Tomorrow's conscientious objectors are getting ready now

Last October, the U.S. House of Representatives considered re-instating a military draft for the first time since the Vietnam War. The bill was soundly defeated, but many activists believe it signaled a disturbing trend. The country's all-volunteer forces are overextended, and the ambiguous long-term goals of the Bush administration's seemingly endless war on terror will require more troops.

Mainstream journalists and progressive pundits continue to speculate that, as the demand for troops in Iraq continues into perpetuity, recruitment numbers promise to keep plummeting. A Washington Monthly editorial (March 2005) seconds that analysis and goes on to advocate for military conscription, arguing that the United States "can be the world's superpower, or it can maintain the current all-volunteer military, but it probably can't do both." Meanwhile, activists in the anti-draft movement are circulating petitions and urging concerned citizens to call elected representatives to register their objections. They're also letting people know that, draft or no draft, the time has come to prepare for the worst.

Helen James, writing in Mothering (Jan./Feb. 2005), urges concerned parents to start compiling a conscientious objector (CO) file for their sons and (who knows?) daughters — just as she did 13 years ago for her then 9-year-old boy, Adam. "Should [he] ever want to prove the depth of his convictions," she writes, "he'll already have a scrapbook full of documents tracing his beliefs over his entire life."

In 1971, more than a year before there was a cease-fire in Vietnam, Congress passed sweeping changes to draft law. Most notably, a clause that granted full-time students exemption from service was eliminated. If college students were called up today, they would be allowed to finish the current semester before shipping out, but only conscientious objectors would be able to skirt the selection process.

Applicants for CO status must prove their sincerity to the draft board: They must convince a group of strangers that they are opposed to war of any kind "by reason of religious training and belief." (Conscientious objection can also be founded in a long-standing moral conviction, not necessarily an affiliation with a specific religion.) As James points out, a CO doesn't even need to be opposed to violence. Death penalty advocates may be COs, for instance. What's important is that applicants prove that war — any war, anywhere — violates their core values, and that those values influenced their behavior well before they were drafted. "Conscripts may get as few as 10 days to put together supporting evidence for a CO claim," James writes. "That's where documentation come in."

Old letters, diaries, photographs — anything that demonstrates a belief that war is unjustifiable — can be extremely valuable. James began compiling her son's file after taking a photograph of him at an antiwar rally prior to the Gulf War. A handicapped Vietnam veteran limped over to give her a hug and said, "If my mother had done that for me, I wouldn't be like this now."

Today, Adam's file contains the photo, poems he wrote as a child, clippings of demonstrations he attended, a letter from a counselor noting how Adam had abstained from summer camp war games, and much more. Advocacy groups like the Center on Conscience & War and the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors travel around the country to hold workshops on preparing a convincing argument. Their advice is to start compiling information right away and, when it comes time for children to register, have them write "I am a conscientious objector to war in any form" on their Selective Service cards.

James says she didn't create a file for Adam to push any one political ideology or position, since "only he will determine what values he will hold tomorrow." It's a fair bet, though, that his future won't include military service. Adam, now a 22-year-old, studies conflict resolution, attends Peace Day parades, and knows that, if a military draft becomes reality, he's ready to do battle.

May / June 2005
By Chuck Terhark,
Utne magazine

Center on
Conscience & War
Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors
Against the Draft


War Resisters League

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