Podcast: The Future of Draft Registration in the United States

February 22, 2018

Will the US expand the draft to women or finally end it?

Draft registration resister Edward Hasbrouck on the new commission established to review the future of draft registration and mandatory national “service”

When you say, “I’m not willing to be drafted”, you’re saying, “I’m going to make my own choices about which wars we should be fighting”, and when you say, “You should submit to the draft”, you’re saying, “You should let the politicians decide for you.”

What’s happening right now is that a National Commission … has been appointed to study the question of whether draft registration should be continued, whether it should be expanded to make women, as well as men register for the draft, whether a draft itself should be started, whether there should be some other kind of Compulsory National Service enacted.

[This] is the first real meaningful opportunity for a national debate about the draft in decades.

Edward Hasbrouck at the Federal courthouse in Boston before being sentenced for refusing to register for the draft, January 1983. Photo by Ellen Shub

Full Transcript

Edward Hasbrouck: People sometimes ask, “Why wouldn’t you fight?” I think it’s important to look at the context of the kind of judgments that the military and the government has made about which wars to fight. Fundamentally, when you say, “I’m not willing to be drafted”, you’re saying, “I’m going to make my own choices about which wars we should be fighting”, and when you say, “You should submit to the draft”, you’re saying, “You should let the politicians decide for you.” There’s a pretty dismal track record, and you don’t even have to go back as far Vietnam of the U.S. government’s choices about which wars to fight. When draft registration was reinstated in 1980, and when I was supposed to register, it was explicitly described by President Jimmy Carter as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Now, think for a minute about what that means.

When I was asked to register for the draft, I was being asked to sign up in case the U.S. Military decided that they wanted to send American troops to Afghanistan. To fight on the side of who? The people who the U.S. was then training and arming in Afghanistan, who were the people who became the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. I spent four and a half months in prison for refusing to agree to fight on the side of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and I am not ever likely to have a choice that’s going to be so clear or one that I can be so proud of. That’s to say, “No. I’m not willing to do that.”

Eric Klein: We’re on the line with Edward Hasbrouck, who is a Selective Service and draft expert who runs the website, Resisters.info. Edward, welcome to the Courage to Resist Podcast.

Edward: Thanks for having me on.

Eric: I want to dive in to why you began this work, but maybe before we go back to the beginning of you doing this draft resisting work in the 1980’s, let’s talk about what’s happening right now in 2018. What is the latest with the Selective Service and the potential for they’re being a military draft in the United States?

Edward: What’s happening right now is that a National Commission, some members appointed by the President, some by both parties in Congress has been appointed to study the question of whether draft registration should be continued, whether it should be expanded to make women, as well as men register for the draft, whether a draft itself should be started, whether there should be some other kind of Compulsory National Service enacted. That National Commission is just embarking on its work. It’s having its first public hearing this Friday in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and is planning a program of public hearings throughout the country over the next two years before it reports back. It’s also published just this week in the Federal Register, an open call open through April 19th for written submissions from the public as to what you think about, “Should there be a draft? Should there be Compulsory National Service? Should draft registration be expanded to women, or should it be eliminated entirely?”

What we’re seeing is the first real meaningful opportunity for a national debate about the draft in decades.

Eric: That’s really interesting. We are speaking today the week of February 20th, and so you’re saying that the hearing was this Friday, the first one?

Edward: Yeah. The first of these hearings by the National Commission on Military Selective and Voluntary Service is February 23rd, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The commission’s website is Inspiretoserve.gov if you want to get their spin on things, but we’ve got more information and background from our side on it on our website at Resisters.info.

Eric: Yeah. That’s quite a lot to think about, just what this event is going to be like and who is going to be there, and who’s running it. I can’t quite wrap my head around it all.

Edward: To understand why this is happening, you have to go spin back actually quite a long way to the history of the present draft registration. When draft registration resumed in 1980 after a five-year hiatus after Vietnam, when they’re actually, we thought we were done with the draft, it looks like we were growing up after the Vietnam war, but when draft registration was reinstated in 1980, there was a challenge to the fact that it was requiring men, but not women to register.

That went to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court deferred to the military’s judgment that they only wanted men in combat, and they said that there was a rational relationship between the military desire for men for combat and requiring only men to register for the draft, and so it’s continued. Since then, that men are supposed to register, although, we can talk about what actually happened when they were supposed to register, and many of them like me didn’t, but it’s still on the books and it’s still for men. Two years ago, when the final step was taken to open up all military occupational specialties to women, it became patently obvious that the legal argument that it had been used to justify requiring men but not women to register for the draft was no long valid, and there have already been several court cases filed, which are pending in the federal courts, challenging draft registration on that basis.

If Congress does nothing, what’s likely to happen is that the present draft registration will be found to be unconstitutional because it’s unfairly targeting men and subjecting them to something that women aren’t subjected to. Now, of course it’s doing that for sexist reasons. It’s not like this is to protect women. It’s this sick men on the world and on war, but the positive thing would be, if Congress doesn’t act to the courts once they get to these cases, which can take several years, are likely to invalidate the present draft registration, and so that confronted Congress with the choice of either doing nothing and waiting until the courts overturn draft registration, or ending draft registration for everyone, or in order to keep the program going and create a, to make it legitimate, to expand it to require women as well as men to register, and so there was a debate, extensive debate in Congress in 2016, not long before the elections of course as to whether to end draft registration entirely or expand it to women. There were bills introduced for both sides, and there was a lot of actually quite bipartisan maneuvering.

There were some democrats who were supporting expanding draft registration out of some misguided idea that making men and women into warriors was a path to gender justice or because they were afraid of being accused of being peaceniks if they didn’t support the continued preparation for a draft.

Eric: Yeah. I remember an argument from democrats that, “We might have a better debate over what wars to engage in if we brought back the draft”, that having a volunteer military was making it too easy for the country to go to war.

Edward: Imposing this kind of punishment on more people is not the solution. Sure, if you have broader repression. There are people who say, “We want the police to be beating up white people, as well as black people because then, everybody will complain about the police being out of control.” I don’t buy that at all, and historically, the draft has served not to end wars. I mean, the whole point of a draft is to round up enough cannon fodder to fight a war that isn’t popular enough for people to be willing to fight it on their own.

Eric: Yeah.

Edward: I don’t buy that argument at all and I don’t think that was really what was motivating the congressional debate. Interestingly enough, the opposition, much of the opposition to expanding draft registration came from some of the most sexist people in Congress who didn’t want women in the military in the first place because they felt that there’s a relationship between militarism and male sexism and machismo, and they thought that somehow, having women in the military would undermine the fighting power of the military. For those of us who don’t believe in fighting in the first place, maybe that’s a good thing, but what Congress ended up doing was they punted. There was no unity.

Nobody wanted this used against them in the elections. They didn’t really want to have to deal with the issue at all, and so they decided, “We’re going to keep registration the way it is. Let these cases play out in the courts, which will take a few more years, and we will punt this into the next administration by appointing a commission to study the question”, which will give us cover for a couple of years.

Eric: They always get commissions. We always get commissions when it’s time to delay something.

Edward: That’s what happened, and of course, ironically, this commission is supposed to report back in the spring of 2020 by which time, it’ll be just before the next election, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to postpone a decision on this again, but that’s how we got to where we are, was really the outcome of Congress’s evading dealing with the issue, and you can look at that in one sense as Congress not wanting to deal with the question of, “Should we draft women?”, but I think that’s really the wrong question to ask. The real question for Congress and the real thing that Congress has been evading dealing with is acknowledging the draft registration has been a colossal failure, that there’s been massive resistance, and it almost from the start, the level of resistance to draft registration has rendered it unenforceable.

Eric: Edward Hasbrouck, you run the website, Resisters.info, where you’re providing information about Selective Service and the draft, and I want to take this opportunity to get you to straighten something out … There seems to be this contradiction where we don’t have a draft anymore. I myself, when I was 18 years old many years ago registered for Selective Service, and I was not drafted, so why does this contradiction exist where all males of the age of 18 and older have to register, but then, there isn’t necessarily a draft? How do you view that contradiction?

Edward: I don’t see it as a contradiction. As I had mentioned, there was a five-year hiatus after Vietnam, after Vietnam war when nobody was required to register. When it was started up, it was a step toward preparing to have a draft, and I think most people in Congress would say, and in the Pentagon would say, and it’s true, they don’t want a draft. It’s not plan A, but it’s always been plan B, and it’s always been the assumption that if we can’t get enough volunteers, if we get in over our head, if we pick a larger fight than we can pursue, we always have that option in our back pocket that, “If not enough people volunteer, we’re just going to go go to the draft, go to the benches, and dragoon enough people to fight these wars.”

Eric: Yeah. Which is similar to what the country was like prior to 1980?

Edward: Yes, and I think the reason it’s very, very clear and very straightforward, the reason why we only have draft registration, and the reason we don’t have a draft today is that so many people resisted at the point of registration so as to make the draft impossible.

Eric: Speaking of resistance, Edward Hasbrouck, tell me about who you were in 1980 when you were legally required to register for Selective Service?

Edward: I’ve been a college student at the University of Chicago. I was a political activist on issues of youth rights. I was beginning to think more about issues of war, and it really came as quite a shock. I mean, we thought that when I was a teenager, there was no draft. My older brother had to register, but then, it ended, and we thought it was gone for good.

It really hit very strongly when registration started up, and it started up with a mass registration week, when every 20-year old had to go down to the Post Office and register in one week, which of course actually served as a great tool for the Anti-Draft Movement and the Anti-War Movement. It made it possible to mobilize at the Post Offices and have draft counselors in front of the Post Offices, but I knew there was no way I was going to sign a form, saying that I was willing to go kill anybody who the government told me to kill. I will make my own decisions. I happen to be a pacifist, so I wasn’t going to go into any war, but even if I were willing to fight some of them, that’s a choice that I would make, nor do I think that the country should be fighting wars that not enough people are willing to fight. Also, as a young person and as an activist for youth rights, there is no more manifestation of governmental ageism.

More draconian extreme and stark than the fact that only people of certain young ages are subjected to the draft. It’s not everybody who has to be subjected to it. It’s only young people. Why do we put the burden on the young people? Because ageism.

It’s really straight up, and so as a youth activist, this was clear cut to me. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but I think what was interesting and noteworthy even today is that from the start, the numbers and the percentage of people who simply stood aside from draft registration, who didn’t show up at the Post Office at all just stayed home from draft registration, was far greater than the resistance had ever been, even at the peak of resistance to the Vietnam war.

I think that was partly because some time had passed and it wasn’t a normal and taken for granted thing. I think there had been a sea change in public attitudes because of Watergate, and a variety of other things, but the reality was that the level of resistance, even for somebody … I was working with the National Resistance Committee, and eventually was one of the editors of Resistance News, which was the national newspaper, the Resistance, the numbers, when they first began to come in when the first surveys were done of how many people had showed up during those initial mass registration weeks, the numbers of people who had stayed home far exceeded even the most optimistic hopes of the Anti-Draft Movement.

It was apparent from the start that this whole thing was going down the tubes for the government, turning into an embarrassing flop, and so the government, and there had been a change in administrations as this was happening from the Jimmy Carter Administration, which Jimmy Carter brought back registration to the Ronald Reagan Administration, which was prompting an even greater mobilization of the Anti-War Movement. I think that was the last time there was a kind of sense that the President was crazy enough to start a nuclear war that we have today with Trump.

Now, for people my age, that really harkens back to the kind of feeling that Ronald Reagan created. Remember, Ronald Reagan prompted in his nuclear brinkmanship, prompted the largest political demonstration in American history on June 12th, 1982, and more than a million people turned out in Central Park in New York, calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament, because they thought Reagan was a crazy man who could push the button. In the context of all that, the government had to figure out how to respond, and what they decided, and we know this in their own words because some of these documents later came out in the court cases.

What they said, quoting directly from Department of Justice memos to the Attorney General, was that around a well-publicized prosecutions might generate sufficient publicity to salvage the credibility of the program, so it was an over-attempt to round up a few people, make examples of them in the hope that that would scare everybody into registering.

Eric: Yeah.

Edward: It didn’t work. What happened was that the government in the first place had to prove that people … This is still the law. They have to prove that someone knew they were supposed to register for the draft, so in order to prove that, they had to … It’s not enough just to say, “You ought to have known.” … They had to actually give us notice, so the only people they could even consider for prosecution were people who had made public statements or written to the government saying, “We’re not going to register”, and I had done both.

Eric: Yeah.

Edward: There were only those people who were even considered for prosecution, and even then, they had too many of them to deal with, so they left it to local prosecutors to pick out a few people, and they were told, “Go after them in what would be favorable districts.”

Eric: Yeah.

Edward: It’s kind of strange. I was prosecuted in Boston, which was in terms of inflaming the Student Movement, the last place you’d want to look. It seems I was prosecuted against orders from Washington because the local prosecutor there, a guy by the name of Robert Mueller, former Combat Marine Lieutenant, who was then a junior prosecutor.

Eric: Stop.

Edward: The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston really had a thing about draft resisters and decided to go after me. It was actually my case was his first sort of high-profile public trial that got his political ambitions noticed, but that little footnote aside, they picked out a few of the people who had made visible public statements because those were the only people they had the evidence against, and it became clear through those show trials. I mean, they indicted 20 people over a period of a couple years in the mid-1980’s, and most of us were convicted. Most of those who were convicted did end up doing prison time. I spent four and a half months in a federal prison camp, but the more significant thing is that the publicity around those trials called attention A, to the fact that so many people hadn’t registered, that they couldn’t possibly go after most people, B, called attention to the fact that they had to prove that you knew you were supposed to register, so you kept quiet. You were in no danger of prosecution.

By 1987, the Justice Department refused to take any more cases from Selective Service. They said, “This isn’t working. It’s a waste of time and resources, and we’re not going to prosecute anybody anymore.” Now, they didn’t say that publicly. That only came out two years ago when some former government officials talked to a reporter from U.S. News & World Report and reminisced about what had happened, and explained the process that had been going through, but for 30 years, we’ve been in a situation where the Department of Justice itself has concluded that draft registration is unenforceable because of the level of resistance.

The real choice then for Congress is, “Do we admit that popular direct action and mass resistance has prevented us from even considering the possibility of a draft, or do we try somehow to continue to maintain the fiction that if we started giving orders to these people, they’d actually show up?”

The other thing that’s happened along the way, which makes it even more implausible to think that they actually could use this current registration for a draft is that while many people do register either because in some states, many states, although not here in California, many states, it’s linked to getting a driver’s license. Across the country, it’s linked to getting federal student aid, so a lot of people have registered at some point, but you’re liable to the draft until you turn 26.

It will probably come as a surprise to most people listening this to hear that every young man in the country is supposed to report to the Selective Service System their new address every time they move until they turn 26. Nobody does that, so most of the addresses … There hasn’t been an audit of the Selective Service database in decades, but the one time, there was an audit done by the General Accounting Office, they found that the majority of the address were already out of date, so if they did actually try and draft people, most of the draft notices would either get to the Dead Letter Office, or maybe they’d get to people’s old addresses, which would probably be their parents.

How many parents, then they get a draft notice for their son are going to pass it on to them, and how many of them are just going to tear it up? Now, yes, tearing it up is a crime, but that way, there are plenty of parents who would quite willingly choose if it came to that, that they’d put the risk on themselves to go to jail rather than risk having their son be rounded up and thrown into the military, so there’s been abundant evidence for decades.

The Draft Registration Program was effectively a national referendum on whether people were willing to be drafted, and there’s a clear result. We are not willing to be drafted, and that remains true today. The question I think for this National Commission, the question for Congress, the question for the American people is, “When are you going to deal with the implications of the fact that most American young people are not willing to carry out unpopular wars, are not willing to be drafted, have chosen to a desire to take control of their own lives?”

That’s I think the real question that we’re facing here. Whether that will be on the agenda of this National Commission on Selective Service is really up to how people respond, and whether people show up at their hearings, submit written statements, and take control of this national debate that’s now been opened.

Eric: Edward Hasbrouck of Resisters.info. I’m assuming that updates to these events will be listed on your website, Resisters.info, and you laid out what is the best, what we know now about how this process is going to play out with these hearings over the course of what sounds like the spring and summer of 2018. What do you think is going to happen next?

Edward: I spoke today with somebody on the staff of the National Commission on Selective Service. They’re holding a series of open-mic hearings around the country. First one in February 2018 in Harrisburg. Next would be in April in Denver. They’ve said they plan to have a series across the country through 2018.

They’ll then come up with a set of recommendations, and they’ll have a second round of hearings, in which people can actually comment on whatever it is they’re recommending. We don’t know. It’s a very diverse commission. I think they’re not probably thinking in terms of actually looking at whether a draft is possible.

The assumption has been, “Do we want a draft?”, rather than, “Are the people willing to submit?”, because people in power don’t tend to think that their power is limited by the willingness of people they’re ordering around to obey orders, although of course, that is the fundamental lesson of the power of non-violence, the power of resistance, so we don’t know whether they’re thinking in terms of recommending using this as an opportunity to recommend the Compulsory National Service Program, and of course, there’s a contradiction between either when you say compulsory service.

It either means one thing, slavery or you’ve got to separate out compulsory from service, and probably separate out military from service before you can even talk about any positive aspects of service. We don’t know whether this commission may go in the direction of saying, “For the sake of equality, we should make everybody, men and women register for the draft”, or whether they will actually face up to the situation that’s been shoved in their face and say, “Really, it’s not realistic to think about having a draft.” Whether we like it or not, we’ve got abundant evidence in front of us that it’s not going to be possible, that so many people would resist, and there’s a lot of people, even who are signed up who were like, “Yeah, I registered because I had to”, but that doesn’t mean that if they actually said, “Report for bootcamp”, that I’d show up.

Eric: Right.

Edward: These people are really … It’s funny. People who oppose the draft and people who oppose war are often characterized as being naïve and unrealistic. I think the naivety, the unrealism, I would even go so far as to say the self-delusion is on the part of people who don’t really realize that this isn’t the 1940’s or the 1950’s. There’s a whole different political climate.

There’s a whole different attitudinal climate. Young people are more empowered today. There are more possibilities for organizing, and there’s just no way, there’s no way they should have a draft, and military planners should take that off the table and not be counting on that and should rein in their military policies accordingly.

People ask me, “Are you out to stop the draft?” I would say, “Yes, but the real goal is not stopping the draft. The real goal is reining in the military, and the military that doesn’t think they have a blank check is going to be less out of control”, and so taking that off the table, removing the draft as plan B from military scenarios is fundamentally about reining in the military to operate in an at least slightly more constrained way.

Eric: There’s a logic to that to me. Edward Hasbrouck of Resisters.info. Thank you so much for joining us on the Courage to Resist Podcast. I want to ask you in the time that we have left to go back to your historical footnote because Robert Mueller is a pretty larger than life political figure right now in 2018 as we’re speaking here in late February. I’d love to hear more about your impressions of the prosecutor that you encountered there in court back in the early ’80s.

Edward: He had a military bearing. You could tell that he was an ex-Marine. I think his political and ideological zeal is reflected in the fact that even after being in combat in Vietnam, he was an unreconstructed believer in the righteousness of the Vietnam war, which is very scary. He took a very military attitude toward his role as a prosecutor, which is very scary.

He was bringing a case, again, even though the Justice Department had said, “We really only want to pursue these cases in politically sympathetic districts”, and the first prosecutions of non-registrants were in San Diego, which is regarded as a Navy town, and in Virginia, which was regarded as having a very pro-military culture and a likely jury.

He chose to go after this in Boston, and I think that reflects the fact that he has throughout his career a track record of making prosecutorial choices in a very politicized, agenda-driven way. That is no defense of President Trump and the people who Mueller is prosecuting, but I think we really need to be cautious about glorifying him, and certainly, the Robert Mueller that I saw was not the neutral, apolitical person that is being portrayed these days, except in the worst sorts of sense of apolitical of somebody who will do their job, even when they’re ordered to go out on patrol and shoot Viet Cong so that the U.S. can maintain its occupation of Vietnam. He’s not a good guy.

There are not a lot of good guys out there in Washington, but it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, and it’s been for me, over the years, knowing that the FBI Director knew who I was and had a personal animus against me wasn’t comforting. It isn’t comforting now, and if there’s a lesson here fundamentally, it goes back to some of the same things about the draft.

We can’t look to Robert Mueller. We can’t look to government leaders to sort things out amongst ourselves. Our salvation lies in our own actions and direct action from the bottom up, not looking for somebody to ride in on a white horse and take out Donald Trump because it doesn’t work that way, and when you look to people to overthrow somebody who is abusing power, what you get is people who tend to be equally abusive of power in their own position.

Eric: I’m glad I asked that question. I want to ask another one. I want you to tell me … You’re in a very unique position. Can you tell me more about your experience being in a court room with Robert Mueller as the prosecuting attorney for you?

Edward: I wasn’t represented by a lawyer. I went pro se because this was a show trial. It was more about reaching the public. I knew I was going to be convicted, so it wasn’t really about making technical arguments. If I wanted to make technical arguments, I probably could have gotten off.

The one person who made the most technical challenge to their prosecution for refusing to register actually, the conviction was overturned because the jury had not been adequately instructed about the government’s obligation to prove that this person really knew they were supposed to register, even though they were an ant-draft activists, but my dealings with Mueller … You can take this with a grain of salt. I mean, if you talk to people who’ve done time in prison, few of them will say anything good about the prosecutor who handled the case against them.

Eric: Fair enough. You have a biased opinion of Robert Mueller.

Edward: I will say, to Mueller’s credit, he is conspicuously intelligent, and not just in a flashy way. He does his homework. He’s diligent. He’s a good soldier. He’s a very good soldier. I would not want him …

If I were in Trump’s place, he’s the piece that’s true I guess of what I’ve read about Mueller is that he’s the worst nightmare of someone in Donald Trump’s position or Trump’s aids and the other people who were under investigation. As I said earlier, Mueller clearly sees his role as a prosecutor as being a soldier with a different set of weapons, and he is not going to stop in anything. He’s a cold fish. Again, in that context, you don’t usually see much humanism, but even, I spend a lot of time in court rooms as an activist in legal issues and a legal observer at political trials. I rarely seen somebody who let less of their humanism show through in any public interaction than Robert Mueller.

Eric: Wow. Edward Hasbrouck, you were sent to prison for your draft resistance. For how long were you in prison?

Edward: I was in a federal prison camp in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for four and a half months. That was back in the day when there still was some reduction in sentence before they went to the present system where there is no real federal parole and before the sentencing guidelines, which have drastically increased federal sentences.

Eric: What did you do when you were released?

Edward: I went back to what I had been doing. It’s funny. I was originally sentenced, which is ironic when you think about this National Commission on Service. I was originally sentenced to a suspended sentence on condition that I do community service. I told the judge, and I told my probation officer, that the community service I was doing was my work in the Anti-Nuclear and Disarmament Movement.

To her enduring credit, my probation officer testified in front of her boss, in front of Mueller, in front of the judge, that she believed that my anti-war work actually satisfied the conditions the judge had put on me, but the judge said, “I don’t like the political statement that that is making, and therefore, you broke my probation and imposed what it originally had been a six-month suspended sentence”.

When I got out, I went back to activism, moved to San Francisco where I’ve lived ever since in part to take on the editorship of Resistance News, which was the newspaper of the Draft Resistance Movement at the time. Locking people up doesn’t tend to win hearts and minds. It was just one of the lessons here, that by choosing to prosecute the most visible anti-draft activists, the government got across the message that there was safety in keeping quiet, so they silenced the movement. They didn’t make it go away, but they made it invisible. By locking people up like me, they made us into more committed activists for life.

Eric: Thanks again to Edward Hasbrouck for the interview. You can find out more information at Resisters.info. This has been the Courage to Resist Podcast. It’s on the internet at Couragetoresist.org, and on all the podcast platforms where you get your podcasts. If you liked this program and you think other people would benefit from hearing it, go ahead and give us a five-star review on one of those platforms and mention why it was valuable to you.

Thank you so much. Thanks again to Jeff Paterson for helping put this show together. My name is Eric Klein, and thank you for listening.