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Pre-Emptive Peace

Making the case for conscientious objection with no draft in sight


The draft? You can't be serious.

Jeff Harry and Bette Carlson aren't sold that the draft is dead. - PHOTO BY JESSI STRONG

After all, didn't Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld say last year that "There isn't a chance in the world that the draft will be brought back?" Didn't President Bush agree during last year's second presidential debate, saying, "We're not going to have a draft so long as I'm president"? In recent years, mandatory military service has been eliminated in Spain and France, shot down again last year the U.S. Congress, and as recently as last week, proposed and shouted down in Canada. With polls showing Americans to be over 70 percent against the draft, bringing it back would seem to be political suicide.

Conscription's just a relic--an anachronism ... right? Husband and wife Jeff Harry and Bette Carlson aren't counting on it.

"I have no trust it wouldn't happen," says Harry. A school social worker for the last 25 years, Harry has been "disturbed" by the prevalence of military recruiters in schools, and the way they romanticize military service--especially in recent years. "The Iraq war has really brought it front and center," he explains.

Carlson agrees, but says war has been a concern for far longer than the current conflict. "When Jeff and I decided to have children, it was really important to make sure they at least had the opportunity to decide what they thought about war," she says.

Luckily for them, their eldest son, Capitol High senior Emil Harry, agrees with their views. He describes himself as a pacifist, saying, "Wars just serve to make the rich richer." After graduating, he's even looking into peace studies programs, along with political science and sociology. But just to make sure that his life matches his ideals, Emil and his parents have created a "conscientious objector portfolio."

As the draft has faded from public focus, so have the specifics of what, exactly, a conscientious objector is--and how difficult it can be to become one. Here's a recap: A soldier or draftee can apply for CO status if he has a moral, ethical or religious objection to either war or killing. This objection doesn't have to be religious, but it isn't supposed to be a whim of self-preservation, nor a political judgment. Most importantly, according the Selective Service System, "The man's lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims." In lieu of combat, COs usually perform some sort of alternative service, often in military support, conservation or social service programs.

With the burden of proof squarely on the applicant, not surprisingly, CO applications aren't always approved by the overseeing draft board. Even approvals often take months or even years to come through. And while both Emil Harry and his parents are involved with a local Quaker church, Boise Valley Friends, they aren't relying on the 350-year history of Quaker peace activism in the United States to make Emil's case for him. So, inside Emil's portfolio, they put documentation of his participation in peace demonstrations; a letter to his principal saying he'd like to opt-out of recruitment activities; proof of his membership in groups like the Idaho Peace Coalition and a letter of support from Lou Landry, a family friend, fellow Quaker and former aspiring CO.

Landry applied for objector status in 1964, soon after his "conscience was awakened" in college. His budding scruples weren't proof enough for the draft board, however. Landry's application was denied, forcing him into either going to war or engaging in civil disobedience. He chose the latter, and was given three years of probation, which he spent working with the handicapped in New Mexico. Four decades later, he still works with disabled adults, and he looks back on his rebellion as "an eye-opening experience into what it was to take a stand." As such, he sees value in a draft as a way to force people to clarify their perspective on war.

"The military prey on the young, and offer bonuses for college, as a way to have the poor pay with their lives," he says. "I think that's immoral, and I think we should all take a stand. This should be a great occasion for young people to reflect deeply."

It may seem like Emil, his parents and Landry are preparing for an eventuality that may never come. Then again, the U.S. government is arguably doing the same thing by requiring men to register for Selective Service while denying the possibility of the draft. For instance, in many states, young men are required to register, or agree to be automatically registered when they turn 18, just to obtain a driver's license. It is not mandatory in Idaho, although since 2002, eligible men are given the option of registering when applying for a license--and Selective Service is notified if they turn that opportunity down. By Idaho law, however, these same young men must be registered to enroll in state colleges, receive financial aid or be eligible to work for the state. This system, where registering is a mere afterthought, a requirement for other activities, wasn't around in the Vietnam era. It was put in place in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, according to the Selective Service Web site, "in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in reaction to reports that the standby Selective Service System might not meet wartime requirements for rapid manpower expansion of the active and reserve force."

In other words, even the government admits that Selective Service is a product of Cold War posturing. But according to Jeff Harry, an important message gets lost in the efficiency of modern registration--namely, by signing their names or checking a box, young men really are agreeing to give their life to the military.

"This should be a huge thing to think about, but the process doesn't allow it," he says. "People just drift in, without the chance to reflect. In the Vietnam era, we had to register. Now it's done by the mechanics of the machine, the driver's license, the college. You don't even get five minutes to think, 'What am I doing here?'"

Accordingly, after Emil got his driver's license last year, he and his father obtained a copy of his license application, complete with Selective Service registration. Emil hand-wrote a statement on it about his desire not to participate in war on the front, had it notarized and put it in the portfolio. To most men, who get their driver's licenses and register without a second thought, that would seem like overkill. But Emil Harry wants to be crystal clear.

"If you support the war effort, you're still responsible for the actions it takes," Emil says. "It's up to the individual to take direct action."