Nothing About the Draft Makes Sense

Registration has little meaning. It doesn't scare the Russians — and it needn't scare Americans.

View of an anti-draft registration demonstration held at the post office, Central Square, Cambridge, 1980 Credit: Spencer Grant/Getty

Washington D.C. – When the government issued its cattle call for the cold war in July 1980, it assumed that every eighteen-year-old male, save for a few malcontents and backwoods cranks, would dutifully report to the post office and register for the draft. After all, he only had to sign a card telling the government where he lives. This wasn't a real draft or mobilization for a real war. It was a cheap way to bluster at the Russians and show them America is at the ready.

Now, two years later, draft registration has degenerated into a national joke. Instead of a symbolic gesture of strength, it resembles a lame exercise in nostalgia, attempting to recreate the great struggle between citizens and government during the war in Vietnam. Only this struggle, I'm afraid, is hollow, the moral equivalent of shadowboxing.

On one side, the government huffs and puffs and threatens. It is staging a series of show trials to scare the offenders. It is creating a maze of bureaucratic machinery to snoop by computer and locate violators. On the other side, a national resistance movement has blossomed, with networks of committees and coalitions campaigning passionately against a nonexistent draft, flying squads of defense lawyers, ever a fledgling underground of fugitive resisters.

Registration is not working. For whatever reasons, hundreds of thousands are not signing up. Collectively, they confront the government with one of the grossest episodes of mass defiance of the law since Americans decided to drink their way through Prohibition. In this case as well, the only practical solution is repeal.

The Selective Service likes to look on the bright side: 8 million young men, eighteen to twenty years old, have registered. But that evades the monstrous law-enforcement problem that draft registration has created. Even the government concedes that nearly 700,000 eligible men have declined to register. The entire war in Vietnam produced only an estimated 570,000 draft evaders.

But there are more: another million men, based on census estimates, are violators because they have moved since registering and have failed to notify the government of their new addresses, which is also a felony. That makes roughly 1.7 million eligible for prosecution. Since federal prisons only hold about 28,000, it's going to be a tight squeeze.

None of this is necessary. Draft registration was dreamed up by Jimmy Carter back in early 1980 as a symbolic gesture in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Commies were supposed to shudder when they saw American youth streaming into their post offices. Ronald Reagan, espousing his best libertarian values while running for president, denounced the gimmick and promised to scrap it.

The external evidence suggests that Reagan almost kept his word. By the early winter of 1981, when the Justice Department was prepared to indict the first crop of unregistered young men, the White House told the prosecutors to hold off. Reagan was still evaluating the system. If registration were going to be junked, it made no sense to send a few to jail. A few days later, martial law was imposed in Poland, and the cold warriors concluded it was no time for faint hearts. The next month, Reagan embraced the registration scheme –– and now he is stuck with it.

So far, four resisters have been indicted and one convicted –– all young men who have been most out front in articulating their opposition to registration and the draft. Given the legal flaws in how the registration system was implemented and the moral arguments that some conscientious objectors will offer in defense, it is not at all certain the feds will win convictions in every case. Even if a handful go to prison, it's not clear that the hundreds of thousands of others will be frightened into registering. Because the defendants are all visible opponents of the system, willing to stand trial and voice their principles, the unintended message from their prosecutions may be: keep your mouth shut, and the government won't mess with you.


Back in April, the president's Military Manpower Task Force held a meeting at the Pentagon, with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinbeger presiding, to discuss the delicate problem of prosecuting draft resisters. A transcript of that private meeting, later unearthed by George Wilson of the Washington Post, revealed both the flippancy of the president's advisers and their fear that the draft trials might inflame public opinion against the cold-war program.

"When is the first felony prosecution planned?" John Herrington, assistant navy secretary for manpower, asked.

"You want to be there?" presidential counselor Edwin Meese wisecracked.

"You should be on Phil Donahue, John," said Selective Service Director Thomas Turnage.

The ensuing conversation showed they were bothered by the potential for bad headlines. Herrington worried that perhaps the draft trials would add fuel to the growing antinuclear movement in the country. Turnage suggested that maybe the Justice Department could give light sentences as a way to soften the controversy. Meese said the kids would still have to face felony convictions. Finally, Herrington proposed that they keep the trials as quiet as possible. Bring the young men to the bar of justice in out-of-the-way places, he said, like Omaha, where there will be less national news coverage.

The first trial was held in Roanoke, Virginia— – not exactly a center of media coverage –– but the government has failed to arrange for quiet cases. A young Christian named Enten Eller, whose pure religious scruples made bad press for the prosecutor, was convicted and sentenced to three years' probation, and instructed to register within ninety days. Eller says he will not register, which means he faces up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Meanwhile, the wonders of bureaucracy (which Ronald Reagan promised to eliminate) are at work, tracking down offenders, in case the prosecutions don't work. The Selective Service bought a million names from a Long Island mail-order house and sent out warning letters to people who were thought to be nonregistrants. The names included a three-year-old girl and a ten-year-old beagle. Even Turnage admits it was a flop.

Next, with approval from Congress, Selective Service began delving into forbidden government records –– social security rolls and the Internal Revenue Service's tax returns – —trying to match names and addresses and birthdays. The IRS, which is a more intimidating agency than Selective Service, intends to send threatening letters to 250,000 young men.

That won't work either, probably, so Congress is preparing to enact a provision that means real hard-ball for college students – —it is threatening to cut off federal loans or scholarships from anyone who hasn't registered. Counselor Meese liked this idea when Turnage proposed it at the April task-force meeting. "You could have a line on each of the applications: have you registered for the draft?" Meese enthused. "And if they put no, then you withhold their benefits. If they put yes, then you get a few that have done it fraudulently; you kick them off their benefits and prosecute them."

The idea passed the House of Representatives 303 to 95, and final passage seems most likely. Let's root out the laggards and show the Commies we mean business. So the enforcement machinery grows like a malignant weed –– first Selective Service and the Justice Department, then the Social Security Administration and the IRS, now the Department of Education and every college and university that manages federal aid to students. All must be engaged in this meaningless search for bodies –– bodies the government doesn't want or need. Thanks to Reagan's recession, the all-volunteer armed forces are filling their quotas for manpower. Indeed, they are turning them away at the recruiting stations. Even the most agitated cold warriors will concede: the return of the draft is not imminent.


But Paul Jacob thought otherwise when he left his home in Little Rock, Arkansas, on July 4th, 1981, leaving no forwarding address. A lanky twenty-two-year-old with curly brown hair, former chairman of the Arkansas Libertarian party, Jacob dropped out of college and enlisted as perhaps the movement's first "underground" resister. The Selective Service sent him a threatening letter, and the FBI has come around to ask his family where he is. They don't know. For the past year, Jacob has moved around the country, talking to college groups, working at odd jobs, making the point that it's fairly easy to avoid prosecution if you are mobile and semisecretive.

"It's important to show seventeen-year-olds and eighteen-year-olds who are about to register that you can resist being a slave to the military," Jacob said. "If the choice is between jail and the draft, then eighteen-year-olds have nowhere to go, but ... there's a much better alternative. That is simply to move away from home and not leave a forwarding address. I've been away from home for a year now, and I've been a public resister and I'm still free. So, obviously, anyone who's been a quiet nonregistrant has nothing to fear."

The resistance movement, composed of hundreds of local groups, is an interesting mix of youthful libertarians and lefty radicals, pacifists and church groups, and older veterans from the antiwar movement. Jacob is connected with the National Resistance Committee, which actively urges young men not to sign up. Other organizations, like Draft Action, merely counsel and defend.

"Some of the resisters are planning on voluntarily turning themselves over to federal prosecutors," Jacob said. "If they take me to court, I'm not going to walk in. They're going to have to drag me in. This is not a voluntary situation. This is the government coercing young people into possibly fighting and killing and maybe dying for the U.S. government."

Jacob says he learned his politics as an adolescent watching TV –– the horror shows of Vietnam and Watergate –– but obviously his political sensibilities are more acute than most of the other 1.7 million violators. Draft Action's Barry Lynn, a leading antidraft activist who also battled the Vietnam draft ten years ago, finds an extraordinary seriousness and knowledge among many of those who choose not to sign. Then there are many others, he said, who simply "view this thing as a kind of joke. If it's so damned important, why did it take the government so long to get around to indicting the first guy?"

The premise of the resistance movement is that registration is only the first step in softening up young people and conditioning them to accept the real draft. To stop the draft, first stop the registration. They argue further that the way the registration law is written, the time for ethical objections to induction has been greatly foreshortened. If Congress enacts a draft law, the induction notices could go out within forty-eight hours, and ten days later, the unlucky losers in the draft lottery would have to report for physicals. Not much time, in other words, to plead for hardship status or wrestle with one's conscience.

Both claims have some validity. In 1979, when Congress was tinkering with the idea of registration, the army chief of staff, General Bernard Rogers, told a Senate committee: "Because of the antipathy of so many in this country for the selective service system, that system being equated to the draft and the draft being anathema to so many, is why I suggest the evolutionary approach. First, to start to register and get us accustomed to that ... then commence to classification... then, third, start to draft for the Individual Ready Reserve."

Despite the general's wishful thinking, however, the political climate for bringing back the draft has not improved since 1979 –– it's gotten much worse. Certainly, the fouled-up registration has contributed to that (and the resisters are entitled to a share of the credit). But the more fundamental change is the public hostility to the foreign adventures talked up by the Reagan administration. When the trial balloon was going up for U.S. troop involvement in El Salvador, the public reacted in horror, and the president backed away from the idea. That was a clear signal to hawkish politicians of both parties that restoring the draft law would be an explosive step, certain to ignite domestic turmoil. Meanwhile, it has become clear that the draft isn't needed to solve the military's real manpower shortages, which are in the higher enlisted grades of technical experts, pilots and commanders.

The restoration of a peacetime draft would, indeed, be dangerous. The absence of a draft acts as a political firebreak against adventurous involvement in foreign wars. The Pentagon wouldn't want to fight one without a draft. If Congress had had to enact a new draft law in 1964, instead of passing the deceitfully vague Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, our nation might not have gone deeper into the Big Muddy of Indochina. The next time, if a president wants to restore conscription, he should be forced to produce a more compelling purpose than filling out the military's manpower tables.

Antidraft advocate Barry Lynn agrees that the likelihood of restored conscription is much more remote today than it was a few years ago, but he argues that resistance to registration serves as a crucial "brake on the draft, just as the draft is a brake on the kind of intervention we all oppose."

I'm not convinced it works that way. If this president or the next one stumbles into a foreign crisis and persuades the nation to go to war again, then I expect Congress would swiftly enact a new draft law –– regardless of how screwed up the present registration is. Actually, I suspect the present system would be scrapped and Selective Service would start over again with old-fashioned draft cards. At that point, every eligible young man would face his own heavy choice.

Despite the inflated rhetoric of resistance, however, no one is really at that point now. Unless we are willing to debase the meaning of words, signing a card at the post office is not oppression. It is not slavery. It may be dumb, but it is not an infringement of liberty. Sorry, boys, the Sixties are over.

If an eighteen-year-old asked me, I would advise him to go ahead and sign the little card. The act of registration has less meaning than both sides in this struggle are assigning to it. It doesn't scare the Russians. And it needn't scare Americans either.

I am making a distinction that many of the resisters will regard as too precious, but I think the moral claim of civil disobedience should not be casually invoked. Otherwise, we could all stop paying taxes on the ethical grounds that we don't like the way the government spends our money. The act of civil disobedience, it seems to me, must be proportionate to the offense against liberty, aimed at a wrongful law that really is oppressive. The racial-segregation laws were evil and the civil-rights demonstrators who willfully violated them were protected by their higher moral purpose. Draft resisters during the war in Vietnam, whether they went to jail or to Canada, had a morally authentic claim, refusing to serve or kill in a war that was wrong. Signing a card at the post office does not present a comparable moral choice. Of course, if a young man wants to throw his body at this stupid system and add his number to the mass violations, the odds are with him. It's very unlikely that he will ever be sent to jail. But I think there are more effective ways for him to influence politics and politicians than by going "underground." For starters, he might try voting.