But that’s not what I came to tell you about,” Arlo Guthrie famously sang in “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” in 1967. “I came to talk about the draft.” Then, the draft loomed large, and antiwar activists had all they could do to counsel resisters.
These days it’s the other way around. Activists go to youth or community groups or campuses to talk about military recruiting and GI resistance but find themselves faced with questions—from parents more than from students—such as, “Why do we have to register with the Selective Service System?” “Is there going to be a draft?”
How should we answer these questions? And are they as dated—or just as timely—as Arlo’s song?
This magazine’s predecessor last looked at the issue of the draft in my article, “The Draft Debate Heats Up” (The Nonviolent Activist, winter 2005). The closest the country has come to a debate about the draft recently has been criticism of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan for having written editorials in the Princeton student newspaper in 1980 opposing the reinstatement of draft registration.
Since 1980, the likelihood of an attempt to move from registration to a draft (currently low) has waxed and waned. But the legal requirement for all 18-year-old men to register, and widespread (although almost entirely passive) noncompliance with draft registration, have continued.
Meanwhile, in parallel with registration of young men for a cannon-fodder draft, the Selective Service System (SSS) has developed plans for a separate “Health Care Personnel Delivery System” (HCPDS) for men and women in medical and related professions, up to the age of 44 or, if necessary, 54. Call-ups would be based on professional licensing lists and other databases, so potential draftees would have no opportunity to opt out of registration.
The HCPDS has been a higher priority than the general draft in SSS contingency planning in recent years. Parents who worry about whether their children will be drafted may actually be in greater danger of being drafted themselves. Most healthcare workers are unaware of this threat and unprepared to resist its activation, just as many anti-militarists are unprepared to field questions about the HCPDS or draft registration resistance.
In July 2009, WRL’s National Committee adopted a statement calling for continued and renewed resistance to conscription. “Hell, No! We Still Won’t go!” is available at www.warresisters. org/draftstatement09. As that statement makes clear, resistance to draft registration is part of a multidimensional continuum. Some people opt out of war when they are first asked to register their willingness to participate in a system of military conscription. Others draw the line at taking up a weapon or committing atrocities. At each of these points, some seek exemption or discharge as conscientious objectors, while others choose paths of total resistance or noncompliance. All deserve our encouragement and support.
Different choices may be more attractive at different stages of the process. For those already in the military, total resistance may carry greater risks than the pursuit of a CO discharge. Nonregistration may be safer than registering in the hope that if there’s a draft, one will successfully jump through all the hoops of a CO claim and will find one’s assigned alternative service acceptable.
A variety of factors—not least, ongoing noncompliance with draft registration—has kept the threat of a draft at bay. But when it reemerges, it is likely to be with little notice, in the heat of some politico-military crisis, or in some new guise. If WRL and the anti-militarist movement are to be prepared to respond, and to encourage a response of resistance in addition to protest, we need to have contingency plans and networks in place.
Arlo Guthrie’s song, while lighthearted, was part of a conversation we’ve been having in the United States since the Civil War and the 1863 New York Draft Riots. WRL’s “Hell, No! We Still Won’t Go!” statement is intended to continue discussion of this issue.
WRL member Edward Hasbrouck was imprisoned for draft registration resistance in 1983–84. He maintains a website about the draft, draft registration, draft resistance, and the healthcare workers draft at www.resisters.info.