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Behind the timeline: Members of Citizens for Selective Service Education display the path to a draft.

photo:Alicia Solsman

I Object
By David King

The Citizens for Selective Service Education want to make sure you know how to become a conscientious objector

It’s a Saturday morning and you’re still groggy from a late Friday night. It’s time to get up, but you pull the covers over your head. Suddenly, the noise of your ringing doorbell bores into the back of your skull. You push the pillow over your face to try to drown out the sound, to no avail. Angry and sluggish, you wake up, slide on your slippers and click on a cable-news program while scrambling toward the door. The talking heads on TV are barking about insurgents in Iraq, suicide bombers in London and a possible United States invasion of Iran, and your dog is barking too, but all you want is for this guy to stop ringing your doorbell.

You push open the door see the source of the racket: a delivery-service guy. “Certified letter,” he says, holding out a sheet for you to sign. You scribble your name, slam the door in his face, and tear into the envelope. The letter reads:

 THIS IS YOUR ORDER TO REPORT FOR AND SUBMIT TO EXAMINATION AND INDUCTION INTO THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES. BY DIRECTION OF THE PRESIDENT, YOU HAVE BEEN CLASSIFIED 1-A (AVAILABLE FOR UNRESTRICTED MILITARY SERVICE) AND ARE DIRECTED TO REPORT, WITH THIS ORDER, TO THE MILITARY ENTRANCE PROCESSING STATION.

Your first inclination is to crumple the letter up into a tiny ball and toss it to the neighbor’s dog. Instead, rationally, you scan the letter looking for outs. This has to be a mistake, you think to yourself. This can’t be real. I can’t go to war and kill other human beings. Then you notice the part that says:

IF YOU FAIL TO OBEY THIS ORDER, YOU MAY BE REPORTED AS A SUSPECTED VIOLATOR OF THE MILITARY SERVICE ACT AND, IF CONVICTED, SUBJECT TO IMPRISONMENT FOR UP TO FIVE YEARS, A FINE OF UP TO $250,000, OR BOTH.

You tear through the document, looking for some way out, some way that this nightmare can be avoided. Shoulda made that move to Canada. Then, there it is at the bottom of the last page, the section entitled “Postponement and Reclassification.” The section informs you that you can file a claim for postponement or reclassification up to 10 days prior to the date you have to report, and once you have filed you should not report, but rather wait to hear from the area selective-service office. Relieved, you begin to wonder, “What can I file for, and on what basis? That hangnail isn’t likely to get me out on health reasons.” You think about all our recent presidents, who deftly avoided serving in Vietnam. “How can I possibly make them understand that I do not believe in war?”

This is the kind of situation that the Citizens for Selective Service Education are trying to prevent. They plan to do so by educating people who are interested in the ins and outs of the Selective Service System. The CSSE is a group with membership from a number of local peace organizations trained by Paul Frazier, a man who has dedicated his life’s work to educating people about the draft. Most members of CSSE are also members of Pax Christi and the Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace.

While members of the Bush administration dismiss the notion that a draft is inevitable, some members of Congress have openly wondered how the military will be able to sustain its ranks while it is stretched between Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations in support of the global war on terror. In fact, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) introduced draft legislation into the House in May. The bill, which had no cosponsors, was designed largely to make the point that the burden of fighting our wars rests almost exclusively on the backs of lower-class minority males. Rangel has also been known to point out that very few members of Congress have children serving in Iraq.

Rangel’s proposal would have men and women serving 15 months of military service. A similar proposal in 2004 was defeated 402-2. However, many expect draft legislation to emerge quickly during a time of crisis, when patriotism will be on the rise. Members of the CSSE expect it would come after another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, or perhaps during a crisis with Iran or North Korea. Frazier reports that he was surprised that the Bush administration did not use the excuse of the tsunami to appeal to Americans’ conscience to justify a draft.

Meanwhile, ROTC recruitment has been down 16 percent in the past two years and active army recruitment was 27 percent below its February goal. The army missed its April recruiting goal by 42 percent. Experts fear that if the trend continues the draft may be functionally unavoidable.

In many people’s minds, this data might indicate that a draft is inching closer and closer. However, to Frazier, whether the draft is inevitable or not makes no difference. Frazier feels there will be a need to educate people on draft law as long as the draft is on the books. He also questions the government’s motivations in releasing numbers that would appear to show a need for more troops. “They lied about the war, so why wouldn’t they lie about recruiting numbers?” asks Frazier.

If there were a draft after a national emergency, it would probably start like this: First, Congress would pass a law re-enacting the draft. The president would likely sign it within a couple of days, and then a lottery would be held. The Selective Service has reportedly readied two barrels for use in the lottery. The lottery would match each birth date with the numbers 1 through 365. Then, numbers would be drawn and letters would be written up and sent to 20-year-old men whose birthdates match each day of the year.

When first drafted, all are considered 1-A—fit and ready for service in the military. There are a bevy of other classifications one can attain that have to do with being a student, having a physical ailment or a number of other situations but the CSSE want to make sure the public is aware of two other classifications. 1-A-O, represents those who are not willing to fight but who are willing to carry out some military duties. 1-O represents someone who conscientiously objects to serving in the military in any form, in any duty whatsoever. Draft letters would arrive classifying every recipient as 1-A. Says Frazier, “the problem is, they are given no chance to be thought of as anything other than 1-A until after the induction. Once the letter arrives, they are told they can be reclassified, but they are not told how or why they can be. This is a disservice to our young men that is beyond belief.” According to Frazier, being a conscientious objector is the only sure way to free yourself from military service in the event of a draft if you are truly morally unwilling to be part of war. “Things like being gay or having flat feet are only military regulations and can be changed with a stroke of a pen,” notes Frazier.

Bob Alft, a Voorheesville resident and member of the CSSE, remembers the last time there was a draft, “During the Vietnam era, a lot of folks like myself let themselves be drafted. I didn’t think I could be a conscientious objector because I didn’t belong to the right church.” Alft wants to make sure people realize that there are options. To be an objector you do not need to be nonviolent, a pacifist, or a member of a peace church. You simply have to be opposed to all war.

According to Alft, the draft his son Nathan might face will be different than the draft he went through. This time, college deferments no longer exist. If you are not a senior in college, you get to finish the semester you are in. If you are a senior, you will be allowed to finish out the year. While it is known that anyone ages 18 to 25 can be drafted and it will probably start with 20-year-olds, this time around experts expect more picking and choosing from a wider age range. Robert Pear of The New York Times reported on Oct. 19, 2004, that the Pentagon has a contingency plan to draft medical workers during a national emergency. Just before the beginning of the second war in Iraq, former director of the Selective Service administration Lewis Brodsky proposed a plan that would have revamped the draft. His plan would have extended the age of draft registration to 34 and also registered women. While some of his recommendations have seemingly been rejected by the administration, Selective Service representatives have openly admitted to updating a plan for a special-skills draft that could conscript people with desired skill sets, which could include medical technicians, linguists and electricians, along with any other profession the military was in need of.

Carole Ferraro, a member of CSSE, says she knew of Frazier’s efforts in draft education for quite some time, but she was not moved to get involved until the Spirit of America show at the Pepsi Arena last fall. That’s when Ferraro realized the extent of the pro-war pressures and propaganda teens are forced to deal with on a daily basis. She put together a group to oppose the pro-military show, and after it was over they decided they would stick together to keep working toward educating the public in “the truth” about war.

“Kids don’t talk about it much,” says Nathan Alft, “but then one day all the kids were talking about it. What if there was a draft? Some of the girls were crying and saying they didn’t want their boyfriends to have to go to war.” Then, as quickly as concern over the draft visited his Voorheesville school, it was gone again. The specter of the draft has an odd way of coming and going, being a source of fear one minute and then anyone’s last concern minutes later. This is so not only among high school students, but among adults as well.

Increasingly around our area, people are taking hold of the draft question and not letting it slip away. To many, the idea of a military draft is not a specter to be frightened of or to wonder about. It is something that is concrete and will very likely one day be utilized. “During the ’80s, we fell asleep and we lost a bunch of ground,” says Carole Ferraro. To people like Ferraro, keeping the draft on people’s radar is very important. To CSSE, knowing the ins and outs of selective service is just as important as knowing about your voting rights or how to drive a car.

In fact, in New York and increasingly in other states, teens are automatically registered in the Selective Service System when they apply for their driver’s licenses. Dennis Kirker, a 16-year-old from Watervliet High School who recently got his permit, was surprised: “I read every pamphlet or book they gave me and I didn’t see it anywhere.” Kirker also notes that he has thought about the draft whenever it has been mentioned but mostly “the draft is the furthest thing from kids’ minds.”

Not registering with Selective Service has become a near impossibility for most teens, thanks to the government’s efforts to make registration part of coming-of-age routines, and also thanks to the punishments that go with failure to register, such as being ineligible for federal student aid and government jobs.

According to Kirker, “Most teens probably know what it is but aren’t given very much information about it. So just like everything else, we do it because we have to. We really have no other choice.”

Bob Alft says if a teen does not believe in war and wants to be considered a conscientious objector, he must remember to register through the forms provided at the post office so that he can alert Selective Service to his inability to fulfill the duties of a soldier and kill someone in battle. “They don’t provide a place for you to do it, but all you do is fill out the information and then write “conscientious objector” across the form. It will then be on record.”

But being classified 1-O is not as simple as scrawling “conscientious objector” across your Selective Service registration form. The CSSE are trying to prepare parents and teens alike for the challenge. “You can’t just be opposed to war on a political basis. You have to have a moral or ethical reason for being against all war,” Alft explains. The Department of Defense directive on conscientious objecting states in Section 5.1.1.,“Consistent with the national policy to recognize the claims of bonafide Conscientious Objectors in the Military Service, an application for classification as a Conscientious Objector may be approved (subject to the limitations of paragraph 4.1.1. For any individual: .1.1.1. Who is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form; 5.1.1.2. Whose opposition is founded on religious training and belief; and 5.1.1.3. Whose position is sincere and deeply held.”

The CSSE has been holding meetings in libraries to encourage people to begin considering how they feel about the draft and whether they are able or willing to perform military service. Frazier urges, “If you consider yourself a conscientious objector or if your child might, you should not wait to prepare evidence until the day you receive the draft letter. Rather, you should gather together and continually update a folder that documents your beliefs. Frazier recommends filling it with letters to pastors or teachers, evidence of attending peace rallies, or journals that document how you came to your beliefs. Everyone applying for objector status must go in front of their local board to explain their objection and how they came to believe that all war is wrong. There is no rule about how long you have to have held your beliefs but Alft notes it is very likely a board will be able to tell if you have quickly patched together an excuse.

Frazier notes that conscientious objection has a long history in the United States, starting with the Revolutionary War. However, it was not until World War II that the government began allowing objector status for those whose objections were not based on religious beliefs. Frazier himself obtained CO status during the Vietnam War. However, it took two years for him to convince his local Syracuse board of his beliefs.

In their common effort, Frazier has focused on teaching more representatives to hold meetings, while Ferraro has focused on holding the meetings. Bob Alft, meanwhile, not only takes part in meetings for the general public but also holds meetings in his home for parents who want to help their children create conscientious objector portfolios. “We talk about what is it that you believe in and try to mesh it in with what being a conscientious objector is,” says Alft.

According to Alft, it is not that hard to impress upon teenagers why they should be concerned with the draft or why they should begin considering becoming a conscientious objector. “The first thing they say is, ‘Well, I’m not going.’ They seem to take it for granted that there is not a lot to it. They don’t realize that as soon as they get their driver’s license they are registered for the draft.”

However, Nathan notes that a lot of his fellow students are more conservative than his teachers. Some parents also worry that their child’s future might be affected negatively if they are on record as being a conscientious objector. According to Frazier, “Employers and schools are looking for people of conscience. What better way to know that the person you are hiring will stand up for what they believe in?”

Nathan has become intimately familiar with selective service law and also helps conduct CSSE meetings. He easily briefs meeting attendees on draft classifications and what steps they might want to take in creating a CO portfolio. Convincing his friends to get as involved as he is has not been so easy. The meetings have generally been attended by parents sans children.

However, Alft suspects attendance will pick up after the end of the summer when families return from vacation. He expects interest to be bolstered in selective service education once parents are confronted with a letter from their school district this fall that advises them their children’s information will be given to recruiters unless they opt out.

Alft insists that people need to know the draft is not some far-away idea; the structure for it is very much in place. Says Alft, “The last time they reported to Congress, they told them they could be up and running within 75 days of a new draft bill’s passage. The legislation is fully funded and gets more funding every year. There are people in communities who are temporaries on the board for Selective Service, ready to go when the time comes.”

In fact, some peace activists have begun finding alternative ways to take advantage of the Selective Service system’s constant readiness. Local Selective Service boards have recently been filling their ranks, which has led some critics to suppose it is a sign the draft is coming. Some critics say the boards have not seen new members for 20 years. According to Pat Shuback, a national representative of the Selective Service in Washington, D.C., “Members of the boards served out their 20-year commitment from when the draft was reinstated in the ’80s. We have been routinely filling places since then. Recently, a number of the 20-year tenures have come to an end and left a number of spaces we are trying to fill.” Rather than seeing spaces on local boards as an ominous sign, the Veterans for Peace have begun encouraging their members to volunteer to fill the open spaces.

Elliot Adams, a long-time peace activist and Vietnam vet from Sharon Springs, N.Y., has become a member of his area draft board. In his opinion, the fact that draft boards are looking for members does not mean the draft will happen sooner rather than later. Instead, Adams sees it as just part of the process of always being ready. As a member of the draft board, he will be charged with reviewing applications for conscientious objector and other statuses. He will receive four years of training, with updates once each month.

He says he feels he is right for the board because of his long history of involvement in the community. “I’ve always been a member of community groups, from the Masons and the Rotary Club, to less established things like the peace movement.” The most notable thing Adams has volunteered for is the war in Vietnam. Adams served in Vietnam as a paratrooper and he also served in Korea. But, he says, being a veteran of that war in no way better qualifies him for his role as a Selective Service local board member; however, it has inspired his involvement in the peace movement and, as he puts it, given him “ . . . a belief that there is a better way to solve things than war.”

Adams supports what the Citizens for Selective Service Education is doing. Adams says, “I think we are willfully poor at letting kids know the law and its implications, both legally and morally.” Adams finds the idea that teens are not given a chance to fully consider the implications of a draft before it is enacted ludicrous. “I think we need to let the kids know we have set up a system that’s going to make them make serious choices about their own lives. We are going to ask them to do things which are as heavy decisions as they will face in their life, and they need time to think about it. We as a country are going to force them to make a decision and we have an obligation to help them prepare for it.”

These sentiments are the exact ones that make Frazier think his group has a real chance to get its message out to its target audience. In a period when recruiters spend as much time in high-school lunch rooms as they do in their offices, and when the No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to hand over information on all their students to all branches of the military, Frazier sees the law as a way for his group to get its information to the kids. “We have an opportunity to get our message into the schools. We need to get information about the law taught in schools. Are school officials going to say, ‘Oh we don’t want our children to know the law?’ I don’t think so. That’s just not patriotic.”

Kirker likes the idea of selective-service law being taught in schools, “Mainly because we don’t know anything about it. I would be interested in it,” says Kirker, “And maybe a handful of other kids would be too, but most of them just wouldn’t care, and they don’t expect anything to change.” Kirker ponders for a moment and then adds, “Well, maybe things would change slowly now, seeing that everyone is hearing the word ‘war,’ but eventually the newer generations would probably not care again.”

That is exactly what Frazier wants to prevent. “We joke that we have a 20-year plan says Frazier. But as things change each year and we update and adapt it begins to look a lot more realistic.” Frazier is determined to make sure that selective service law does not fade into the American subconscious and that future generations will be taught exactly what it is they are being registered for.

dking@metroland.net


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