Commission reviewing national service, draft

Aug 27, 2018 by and

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For much of 2018, a federal commission has been seeking input from the public on matters relating to national service and U.S. preparedness for a military draft.

While few expect a draft to return, Mennonites and other advocates for conscientious objectors are watching the process closely.

The final of nine public meetings held by the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service will take place Sept. 19-21 in Los Angeles. An online option is also available for sharing thoughts on the country’s relationship to the draft.

Inspire2serve.gov indicates the commission is intended “to consider and develop recommendations concerning the need for a military draft and means by which to foster a greater attitude and ethos of service among American youth.”

The commission was created as part of a compromise reached by a legislative committee during the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, and is mandated to consider questions about continuing the Selective Service System and whether women should be required to register for a potential military draft like their male counterparts between the ages of 18 and 25.

While the draft ended in 1973, President Jimmy Carter reinstated registration in 1980 to be able to resurrect a drafted military force quickly if needed.

Though the U.S. offered alternative service options for conscientious objectors when a draft was in place from 1940 to 1973, Selective Service’s registration process gives no opportunity to indicate conscientious objection to war.

Bill Galvin, counseling director at the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, said that is just one of the system’s flaws.

He said about 90 percent of men register, but about 60 of them say they feel coerced into doing so because registration is required in order to get a driver’s license or a federal student loan.

“So you have a law that’s just not supported by the people in general,” he said.

CCW — which was founded by a group including Mennonites in 1940 — is encouraging its supporters and members of historic peace churches to contact the commission with their desire to maintain the right to conscientious objection in whatever proposals they present to Congress in 2020.

CCW executive director Maria Santelli said the public meetings she has attended were essentially taken over by AmeriCorps representatives advocating the importance of voluntary national service programs like it and the Peace Corps. Instead of addressing Selective Service issues, the meetings’ focus was more on presentations about the importance of military or community service.

“We want to see people have a way to indicate their objection to war when they register,” she said, “and affirming — like the Mennonite community has done for decades — that if Selective Service is maintained, that the alternative service infrastructure is also maintained.”

Jason Boone, minister of peace and justice with Mennonite Church USA’s Peace and Justice Support Network, said such conversations with government officials are important because of how they intersect with Mennonite history and values.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to call for an end to Selective Service registration,” he said. “Short of that, allowing people to register as conscientious objectors would be positive change. I encourage all Mennonites and peacemakers to take this opportunity to make their voices heard.”

Input still welcomed

Commission member Steve Barney said that even though this phase of meetings is ending soon, the commission continues to welcome input from the public by mail and through its website. More hearings will be held next year.

A former general counsel to the Senate Armed Service Committee, Barney said one of the most common comments the commission received from people with opposition to war is the need for a means to indicate conscientious objector status on the front end of registration.

“We are interested in learning as much as we can from knowledgeable people how that kind of a self-designation status might be implemented and what kind of impact it would have on the Selective Service System,” he said.

He noted that the commission has heard from several people who performed alternative service in the Vietnam War era.

“Their message to us is the option of alternative service is something to continue to consider, and we are certainly considering it,” he said. “It’s currently provided for in the law, and I think we have to acknowledge there are many people who served and served for very fulfilling ways.”

‘Mandatory service’?

One theme coming up in many of the meetings has been the potential for a national public service program.

Tim Miller of McKenney, Va., who chairs the Beachy Amish peace and service committee, takes part in regular conference calls with a Selective Service representative. A call in June made clear that the commission is looking at every aspect of a military draft and public service.

“We are not too concerned about the removal of alternative service, since every indication from the military continues to be that they want volunteers, not conscripts,” he said by email. “How a national public service program would take shape would, of course, interest and concern us very much.

“A significant percentage of Beachy youth already do some time of voluntary service, but it obviously takes on a very different character when something becomes mandatory.”

Based on what he has heard, Galvin from CCW thinks the commission could recommend some sort of mandatory national service, be it military or civilian.

“I see problems with that,” he said. “If there’s a mandatory national service program, you have the government determining what is service. What will that do to Mennonite voluntary service?

“What we’ve said to the commission is, if you are serious about engaging people in public service, find ways for the government to give incentives to do so. But to require it goes against the nature of what service is.”

Barney acknowledged that a number of people have indicated some form of mandatory national service would be helpful, while others said mandatory service would undermine the idea of voluntary service.

“Whether it be a mandatory type of service that everyone be required to perform, or whether the nation would use some kind of system to encourage or incentivize it, those are the kinds of things the commission is asking for views on,” he said.

As the Supreme Court evolves and matters of religious liberty get redefined, mandating anything could be tricky.

“We rely very heavily on our staff to understand and develop a clear understanding of how religious liberties tie into service in general and how it applies to specific categories of service,” Barney said.

After the close of public meetings and collecting input, the commission should compile a proposal and hold another series of meetings to get feedback before presenting something to Congress.

Comments can be submitted to the commission, at least until early 2019, at inspire2serve.gov.


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