After 30 Years, Draft Fears Rise

An audience listens to J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, talk about how to win conscientious objector status.
An audience listens to J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, talk about how to win conscientious objector status. (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 2, 2005

In their Ellicott City kitchen, Jeff Amoros's parents handed their son the Selective Service registration form that arrived shortly after his 18th birthday. For them, it evoked dark memories of the Vietnam era. For Amoros, it meant: "I'm old enough to die for my country now."

At a Montgomery County Friends meeting house, peace activist J.E. McNeil explained to an audience how to convince draft boards that they are conscientious objectors. "Let me tell you why I think there's going to be a draft," she said.

Rarely in the more than 30 years since the draft was abolished has the Selective Service triggered such angst. Two years into the Iraq war, concern that the draft will be reinstated to supplement an overextended military persists -- no matter how often, or emphatically, President Bush and members of Congress say it won't.

In this atmosphere of suspicion, the Selective Service System, the Rosslyn-based agency that conscripted 1.8 million Americans during the Vietnam War and 10 million in World War II, quietly pursues its delicate dual mission: keeping the draft machinery ready, without sparking fear that it is coming back.

"We're told not to do a particular thing but to be prepared to do it," said Dan Amon, a spokesman for the Selective Service, which last year registered about 15.6 million young men between the draft-eligible ages of 18 and 25. "We just continue to carry out our mission as mandated by Congress."

These days, the agency spends a lot of time allaying fears and dispelling rumors. Go to the Selective Service Web site, and the first thing you see is an explanation of how Congress voted 402 to 2 against a bill to make military service mandatory.

A Washington public relations firm, Widmeyer Communications, hired by the agency to offer strategic advice, noted last year that "virtually any move taken by Selective Service is seen in many quarters as clear evidence that a draft is imminent."

"There is so much misinformation out there," said Richard Flahavan, associate director of Selective Service for public and intergovernmental affairs. "Most folks, if you pulled them off the street, would believe we could turn on the draft in the dark of night and consult no one."

Proving a Belief

If there weren't such widespread concern about the possibility of the draft's return, J.E. McNeil wouldn't be so busy.

On a recent Friday night, McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, brought her presentation on how to win conscientious objector status to the Sandy Spring Friends Community House. She told the audience of about 25 that there is a "perfect storm" of conditions that could lead to conscription: low recruiting numbers and the strain that Iraq has placed on the all-volunteer military, especially the National Guard and reserves.

So conscientious objectors need to be ready, she warned. The key to convincing a draft board, she said, is to document the objections before conscription is ever reinstated.

"If you're trying to prove a belief or a feeling, you can't rip open your chest and have the words written on your heart," she said.


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