Conscientious Objectors and Draft Registration: A Timely Lesson from WWI

by Cynthia Wachtell

One hundred years ago my paternal grandfather, Benjamin Wachtell, was conscripted into the United States Army during World War I.  He was a conscientious objector, but there had been no way for him to signal this on his required draft registration card.  So, when he faced his draft board, he stated, “If you put a gun in my hands, I will shoot myself before I shoot another man.”


Today, there still is no way for conscientious objectors to declare their convictions in the compulsory draft registration process, and that needs to change.  We are needlessly punishing conscientious objectors, and there is a simple fix. The lessons from WWI teach us that we must offer men with “religious or other conscientious scruples” a non-punitive way to opt out.


Although the United States has not had a draft in over forty-five years, American men ages 18 to 25 are required to register for conscription.  The potential consequence of non-compliance are spelled out in stark terms on the Selective Service System’s website. “Failing to register or comply with the Military Selective Service Act is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 or a prison term of up to five years, or a combination of both.”  (However, no one has been prosecuted for this crime since 1986, although the national registration rate is only 89%.)


There are other serious and lifelong ramifications for conscientious objectors and others who do not register.  Twenty-six states require registration to receive a driver’s license, and twenty-one states require it to be a state employee.  Registration is also required to be eligible for federal job training and for jobs in the executive branch of the federal government and the U.S. Postal Service.  


Additionally, in the area of higher education, registration is required by twenty-nine states to be eligible for state financial aid, and in eleven states it is required even to enroll in a state school.  Similarly, it is required to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the gateway to all federal student loans and grant programs.  


This leaves conscientious objectors, opposed to registering for conscription, in an untenable position.  They must either violate their convictions or commit a felony and forgo rights and benefits enjoyed by the rest of society.  


The problem lies with the registration process.  The online draft registration form offers twenty-four options for answering the question: How did you first learn about registration?  (Included are: Facebook, financial aid officer, and federal prison staff.)  But the form offers no place to register one’s convictions.  The Selective Service System’s website explains, “Men who are religiously or morally opposed to participating in war as a conscientious objector must still register with the Selective Service System.  There is no classification for conscientious objection until Congress and the President vote for a return to conscription.”  


History offers a meaningful lesson about why this must change.  When America entered World War I, my grandfather was twenty-three years old, living in a YMCA in Brooklyn, and working as a bookstore clerk.  As a healthy, single man with no dependents, who could make no recognized claim for an exemption, he was considered by his draft board as Class 1: “Eligible and liable for military service.”  In April 1918 he was drafted.


Fortunately for him, the military had recently instituted new accommodations for conscientious objectors.  In a confidential order in December 1917 the Secretary of War had directed that “’personal scruples against war’ should be considered as constituting ‘conscientious objections.’”  Then in March 1918 the category of conscientious objectors was publicly expanded to include “religious or other conscientious scruples.”  That same month President Wilson issued an executive order stipulating that those “who object to participating in war because of conscientious scruples . . . will be assigned to noncombatant duty” in the medical corps, or elsewhere. 


My grandfather agreed to serve in a noncombatant capacity and was assigned to a military hospital in Georgia, where he remained from May 1918 until he was honorably discharged in February 1919.  Other conscientious objectors fared far worse.  Four hundred and fifty absolutists – those who refused to serve in a noncombatant capacity or as furloughed farm laborers – were court-martialed, sentenced, and imprisoned.  Of them, 142 received life-sentences and 17 were sentenced to death.


None of these draconian sentences was ultimately carried out.  However, in military camps and federal prisons, absolutists were tortured, and at least seventeen of them died.  At Alcatraz, for example, conscientious objectors were forced into cages twenty-three inches wide and twelve inches deep.  Elsewhere, they were brutally beaten, stabbed, and subjected to what was euphemistically labeled the “water cure.”  Tellingly, a chapter in Norman Thomas’ 1923 book The Conscientious Objector in America is simply titled “Brutalities.”


World War I teaches us that conscientious objectors, including absolutists, must be allowed to honor their convictions without the fear of punishment or reprisal.  Currently, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service is convening meetings nationwide to “gather input, ideas, and recommendations from the American public on ways to encourage and inspire more Americans—particularly young people—to serve their country and strengthen American democracy.”  The commission needs to hear that we must provide young men an acceptable option to register as conscientious objectors. 



Cynthia Wachtell, a research associate professor of American studies at Yeshiva University, is author of War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 and editor of The Backwash of War: An Extraordinary American Nurse in World War I (forthcoming).


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