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Pacifists prepare for possibility of draft. (World).

President Bush has assured the nation that no military draft is being considered, but conscientious objectors are taking no chances.

In a session some might think of as a flashback to Vietnam War-era activities, the Center on Conscience & War held a draft counselor training seminar here Sept. 30 in the Methodist Building, just across the street from the U.S. Capitol. A small group of mainly church-affiliated counselors attended.

The center, formerly the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors, was founded in 1940 by a coalition of religious organizations in response to the poor treatment of conscientious objectors during World War I and in anticipation of U.S. involvement in the war in Europe. They were "pariah," said J.E. McNeil, executive director of the center, which now promotes conscientious objector rights and protects individual conscientious objectors.

The four-hour training session was prompted, McNeil said, by "the ceaseless ringing" of the center's telephone since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But for the center, "this is business as usual. Like the military, conscientious objectors have to be prepared well in advance of an armed conflict." Prior to Sept. 11 the center's main job has been handling some 2,000 calls and hundreds of e-mails a month from men and women trying to get out of the military. Many members of the military who call tell counselors they joined under the Defense Department's Delayed Enlistment Program, part of a marketing campaign that promises college tuition and other perks to teenagers and has an annual price tag of $24 million.

"Just because there's this crisis, the peace movement and my organization are not doing anything different than we've been doing for the last 20 years, or the last 60 years," said McNeil. "What we've always done and will continue to do is try to make a world where war is not considered necessary."

These days, however, the group's training sessions are spurred on, in part, by the five-to-10-year conflict the president has projected. A protracted ground war in Afghanistan would mean a thinning of the military ranks, McNeil said. That in turn would cause a drop in patriotic fervor and thus in volunteers for the armed forces. "Add in the possibility of a second major action, say the Chinese invade Taiwan or want to take over more of the Asian part of Russia, and there is further need to fill the ranks," McNeil said. To her, the Sept. 11 attacks marked the first step toward such actions -- and toward a draft, she said.

"I'm not saying either of those will definitely happen, but it would be foolish of us not to be prepared," said McNeil. "The military says they always have to be ready if there's an invasion or a war. We have to be prepared as well, to respond in a reasonable measure."

At the Sunday training session, McNeil and the center's counseling coordinator, Bill Galvin, explained the intricacies of the Pentagon's two separate draft policies. The counselors will then explain them to young people who face recruitment, and to those faced with required selective service registration, wartime or not.

The concern today, said Galvin, is that the government's emergency draft plan gives conscientious objectors a miniscule window of opportunity -- about 10 days -- to claim their status before they are shipped off to boot camp. The key for conscientious objectors, he said, is to create an information packet far in advance of recruitment, a personal history of their moral objection to war. This should include a photocopy of their selective service postcard (complete with an anti-war comment written above the required personal data); proof of registration with a church, and support letters from parents, teachers or clergy.

Pacifism has taken a few knocks since Sept. 11, said McNeil. She cited an "incredible but not surprising" Sept. 25 Washington Post op-ed article in which Michael Kelly concludes that American pacifists are "objectively pro-terrorist" and "evil."

Such criticisms are not new. Conscientious objectors were imprisoned during World War I and interned in work camps in WWII. They are often beaten, spat on and labeled communists "or whatever current curse their detractors think is appropriate," said McNeil. The military is more accommodating to conscientious objectors today, but the center regularly gets calls from an Army recruiter who berates the group as evil and threatens violence.

"I spend a lot of time explaining to people that I know what I'm asking is tough," said McNeil. "War is a lot easier than what we are suggesting." She uses parenting as a comparison: It's a lot easier to spank children than to teach them right from wrong. But physical punishment fails in the long run, she said.

"Many of my constituents' beliefs are exclusively faith-based, in the sense that God said it, they believe it and that settles it. I share that view, but I also think that war doesn't work," she said. "People say pacifism doesn't work, either, but we haven't really given it a long-term try, have we?

"It's clear to me that we've been dealing with terrorism by trying to blow up whoever we think is a terrorist. And all we get are bigger, better and more effective terrorists," said McNeil. "It took centuries to get here. Hopefully it won't take centuries to learn war isn't an effective tool."

McNeil understands the risk of pacifist statements at times of national crisis. She has heard recent horror stories of arrest, harassment and beatings of those who have stood up to speak their conscience. "But if I'm not willing to stand up for what I believe in," she said, "I'm a poorer person."

Or as Galvin puts it, relating an ironic comment he's heard often of late: "The way some people are talking, you'd think Jesus was a pacifist."

Ian Jones is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.
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Title Annotation:Center on Conscience and War, United States
Author:Jones, Ian
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 19, 2001
Words:973
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