Costs of a Flimsy Card

handcuffed manWith the coming of the new year, the first generation of draft registrants since the Vietnam war finished its passage through the Selective Service System. The young men who turned twenty in 1980 and signed on with the System had all turned twenty-six by December 31, 1986, and could no longer be called up should inductions begin.

For me, the date marked a different sort of passage. Along with thousands of others, I completed six years of draft-registration resistance. Selective Service marked the event by mailing me a “final notice.” “In addition to being subject to prosecution,” it warned, “failure to register may cause you to permanently forfeit eligibility for [student financial aid, Government employment, and job training] as men cannot register after reaching age twenty-six.”

The threat of being denied student aid or employment with the Federal Government doesn’t really compare with the threat of five years in jail or a $250,000 fine. But it did remind me that, in refusing to fill out a flimsy card years ago, I made a decision that would change the course of my life.

My contemporaries who chose to register have been able to dismiss the issue from their lives. They have been free to proceed with their schooling and careers, their signing up having meant little in the way of commitment. In six years, I have never met anyone for whom registration was a significant act of patriotism. I have never met anyone who defines himself as a “draft registrant.”

For non-registrants, it’s different. In addition to describing myself as a student, an office worker, a father, I have also described myself for years as a draft resister. Year’s end prompted some reflections: What has it meant to live knowing the U.S. Government is willing to imprison its young people for refusing to kill?

One immediate effect of the new draft law was that many young men took a long look at U.S. interests in the world and at the way those interests are protected militarily. It forced many of us to sit up and pay attention to international events and to U.S. preparations for war. The impact of this examination of our relation to the military has been healthy. Many of us, who might not have gotten involved if not for draft registration, have been active in efforts to reform U.S. foreign policy.

I came to registration resistance already sensitized to issues of war and peace. Vietnam was present at my family’s breakfast table every morning. I was in the fourth grade when I learned that National Guard troops could shoot unarmed college students for opposing the war. When I was ten, Richard Nixon freed Lieutenant William Calley after his conviction for ordering the My Lai massacre. In my first year of college, I read an excerpt of the 1978 Pentagon posture statement by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “The most ambitious [damage-limiting] strategy dictates a first-strike capability against an enemy’s strategic offensive forces. ..."

So January 1980, when President Jimmy Carter announced a return to draft registration, found me in a Pennsylvania prison for pouring blood and ashes on General Electric’s Mark 12A nuclear reentry vehicle plant. I had been arrested a number of times for protesting the production of first-strike weapons. But standing outside my cell watching the prison television set bring news of the new draft law, I felt something was being fundamentally changed in my life. No longer would risking arrest be an occasional thing I did to protest war. Jimmy Carter was telling teen-aged activists that arrest and jail might face us any day from now on, so long as we refused to sign up for murder.

Initially, some of us tried to cram more into living, fearing that soon we’d be jailed for years. Our lives seemed to be put on hold: We would have no security in our pursuit of schooling, jobs, or personal relationships, until we had been through the legal mill. Over time, we each reached some form of accommodation with our fears, but living daily with the possibility of arrest and imprisonment has had profound effects.

Looking back, I’d say I experienced the situation as one of abandonment, of disfranchisement. I grew up with a deep belief in the sanctity of First Amendment rights in the United States. While cluster-bomb units were shredding Vietnamese children, I knew the American Civil Liberties Union would protect my right to remain silent during the Pledge of Allegiance. While few people seemed really interested in Robert Aldridge’s thesis on counterforce, the U.S. Government didn’t prevent anyone from speaking about it.

With registration, however, the United States declared that young men who simply refused to sign a piece of paper saying they would give the Government their bodies in war should face jail as a consequence. To me, this meant the Government was abandoning its claim to ensure my right to free speech. While I could cast a vote based on whether a candidate favored building the MX missile or Trident submarine, I would have no vote when it came to deciding whether the Government may command me to kill.

I think there is little risk of indictment for those of us who have refused to register since 1980. The Selective Service System’s notice that I will be denied financial aid, Government employment, or job training gives me little cause for concern. But I have other worries.

Registration will leave a scar on the nation’s youth, who today come of age in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, under clouds that condense acid rain, with a political system that allows the Administration to intervene with impunity in the internal affairs of other governments around the globe. Threatening us with jail if we question the Government’s right to draft our bodies further damages our already-shaky hope for the future.

Michael Wehle

This article appeared in the April 1987 edition of The Progressive magazine.