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Selective Service System

Currently, people join the military voluntarily. But at one time, young men were also drafted into military service. They were required to register with the Selective Service System (SSS) at age 18. When new soldiers were needed, names were selected from the SSS list, and those selected were inducted into the Army. People who could prove they had a conscientious objection to war were exempt from the military, but could be inducted into two years of civilian work, called “alternative service.”

There no longer is a draft. But the requirement to register with the Selective Service System remains — just in case a draft is needed in the future. If you are deciding whether or not to register, read on — especially if you think you might be a conscientious objector to war.

The Law

Under current law, young men aged 18-25 must register with — place their names on a list maintained by — the Selective Service System (SSS). Citizens must register within 30 days of their 18th birthday. Non-citizens must also register, unless they’re in the country on a student visa or visitor’s visa. (Check the SSS web site for more detailed information on registration requirements.)

Refusing to register is against the law. The penalty is a fine up to $250,000 and up to 5 years in jail. However, a large number of people have not registered and, since the mid 1980s, no one has been prosecuted. But non-registrants can be denied government jobs and financial aid for college. Immigrants can be barred from becoming citizens. In addition, many states impose restrictions on non-registrants, such as denying them a driver’s license. (Click here for a state-by-state list of benefits that are denied to non-registrants.)

A Future Draft and Conscientious Objection

It’s unlikely that Congress will enact a draft anytime soon. But it may in a crisis, if more soldiers are required than the volunteer military can supply. During a crisis there can be enormous government and social pressure to enlist. The time provided for conscientious objector (CO) applications will be very short. The application process may be difficult, and it’s always a hassle to collect documentation for a CO application and draft board hearing.

If you think you might be a conscientious objector, you can register with a protest and begin building your case for CO status now (details below). CO status can be based not only on religious belief but also ethical, moral or philosophical beliefs.

Registration Strategy for Conscientious Objectors

The strategy has three steps: (1) Register with a protest. (2) Start a history file. And (3) know your backup.

  1. Register with a protest: Paying a fine or being denied a driver’s license for non-registration is not recommended. The battle is not with an innocuous list, but with a potential draft board and its decision — prepare for and target that potential. RCNV recommends that eligible young men register or re-register with the Selective Service System.

    Get a registration form. Some post offices still have them; many don’t. Don’t use the Selective Service web registration; there is no way to indicate objection to military service.

    Complete the form. Then — using red ink (it shows up and duplicates well in a copy machine) — boldly write beliefs (for example, “I am opposed to war,” “I am a Conscientious Objector to war,” “no war,” and so on) in the registration card margins and open spaces. Make 3 copies. (Now you have the original and 3 copies.)

    Put the original in an envelope, address the envelope to Selective Service. Go to the post office and send the envelope with a signed Return Receipt (the green one that requires the recipient to return a signed receipt that they got it). When the signed receipt is returned to you, staple it to a copy of your registration card (copy #1). This is your proof that they received your specially decorated protest registration.

    Put copy #2 in an envelope addressed to yourself & mail it. When you receive it, do not open it; file it. This is post-mark dated back-up evidence of your original filing with Selective Service. Keep it in case it is needed as evidence.

    Put these documents in your new History File.

  2. Start a history file: Start a file that documents your belief and behavior that opposes institutional and other violence. First step: make a chronology (dates and brief description) of everything in your life pertaining to your conscientious objection, from earliest days of awakening belief to the present — school essays, books read, participation in peace (and other) demonstrations, spiritual awakening/conversion (religious, philosophical, vegetarianism, environmentalism), family events, belief-sharing conversations with friends/parents/relatives/teachers, etc. Everything! Let friends help you recall events.

    Collect documentation for the chronology. Get signed, dated letters/documents from witnesses. You will need to ask friends, parents, teachers/mentors and relatives for signed letters (which also contain contact info: phone, address) describing and confirming what happened – work, discussions, reading, writing, volunteering for peace organizations, behavior, etc. Find and copy old photos, press articles, videos, drawings, personal ledger, poetry, e-mails, essays, personal letters – anything that dates and confirms beliefs and behavior. (Previous draft boards were more likely to approve CO applicants that could document a sustained belief accompanied by behavior consistent with that belief.)

    Remember, being a CO is about opposing military and other institutional violence — war, in particular. If you are asked “Would you commit violence to protect your sister/brother/lover?” declare “The question is irrelevant; I am opposed to government sanctioned institutional violence.” Personal belief or behavior opposing other forms of violence may support opposition to institutional violence. However, stay focused on “institutional violence.”

  3. Know your backup: When a draft is enacted, CO applicants want to immediately obtain accurate counsel about the unknown, unfolding “changing ground” of Selective Service and military draft practices. Know your CO “backup” organization. Wherever you live or move, know the location and contact information of an organization qualified to provide experienced counsel about Selective Service procedures. Start the search for a “backup” using the list of support organizations on this site.

You can get more information on Selective Service registration from the following web sites:

[return to the main Military Counseling page]

GI Rights Hotline
877-447-4487 toll-free, nationwide
or 831-316-5367 for the RCNV counseling group