As a witness for peace in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home of Fort Bragg (the largest base of military personnel), we at Quaker House see the winds of war on the horizon long before the rest of the country does. Through our GI Rights Hotline and Domestic Violence in the Military counselors and through our presentations, we see the invisible wounds of war: post-traumatic stress disorder, moral injury, and domestic violence. These are the wounds too many of our service members suffer, particularly when the conscience re-awakens to the realities of war.

We are often asked why we work with teens considering conscientious objection. The answer is two-fold: first, we are developing a conscientious objection to war to safeguard them in case a draft is ever reinstated. We would prefer to prepare for an event that may never happen than to be unprepared. The second response, however, is more important: we are nurturing a conscientious commitment to peace, or a testimony of nonviolence, that the young people carry with them into adulthood. Articulating and discerning a stance as a conscientious objector (CO) has both immediate and long-range benefits. It develops a young person’s conscience in meaningful and lasting ways.

We live in a war-illiterate nation. Nationalism is at a high point. We are at war in seven nations and rattle our sabers at others. We have nearly 800 military bases worldwide. The federal budget for the military peaked in 2010, but it is still far too high with a 2017 projected budget of $582 billion. Legislation has been introduced to require women to register for Selective Service. Repeated deployments and stop-loss involuntary extensions of a service member’s active duty service strain both active duty and reserve personnel. Talk of reinstating a military draft gets louder.

Then, sadly, our conscientious objector heroes from previous wars are passing away. These role models represented a living, historical testimony to deeply held convictions. Some went to jail; others fled the country, while some were able to perform alternative service as a way of serving their country. Unfortunately, their voices and living memories are being forgotten as their generation passes away.

Selective Service registration has evolved into an automatic, seamless process. Most teens do not even realize they are being registered because in almost all states Selective Service registration is now linked to an application for a driver’s license.

More than ever, talking about conscientious objection with our youth is exactly what we should be doing.

Has our collective conscience been anesthetized to the realities and implications of our nation’s militarism? Are we losing a core aspect of the peace testimony and the opportunity to explore a path of peace among our youth?

Is conscientious objection fading away from our Quaker consciousness?

Several years ago at a Quaker yearly meeting where I conducted a workshop on conscientious objection, I asked young Friends why they signed up for the session. Their response was universal: “I know conscientious objection is a part of the Quaker peace testimony, so I figured I should learn something about it!”

The session was lively and engaging. The young Friends learned about conscientious objection, explored their beliefs, role-played them before a mock draft board, and understood how they could start articulating and documenting their convictions in a “CO letter.”

Given this enthusiasm, a similar workshop was offered to adults the following year. When asked why they took the workshop, they responded in an equally surprising way: “I’ve been trying to get our meeting to teach our young people about conscientious objection, but no one is interested.”

These two occasions are typical, even in the historic peace churches. How can this be? It was Quakers who in 1656 brought conscientious objection to the New World, and since then, Quakers and other like-minded faiths fought to have it recognized within military legislation. Men of conviction died in prison instead of being part of a war machine. Why is a sense of urgency not part of today’s public purview? Has our collective conscience been anesthetized to the realities and implications of our nation’s militarism? Is it only the 1 percent who serve in the armed forces who are affected by war? Are we losing a core aspect of the peace testimony and the opportunity to explore a path of peace among our youth who are tomorrow’s leaders? These questions are particularly relevant and worth a closer look at Selective Service and how it affects our young people.


Selective Service in a nutshell

Selective Service is very much alive and well. It is part of the federal budget and an independent agency of the executive branch. It has a large and efficient staff, a polished website, and a huge public relations program. It seeks to register virtually every 18-year-old male (and soon every female) living in the United States, including undocumented immigrants.

In essence, the Selective Service System is a draft “ready to go.” Its ultimate purpose is to deliver manpower in case of a war. In non-draft times, it is a registry that holds the name, address, birthdate, and social security number of young men (and possibly women in the future) eligible and ready for military induction. If Congress declares a war or if the president declares a state of emergency, Selective Service transforms into a federal system that drafts young men (and possibly women) into the military. It is the precursor to a draft, and while dormant now, it is a giant ready to be awakened.

By law, failure to register is a felony with a fine up to $250,000 and five years in jail. These penalties have not been applied for decades because of the backlash of negative publicity. Instead, Selective Service developed a different, more subtle and insidious approach: the loss of opportunities, rights, and eligibility including federal college student aid (Solomon Amendment, 1982); federal job training and employment (Thurmond Amendment, 1985); veteran’s dependent benefits; and, if not U.S. born, citizenship. Many states also tie registration to state employment, state educational assistance, and enrollment in state colleges. Over the years, Selective Service even changed its wording from “don’t lose these benefits by not registering” to “register for Selective Service and earn state and federal rights and benefits.”

In the year 2000, Delaware became the first state to link Selective Service registration with an application for a driver’s license, renewal, or state identification card. It was hugely successful and increased the state’s compliance rate to almost 100 percent. Now over 45 states and territories do the same. In most states, a male cannot get a driver’s license otherwise. The system is hidden, automatic, and seamless.

Writing a letter to one’s faith or support community articulating those beliefs is unique. It begins the in-depth soul searching necessary to develop a sincere commitment to peace and nonviolence.

Selective Service and conscientious objection

The three main requirements for conscientious objection as defined by current and past U.S. law are as follows:

  1. The CO must be conscientiously opposed to participating in any war and all war. Opposition is not political or selective. It is against any and all war. No “just” war.
  2. The objection must be based upon moral, ethical, or religious belief. The old law’s belief in a Supreme Being was changed to training and belief.
  3. The claim must be sincere, deeply held, or play a significant role in one’s life. Not only must this position be truly personal, but it must be documented.

By current Selective Service law, if a draft were reinstated, the worst case scenario would give a person who receives an induction notice as little as nine days to file an application for a conscientious objection classification. Aside from the challenge of preparing such an application, this allows little time for genuine soul searching, formulation, or articulation of deeply held personal beliefs. It would be woefully absent of extensive documentation that a draft board would need to verify sincerity. Long-held beliefs, especially if documented, are much more persuasive.

So, if Selective Service law does not permit making a claim earlier, what else can be done? The answer is simple. Don’t rely on the Selective Service system. Their mission is to induct people into the military, not to help COs. Here is an alternative.

Conscience is the moral cornerstone that leads a person to claim a conviction as a CO. Conscience is God’s spiritual imprint inscribed on our hearts. Nowhere is conscience so imperiled as in war.

Discernment, decision, and documentation

When my oldest son turned 18—two months before 9/11—I knew that he had to register for Selective Service and, should a draft be reinstated, he would likely seek a CO classification. To my surprise, the registration form had no place to indicate a CO status. Instead, using the recommendation from several peace groups, he wrote “I am a conscientious objector” between the blanks on the form. Two elders from our monthly meeting attested to his statement, and witnessed also on the form. Additionally, he wrote a letter to the meeting, declaring that he was against participation in any and all war; that his belief was based upon moral, ethical, and religious beliefs; and he provided examples. We asked the meeting to accept the letter, minute it, and keep a copy in its lock box. This started a longer journey, and since then almost 50 other teens, both young men and women, have written letters to the meeting.

Through Quaker House, the process has been shared with other monthly and yearly meetings and other faith communities. We sponsor workshops that help young people and their adult mentors explore their leadings toward nonviolence and conscientious objection. We developed a curriculum (see with a full spectrum of references, materials, worksheets, exercises, and procedures that encourage and frame deeper study, discernment, and discussion. We encourage young people to examine the peace testimony from their own personal perspective, not in abstraction: What would you do if forced into military conscription? Can you participate in war? Can you kill another human being? Can you submit to the orders of a commanding officer, even when you know it may bring harm and perhaps death to another? Discernment takes time, some structured exercises, and a safe place to explore deep feelings and articulate them as beliefs in a CO letter. That is how the conscience is developed. It cannot happen nine days after getting an induction notice.

Filling out a claim “between the spaces” and keeping that as a record is a standard method of documentation endorsed by many peace organizations. Writing a letter to one’s faith or support community articulating those beliefs is unique. It begins the in-depth soul searching necessary to develop a sincere commitment to peace and nonviolence, and serves as a more significant piece of documentation should, a few years later, a draft be reinstated and the young person go before a local draft board. Every letter is distinctive, highly personal, and deeply moving. Each time, all those listening are overwhelmed with the eloquence, sincerity, and depth of conviction as these teens speak against violence and the tragic futility of war. But beyond this, the process helps these teens crystallize fundamental beliefs about conscientious objection, nonviolence, and the testimony of peace.

This was evident when we interviewed several past CO letter writers. This is what they said:

  1. The writing of CO letters solidified and crystallized my beliefs and convictions on conscientious objection, nonviolence, and the peace testimony.
  2. Writing my letter served as a guide for me during subsequent years, as a benchmark of my beliefs, as a reminder of my convictions, and it gave me talking points when discussing nonviolence and peace, especially with those who felt otherwise.
  3. When I read my letter to the meeting, I was truly embraced by the meeting and for the first time actually felt like I was part of the meeting.
  4. It was like a rite of passage.
  5. It gave me assurance that I was more prepared both emotionally and with written documentation should a draft be reinstated.
  6. I wouldn’t have known that conscientious objection existed if it wasn’t for my meeting.

Conscience is the moral cornerstone that leads a person to claim a conviction as a CO. Conscience is God’s spiritual imprint inscribed on our hearts. Nowhere is conscience so imperiled as in war. But conscience also must be developed and nurtured. Without attention, a conviction against personal participation in war is simply not considered. Without a focus, it gets lost. Without a focus, it stays hidden. Without planting the seeds of the peace testimony, the fruits of nonviolence never grow. Too often the opportunity to explore this part of the peace testimony lies complacent in our young people when they turn 18 and must register for Selective Service. If left unaddressed, our youth are left ill-prepared and vulnerable to a system where war is left out of the public view, and Selective Service sweeps them up unaware. Our meetings have a responsibility to bear witness to conscientious objection and nurture the conscience that lies deep within our young people.

~ Curt Torell, Quaker House Board of Directors Officer