans. In May, 2021, Major General Joseph Heck, chair of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service testified before Congress that draft registration “sends a message of resolve to our adversaries that the nation as a whole is ready to respond to any crisis.” Some people don’t register with the SSS because they feel that registering would be making a statement about their willingness to fight that they believe to be false. A closely related argument is that, because registering will be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the draft and preparations for war, registering reinforces the drive toward larger and longer wars (and makes a draft more likely).

For those who think that they might qualify as conscientious objectors (COs) and might be willing and able to complete an alternative service assignment, but who choose not to register or to delay registering, the most common belief is that refusing to register, especially but not necessarily if done publicly, does more to obstruct the draft and the war effort and prevent others from being drafted than seeking CO status or doing alternative service work.

Those who choose nonregistration over registering and planning to pursue a CO claim typically frame their choice as prioritizing preventing anyone from being drafted and obstructing the war effort over opting themselves out of personal participation in war while allowing the war to continue unimpeded.

Many of those who choose not to register, and their allies, argue that it’s the perception that the draft is a viable “fallback” policy option that enables planning for larger, longer, less popular wars. For these draft resisters, noncompliance is a strategy and tactic of nonviolent direct action to remove the draft from the policy arsenal of war planners. The earlier in the process potential draftees opt out and make their unwillingness to submit clear, the sooner planning for a draft will be abandoned as unfeasible.

Whether or not to to speak publicly or tell the government about your choice not to register for the draft is a separate decision from whether or not to register. Lawyers, legal workers, and draft counselors should not try to make either of these decisions for their clients.

Some opponents of the draft have argued that openly declared resistance is the only politically or ethically correct mode of noncompliance with the law. Conversely, others have argued that the duty of a dissident is to make it as difficult as possible for the government to capture or imprison them, and/or that those who make their resistance public are seeking martyrdom, facilitating government repression, and contributing to the diversion of scarce movement resources to legal and prison support. Some have tried to distinguish the morality and/or political appropriateness of “draft resistance” from “draft evasion”. I think that both public and private nonregistration, draft resistance and draft evasion, are legitimate and often effective tactics of nonviolent mass direct action.

Coming out publicly as a nonregistrant has been, and likely will remain, a rare choice. Public nonregistrants typically argue either (or both) that they feel a moral compulsion to tell the government what they have done or to make their action public, and/or that by coming out they will empower others to do likewise, make draft registration resistance real in the eyes of the public, call attention to the extent of noncompliance and the government’s inability to enforce the registration requirement (“the emperor has no clothes”), and thereby make the draft less likely and rein in war planning.

Relatively few nonregistrants currently identify themselves publicly or to the government. We hope that more nonregistrants will come out publicly, but those considering “coming out” should think carefully before they do so, and be realistic about the risk they may be taking.

Quiet nonregistration may be one of the lowest-risk paths to take, but public nonregistration is one of those with the greatest risk of adverse personal consequences (even while it may also make the greatest positive social contribution). It’s especially likely that, if enough young publicly refuse to register to embarrass the government, it may try to make examples out of a few of them the way it did with a few of the young men who came out publicly as nonregistrants in the 1980s. Motives specifically for “coming out”, and the risks and benefits of doing so, should be distinguished from the reasons for objection to the draft and for nonregistration.

You may be tempted to try to “come out” only partially by writing or speaking about your nonregistration anonymously on the Internet. (We can publish your statements anonymously on this site, if you would like us to do so.) But you can’t count on remaining anonymous. The government has proven more adept than many hacktivists gave it credit for at unmasking — and prosecuting — online activists who have tried to remain anonymous.

Feel free to contact us if you are considering or have decided on public nonregistration. We can help put you in touch with others who have made the same choice, and with potential allies. Our resources are, of course, limited, but we will do what we can to help.

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This page most recently modified 18 August 2022. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, videos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.