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.
An objector, she said, has to be able to answer the question: " 'How did you come by your beliefs?' Not all of us wake up at 5 years old and say, 'I'm a conscientious objector.' " It won't work to tell a draft board "you think it would be icky to kill people," she said.
She also warned the group that the Selective Service shares names and addresses with military recruiters.
One way to ensure that the system is equitable, she said, is for peace activists to volunteer for draft boards, which the Selective Service has tried to make more representative of the communities they serve.
About 11,000 people nationwide serve on the boards. Without a draft, their time commitment is small: one training session a year, which consists in part of watching a video with actors portraying different scenarios that might come up.
In one, a pastor seeking conscientious objector status is asked by a board member, "Why don't you want to serve your country during a time of war?"
The pastor replies: "From the time I wanted to be a minister, I knew that I could not hurt -- let alone kill -- anyone."
Although concern about a draft has heightened since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Selective Service's Amon said the agency is "like a small-town fire volunteer fire company. There may never be a fire, but you still want that department there just in case."
So the agency continues to stay ready, as it has since 1980, when President Jimmy Carter and Congress revived registration as a show of force after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Registration had been suspended in 1975, two years after the draft was abolished, and the Selective Service went into a "deep standby" posture soon thereafter.
Today its mission entails not only registering 18-year-old men (women, who are barred from some ground combat units, are exempted) but helping state legislatures craft incentives to boost registration. Forty-one states, three territories and the District have laws that link Selective Service registration with a person's ability to get a driver's license, hold a state job or attend a state university, according to the agency.
The District, which allows men ages 18 to 25 to register when they get their driver's licenses, was tied with Puerto Rico for the nation's lowest rate of registering 18-year-olds last year, at 49 percent. Maryland, which has a similar law, was at 66 percent compliance. Virginia, which requires registration for getting a driver's license, registered 77 percent.
Flahavan said those numbers will improve as the population gets older and "we have another year to follow and chase them and try to identify them."
When the form landed in the Amoroses' mailbox in January, it immediately was cause for concern. For Jeff's father, Scott Amoros, 46, it renewed the anxiety he felt when his older brother registered as combat in Vietnam was winding down, and of hearing summer camp counselors talk about fleeing the country. Jeff's mother, Irene Amoros, "wasn't in tears," Jeff said, "but you could tell she was upset." By the time Jeff Amoros registered with the Selective Service a few days later, he started to wonder: Was it possible he would have to go to Iraq?Special Skills
There's not going to be a draft. Political leaders can't seem to say that enough. But if there were to be one, it could be of specific skilled professionals rather than general conscription, Flahavan said. That could mean women would be included -- and the cutoff age could be extended past 25 years.
Since 1987, at Congress's request, the Selective Service has had a plan to register male and female health care workers ages 20 to 45 in more than 60 medical specialties in case the country suddenly needed more doctors or nurses. The proposal would require the authorization of Congress and the president.
More recently, the agency has talked about reinventing itself by registering all sorts of professionals whose expertise could be helpful in an emergency. That way, the Selective Service could become a national "repository or inventory of special skills," according to the agency's annual report.
The "special skills" draft could give the government the option of calling up people in a variety of specialties, such as linguists, computer experts, police officers or firefighters, Flahavan said.
Other government agencies besides the Department of Defense could draft those workers, the report states. They could include U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The agency knows what angst such a program could cause, and Flahavan repeatedly stresses that it is "just a concept" that would require authorization from Congress.
"We're not advocating that it should be done," he said. "All we're saying is . . . we've been in this business for [more than 60] years. We know how to run a draft."