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Voice Male - Spring 2005

Voices of Youth

Conscientious Objection Is "Manly":
A Young Activist's Thoughts on
Avoiding a Potential Draft

By Elias Sánchez-Eppler

A lot of men and women sincerely wish the U.S. military were not in Iraq now. I count myself among them, but even I am increasingly bored with the same old rant. It's an important talk, and if you haven't heard it recently many have gotten quite good at delivering it. One facet of the issue that came up shortly before the election last November is the potential for a draft. Again, I can't report on the likelihood of future draft legislation, but I will use the rumor of it as a call to arms, so to speak.

Many activists maintain that there is already a draft in place. It is called the "economic draft." For youth such as myself who are educated and have professional ambitions, it is easy to take our privilege and the promise of future success for granted, but for those less fortunate, the military may appear to be the only career that guarantees employment and enough pay to support a family.

Another type of draft already in place is the "culture draft." Even in times of peace, U.S. culture and government work to create a sense of the military that is favorable to recruitment. Generally, military service is portrayed as the swiftest and surest path to financial stability, social recognition, and manhood. While women are no longer excluded from recruitment efforts, "manhood"--and all the conventional traits it embraces--is still a major attraction in joining the military. More specifically, the military claims to develop discipline, courage, camaraderie, and strength and endurance of body, soul, and mind. Many activists focus on helping young people discover these traits in civilian life. Personally, I find all of them in resisting war.

These enticements aside, no one is legally forced at present to join the military; anyone can just not sign up. In the eventuality of a draft, however, this is no defense. A lot of people are surprised by the idea of "defending" against a draft, but with some preparation it can be done. Fortunately, the United States Constitution includes a Bill of Rights that has withstood many previous assaults. Freedom of religion exempts some from military conscriptionbut what about the rest of us? Again, the law provides a loophole, albeit a small one. In the most recent draft legislation, exemption was extended to those who morally, ethically, or philosophically opposed all war as a matter of either religious beliefs or non-religious beliefs held with religious conviction. There are two key steps in applying for this exemption. Most formidable is actually managing to prove that the exemption applies. First, however, applicants must convince themselves.

I certainly don't want to detract from the valor of citizens-in-arms, but I lack the experience, motivation, and need to add to it. That said, I would like it to apply to those of us who oppose militarism. The government claims that military service builds discipline, courage, and physical, spiritual, and emotional endurance and strength. In the event of a draft, these traits are required of those who hope to defend their claim to moral, ethical, or philosophical exemption. To formulate and live by these beliefs requires spiritual and emotional maturity and discipline. Defending these beliefs against attack necessitates courage, grace, strength, and endurance. Feminist provisions aside, conscientious objection to war is "manly."

During the Vietnam War, conscientious objector status was granted by draft boards. Applicants could be exempted from combatant duties if solely opposed to killing, or from any military duty if opposed to war in its entirety. Local citizens sat on these boards and heard young men try to tell them about their beliefs, how they came to them, and how they live by their beliefs. Personally, I love to tell audiences about my beliefs publicly. However, my experience with mock draft boards I've faced is that they are anything but sympathetic. In fact, even in role-plays it is much more like a hostile cross-examination in court than an explanation of personal beliefs conducted in a neutral atmosphere. In essence, the idea is to make the applicant contradict himself or admit to all the ways in which he betrays the beliefs that would exempt him.

The U.S. has not had a draft since the Vietnam War, but young men are still required by law to register with the Selective Service System when they turn 18, and the head of the SSS maintains that full-scale military conscription of men from ages 18 to 26 could get under way with less than a month's notice. In that event, the law could look like anything, and might well include young women. However, freedom of religion would certainly be grounds to appeal any charges of draft evasion if no other provisions were made. Whatever the defense, an applicant's case is made much stronger by any "material" evidence he or she might have. Material evidence to legally prove internal belief may seem a ridiculous notion--but it's crucial that anyone who is worried about the chances of a draft starting between now and when they turn 26 should seriously consider getting some.

I divide such material into four categories: articles, essays, reflections, and references. Articles are material proof of my antiwar convictions. For example, my file includes pictures of me demonstrating against war, certificates of participation at peace conventions, published records of my social action, and presumably will include a copy of the magazine you are currently reading. Essays are short pieces I put together where I talk about what I believe, why it would prevent me from participating in war, and what I do in my life in keeping with my beliefs. Between articles and essays are reflections on other people's writings. Many friends have articles and information that have struck them, and these may include their various underlinings, marginalia, and other reflections on the document. Finally, character references are a standard of complete conscientious objector files. These are letters written by family, friends, and mentors answering the same questions as essays to the best of the authors' capacities. In short, anything that shows a devotion to peace is legitimate and useful in compiling such a file.

One crucial element is time. An essay written years ago will have more bearing than one written since the applicant got called up. However, the draft board won't accept a dated document on faith. It must be authenticated. One popular and easy way of doing this is to mail it to yourself in a self-addressed envelope. This way the U.S. Post Office date stamp is firmly on the sealed envelope, documenting the length of time one has held conscientious objector beliefs.

A mandatory draft for young people is not yet here. Will the Bush administration's adventurism overseas or further terrorist threats--real or imagined--bring it back? None of us knows for sure. But now is the time for young people who oppose the draft to speak out, and for those of us who object to war and militarism to begin documenting our beliefs and preparing ourselves for the potential trials ahead.

Elias Sánchez-Eppler is a junior at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts High School in Hadley, Mass. He is active in the Young Friends Quaker youth group of the Northampton Friends Meeting and speaks out often on issues concerning the draft and conscientious objection. He is also the winner of this year's Ozzy Klate Memorial Youth Award, presented by the Men's Resource Center for Change.

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