Thousands of US youths looking into conscientious objector status

No war has been declared; no local draft boards are set up; there has not even been a call for the draft. Yet, already, the number of young Americans seeking conscientious objector (CO) status appears to surpass the thousands who, legally or illegally, opted out of the Vietnam war.

National peace groups report that since President Jimmy Carter's Jan. 23 call for selective service registration, their telephone lines have been jammed and their desks piled with stacks of letters from thousands of young men and women -- and from concerned parents as well -- who want to know how to become conscientious objectors.

"I've been working against the draft since 1940," says Jim Bristol, director of the antidraft program for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), "and I have literally never known anything like the torrent of phone calls, letters, and requests to talk to groups we've had since the President gave his State of the Union address -- not even during the Vietnam war."

The government does not even consider granting a person CO status until after he has first registered and is then called before a local selective service board to be classified for military service. And although Mr. Carter has asked for $2 million in 1981 to begin training local draft boards, he has repeatedly said he does not intend to reinstate a peacetime draft.

Still, groups like AFSC and the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) in Philadelphia are encouraging would-be COs to begin now to file short statements outlining their pacifist beliefs with local church groups or peace organizations. Such documents, they say, help establish the "sincerity" of a person's convictions.

Already, CCCO estimates it has distributed some 50,000 such cards, which are being filled out and returned at the rate of 350 a day -- with women accounting for one-third of the responses. Since the President's Jan. 23 speech, a spokesman said, the organization has received 25,000 calls and letters.

The National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO), which provides a longer, essay-type questionnaire, has sent out 30,000 forms and expects to have distributed another 40,000 documents by the end of March.

"When and if classification is resumed," says Shawn Perry, the board's associate director, "this document serves as a record of the history of a person's beliefs. It goes a long way to convince a local board that you're sincere and that you've taken steps to prove it long before you receive your induction notice."

Peace groups agree the current "avalanche" of interest marks the greatest "groundswell of opposition to the draft ever," as one spokesman said. They cite a number of factors for this outpouring, including the manner in which Mr. Carter moved to reinstate draft registration.

By announcing his intentions so publicly in his State of the Union address, pacifist organizers say, the President grabbed the nation's attention and gave an official air of finality to the issue of registration.

In contrast, says AFSC's Mr. Bristol, antidraft workers had to "stir people up to get them to see what was happening" when Congress quietly considered reinstating the draft last summer.

Also, the public's memories of the Vietnam war -- and of the numbers of young people who sought CO status or dodged the draft -- remain vivid. Peace groups say Vietnam brought a wider public acceptance for COs -- that now Americans generally are more questioning of the government's judgment and less willing to go to war.

A CO classification, however, is not easy to obtain. An individual must have "deeply held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs" that would not allow him or her to participate in war for any reason. The individual must explain to a local draft board how those beliefs were acquired and what he or she is doing in daily life to demonstrate the "sincerity" of those convictions.

National Selective Service Board statistics make it difficult to pinpoint CO figures for the Vietnam war. But NISBCO estimates that of the 740,000 draft registrants called between 1970 and 1972, about half applied for CO status. Of that 370,000 only about 74,000, or 20 percent, were classified as COs.

It does not appear likely that the government will relax its standards. Warns Betty Alexander, a records officer for the US Selective Service Board, "As long as people don't think sending in a CO card registers them with the selective service or exempts them from registering . . . then it isn't a bad idea. It can't hurt anything.

"But whether it would help later on, I don't know," she says. "Back before the State of the Union address, it would have made a lot more sense. A lot of people are hitting the panic button now."

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