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Who Will Fight These Wars?

Slave Labor Is Illegal. Resist Draft Registration.

by Marguerite Helen & Edward Hasbrouck

(First published in AFSC’s “Peacework” magazine, March 2003)

Will there be a new draft? Probably not, but there’s still cause for concern. Every day, soldiers, reservists, and potential draftees are already facing choices about whether to “serve” in the military. War resistance is a continuum: our conscience leads each of us to draw the line at a different point, from signing a draft registration form to pulling the trigger or committing atrocities on the battlefield.

Many people assume that they could easily be exempted from the military, or from combat, as “conscientious objectors” (COs). And many people also assume that those who are already in the military have made an irrevocable commitment to fight any war. But neither is a foregone conclusion. Exemptions or discharges for COs, if they are allowed at all, require careful reflection, preparation, and documentation of one’s beliefs. And many people become conscious of just where they draw their personal line, or reach that limit, only after they are in the military. At every stage, they deserve our support: the right to refuse to kill should extend to everyone, in every situation.

Active-duty soldiers and reservists can apply at any time for discharge or reassignment to noncombatant duties, if they qualify as COs. Soldiers can also choose other forms of resistance, including refusing orders to deploy to the war zone or carry out specific actions or just leaving the military without permission (going AWOL).

Reservists face difficult choices of whether to report for active duty. Pentagon war plans rely heavily on the reserves. Use of the reserves for “homeland security” and in Afghanistan has already led to extensive and prolonged reserve call-ups and extensions of duty time for reservists.

Active-duty and reserve soldiers alike often hesitate to commit to a course of resistance to the military. But the longer they delay acting on their objections to war, and the closer they get to the front lines, especially if overseas, the harder it is to formulate, document, and prepare a CO claim, or choose, plan, and carry out acts of resistance.

All this makes support and outreach by antiwar and CO organizations especially important at early stages of military mobilization. Both those already in the military and young people facing registration should think now about what they would do if asked to fight or kill. They will need to document their feelings and beliefs and what has led to them.

Many who have refused to register with the SS, be inducted, obey orders, or gone AWOL could qualify as COs. Some don’t know about the provisions for COs, but others consider their options and decide that other forms of war resistance better reflect their beliefs, or are more likely to achieve their goals—for themselves, and/or in influencing other soldiers, the public, the government, and the conduct and outcome of the war.

Military counseling services are already receiving numerous requests for information and advice. On Veterans Day 2002, the first soldier came forward to announce publicly having gone AWOL to avoid participating in an invasion of Iraq.

Health care workers were prominent among the military resisters in 1990- 1991. But today there’s little awareness among health workers that they are the first people in the USA in line to be drafted: The SS now has standby plans for a Health Care Personnel Delivery System (HCPDS) for 62 categories of medical specialists up to 55 years old, men and women, from nurses and surgeons to dieticians, opticians, and animal care technicians.

The essence of war is doing bodily harm to “the enemy.” So the military needs disproportionate numbers of health care workers in wartime, to patch up wounded soldiers so they can be sent back into combat as soon as possible. In past wars, there has been a separate “doctor’s draft,” and during the Gulf War in 1990-1991, the Pentagon and the SS got within a few months of asking Congress to approve a health care workers draft.

Under current law, inductions into the military could begin only after Congress voted to authorize them. So neither health care workers nor registrants for the general draft can count on there being any CO or other exemptions or deferments; that would depend on what Congress does.

The main source of cannon fodder in recent years has been the “economic draft” — young people enlisting to get a job. Military recruiters promise education, training, and benefits that are tempting to the disadvantaged but seldom close to the truth. (Some key issues are obtaining equal access to schools by military recruiters and by veterans and others presenting alternative views of the military, and that schools, unless parents individually say “no,” send information on students to military recruiters.) Only after they join do recruits learn about the discrimination, harassment, rape, battering, racism, sexism, homophobia, and general abuse that appear to be standard operating procedures.

So long as our economy is so poor and economic disparity so high, only in a prolonged and expanded war would the military need to ask Congress for a general draft. If it did, it would probably be based on the existing database of registered young men.

In spite of threats and incentives, millions of men have not registered for the draft since 1980. The last time the GAO audited the registration records, they found that so many people had moved without telling the SS that the SS had current information on only about half the draft-age men. Finding or compiling lists of the other half of the potential draftees would be a Herculean task.

A few nonregistrants might be prosecuted. But only 20 nonregistrants have been prosecuted since 1980, none since 1987. The government had to prove that we knew we were supposed to register, so prosecutions were limited to those of us who informed the government of our refusal and declined subsequent offers to avoid prosecution by registering. Show trials of nonregistrants only publicized and spread the resistance.

Registrants are not currently being processed or classified, and there is no way to register as a CO. Draft counselors can help registrants document their conscientious objections to war and advise them about the current standby procedures. But, as noted above, registrants need to be prepared for changed — or abolished — CO procedures if and when Congress gives the go-ahead for a draft.

Least immediately threatened, but nonetheless making decisions every day about whether to give the military control of their lives, re men turning 18 or (having turned 18 without registering) being confronted with whether to register to qualify for government programs such as job training, college loans, and so forth. Few registration-age men want to sign their lives away. Many are unaware that some states automatically tie draft registration to issuance of driver’s licenses and that others are considering such legislation. Registration counseling can help understanding of choices.

Most draft-age men don’t realize how few nonregistrants have been prosecuted, or they assume there’s no chance of a draft. Almost none are aware of alternate sources of financial aid. Many register in the mistaken hope that, if drafted, they will be able to qualify as COs — even though many of them are “selective objectors” who don’t fit current, or likely, SS definitions of COs. A surprising number of registrants say they’ll go to Canada if they are drafted, almost always without realizing how much more difficult that would be under current Canadian immigration policies than it was during the Vietnam War.

Few actually intend their registration as an indication of willingness to fight whenever called upon. During the build-up to the Gulf War in 1990-1991, there was an outpouring of “registrant remorse” and panic; we can expect the same whenever resumption of a draft begins to seem imminent.

Military mobilization is a danger, but it’s also an opportunity to make visible the opposition to war. Since 1980, mass noncompliance by registration-age men has kept us safe from the draft—through our own direct action. But for many of us, what’s important is that we have constrained the military options available to the government and the Pentagon. We haven’t prevented them from waging war, but we’d like to think that our resistance has in small but significant ways limited the damage they’ve done.

There is much to be done. By supporting those faced with decisions about whether to join the military, report for active duty, follow orders, or comply with registration and a possible draft, we aren’t just supporting them in following their conscientious objections to war, but supporting some of the most direct of actions to bring this and all wars to an end.

[Edward Hasbrouck was convicted in Boston in 1982 for organizing resistance to draft registration. Marguerite Helen, his mother, is a military counselor for the GI Rights Hotline, a legal worker, and a member of the Wellesley [MA] Meeting of Friends (Quakers). She has been a member of the boards of directors of the American Friends Service Committee and the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and was honored with the NLG Mass. Chapter’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2007.]

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This page most recently modified 31 March 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, videos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.