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Conscientious objector ponders possible draft

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As Yogi Berra put it, it’s “deja vu all over again” for Wayne Yankoff, a middle-aged, salt-and-pepper-haired Vietnam War conscientious objector who served as a counselor to other conscientious objectors during the first Gulf War. Now, Yankoff sees a different Bush leading the country, but the situation in Iraq makes his role the same. Yankoff spoke to an audience about being a conscientious objector and about new draft proposals at UM’s Urey Lecture Hall on April 29.

“I wrestled and played football in Miles City,” Yankoff said, offering his background. “I was headed for the service like my father…I thought conscientious objectors were either gay, disabled, demented or cowards. Then a man I knew came back from ’Nam and I didn’t even know who he was. He could only be angry or sob.”

Seeing this, Yankoff took a closer look at combat roles.

“Fifty-eight thousand some-odd men were killed in Vietnam,” Yankoff said. “Three hundred thousand some-odd committed suicide when they came back,” and it will be the same way for some returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Yankoff said, which is one reason why he has dedicated himself to helping young men and women become conscientious objectors.

“Everyone should serve their country, but not necessarily by fighting,” he said.

Some would say that Yankoff’s talk is premature. In an April 14 editorial on the draft, the Missoulian urged its readers, “Now, don’t get excited,” arguing that a new draft was highly unlikely to start “anytime soon.”

Likewise, the homepage of the Selective Service System (SSS) website includes this disclaimer: “Nothwithstanding recent stories in the news media and on the Internet, Selective Service is not getting ready to conduct a draft for the U.S. Armed Forces—either with a special skills or regular draft. Rather, the Agency remains prepared to manage a draft if and when the President and Congress so direct. This responsibility has been ongoing since 1980 and is nothing new. Further, both the President and the Secretary of Defense have stated on more than one occasion that there is no need for a draft for the War on Terrorism or any likely contingency, such as Iraq. Additionally, the Congress has not acted on any proposed legislation to reinstate a draft. Therefore, Selective Service continues to refine its plans to be prepared as is required by law, and to register young men who are ages 18 through 25.”

But if the Selective Service’s own internal documents don’t outright contradict such a statement, they aren’t exactly reassuring, either. SSS’s Annual Performance Plan for Fiscal Year 2004 indicates significant changes within an agency which has remained relatively static since the end of the Vietnam War. In particular, the difference between the “strategic performance goals” of this year and years past is striking.

Compare a 2003 goal of rewriting the medical conscripts manual to a 2004 goal of testing the “Health Care Personnel Delivery System.” Compare a 2002 goal of maintaining the agency’s readiness plans to the 2003–04 goal of testing the activation process, including the SSS lottery system and the issuance of Armed Forces Examination Orders. Or, compare a 2000 goal of training 90 percent of SSS state directors on readiness procedures to a 2004 goal of ensuring that a viable conscript activation process allows 90 percent of tested personnel to meet activation requirements. And compare a generalized goal from 2001–2003 to improve participation in the SSS High School Registrar Program to a more specific 2004 goal of attaining and appointing an SSS registrar for 85 percent of the nation’s high schools.

Given such changes, some are not buying the SSS claim of “business as usual.”

One such is Rachel Carroll of UM Students for Peace and Justice, who preceded Yankoff’s talk with a PowerPoint presentation on new draft legislation, currently stalled in Congress.

“Twenty-year-olds could be drafted by March of next year,” if the legislation is enacted, Carroll said.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that a new draft is not going to happen. Still, the Selective Service System’s own Register announced that U.S. active volunteer forces are “stretched thin” and a recent poll conducted by the military publication Stars and Stripes found that 49 percent of current servicemembers say they won’t stay in the military once their current obligation is complete.

If those numbers hold up, where will the manpower for Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and other military entanglements come from?

“The wars get fought by [middle to lower-class] fighting machines from—well, Montana is a good place, because we’re a poor state,” Yankoff said.

Not all who may be drafted will serve in a military capacity, however, and Yankoff discussed ways in which individuals—current draft legislation would apply to both men and women—might obtain conscientious objector, or “CO,” status.

There are two types of CO, Yankoff said: One doesn’t believe in any military service, and the other is open to military service but won’t use a weapon. The latter may be assigned a non-combat military role. The former is typically assigned other service work, usually for two years, if he meets CO qualifications. In order to qualify for CO status, according to SSS, “a man’s lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.” Also, the claim can’t be based on “politics, expediency or self-interest.” In other words, if one doesn’t want to serve because he is afraid of getting killed or because he can’t stand George W. Bush, that’s not going to cut it.

It remains to be seen if new draft legislation will go anywhere, but for the time being, Yankoff has urged those considering application for CO status to think ahead. Though his tone was mild rather than alarmist, when one family in the audience—including a mother in tears—brought up their 18-year-old son’s hesitancy to join the preemptive war in Iraq, Yankoff said, “I’d have him write to [SSS] as soon as possible and deliver it with registered mail.”

mike@missoulanews.com

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