Raising CO Consciousness in Our Youth

Like everyone, we are touched close to home and deep in our hearts by the War on Terrorism. But as Quaker parents of teenage boys from two separate households, we face another dilemma. How do we encourage our sons to ponder their own inner leadings about their personal participation in war? As parents, we raised our children in Quaker environments, specifically to answer to that of God in everyone and to be at peace in the world. Yet, regardless of our influences, our sons must make their own decisions when it comes to participation in war. Our job is to provide them with information and opportunities to think about these issues.

Initiating a discussion about conscientious objection is, in some respects, premature and, in other ways, long overdue. A draft currently does not exist, though Selective Service Registration does. Eighteen-year-old males are required to register, but the form still has no place to request CO status. An official process for declaring oneself a CO, then, is nonexistent at registration time and may only come into effect if and when a draft is initiated, at the time of an induction notice, or when someone is already in the military. Of course, this does not lessen the need to prepare ahead of time. A young man’s views on participation in war do not just crystallize. They are nurtured over time through his
family and community, often well past his 18th birthday.

Preparing Ahead

Beyond our roles as parents, we also are present and past clerks of our meeting’s Youth Religious Education (YRE) Committee. From this perspective, we wondered how we could guide all our teens, male and female alike, to study, discuss, and seek the guidance of their own Inner Light on the question of conscientious objection. But first we had to get their attention. They may be focused on socializing with peers, playing sports, learning to drive, going to the mall, playing the latest video game, or attempting to talk their parents into granting more freedom or fewer chores. The world beyond home and school, so full of angst and danger for us parents, is just rising over the horizon for many of them. They are rightly bursting with boundless energy and may have little awareness of their vulnerability.

Our meeting is blessed with an active high school class of over 20 teens. Their Nurturing Committee, under YRE guidance, plans First-day school programs. Out of concern for the growing war fever in the country, YRE created a subcommittee to endorse programs about conscientious objection. To date, we have had a number that were well received. Chuck Fager, director of Quaker House, is just down the road in Fayetteville, N.C. Quaker House is the Quaker witness in the shadow of Fort Bragg that counsels soldiers who seek help to find a different path from the one the Army has laid out for them.

Chuck has done considerable research on the history of the Peace Testimony and offered a workshop at the 2002 Friends General Conference Gathering. We invited Chuck to give our meeting a one-day version of his workshop in September and meet with teens during First-day school. The condensed history of the Peace Test-imony he presented to them also included questions from a 1968 vintage Selective Service application for CO status.

In October, a panel of adults who had in the past chosen to become COs told their stories to the high school class. We had someone from the Korean War era, Vietnam era, and in between. One adult Friend, who joined the National Guard in the early 1960s, described the sergeant in boot camp telling recruits: "Forget everything you learned in Sunday school—I’m going to teach you to kill!" In addition, the teens were given a handout with details about registering for Selective Service and how one might declare oneself to be a conscientious objector.

In November, we had a follow-up program where the questions from the 1968 CO application form were discussed in small groups. Questions from the old form were:

  1. "Describe the nature of your belief which is the basis of your claim and state why you consider it to be based on religious training and belief."
  2. "Explain how, when and from whom or from what source you received the religious training and acquired the religious belief which is the basis of your claim."

One individual from each small group then came before a mock draft board (made up of the adult COs) to face challenging questions such as:

  • "Why should we grant you CO status?"
  • "Don’t you any have duty at all to your nation?"
  • "How do you explain all the wars in the Old Testament?"
  • "If someone were about to kill your mother or father, would you attempt to stop them, even if it meant killing them first?"

As each young person responded to the mock draft board’s questions, sometimes with impressive articulation, their companions watched with rapt attention.

An all-day field trip to Quaker House took place in November. We visited military museums, and then discussed the experience over pizza with a soldier from Ft. Bragg who was receiving guidance from Quaker House. This was followed by a visit to Ft. Bragg itself and by an end of day wrap-up discussion. Chuck advised us as we toured the museums to look for casualty descriptions and statistics. To no one’s surprise, few were found. We also viewed a display at Quaker House that presents images and documents from the GI resistance movement at Ft. Bragg during the Vietnam War. The following First-day school class shared the high points of the trip. The teens were impressed that the soldier was just a few years older than themselves. He joined the Army primarily for the college money, getting good exercise along the way, and had not really thought about what joining the Army could mean to him in terms of facing the call to fight and kill in combat.

A session composing potential letters to draft boards came next. We have included the young women as equals in these activities, knowing that, should a draft be reinstated, women would most likely also be drafted.

In January, a forum for the meeting as a whole had adults in small groups answer the same questions about their beliefs with teens playing the part of the draft board. Eight teens turned out. While the adults prepared their answers, the teens huddled up to toughen their questions. An individual adult from each small group took the hot seat to answer questions from the teen draft board. The teens did not go easy on them. The adults renewed their appreciation for the difficulty and complexity of answering these deeply personal, faith-based questions and developed empathy for the challenges that face an 18-year-old. The participating teens gained the opportunity to hear adults express their beliefs about the Peace Testimony and their own experience of God.

The YRE Committee keeps track of young men approaching their 18th birthday. Whether or not they are currently active attenders of our high school class, we send them a letter with information about Selective Service Registration and offer support and guidance if they want to consider applying for conscientious objector status. As we have six such young men this year, we invited them to special get-together with pizza. This became like a clearness committee for personal discernment, giving them further guidance and the opportunity to discuss specific aspects of their decision. The pizza helped!

The Material to Cover

The information that we share with our youth has been pooled from several sources, including Quaker House (see www.quakerhouse.org), the Center for Conscience and War (formerly NISBCO), and Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO).

When presenting information on conscientious objection, we start with some words of caution and interpretation. To begin, the United States government currently has no draft, but we have a Selective Service System, the step before the draft. The information we present, then, is based upon past experience and law, as well as proposed legislation. They are unofficial; there is no official procedure in place for CO claims when registering with Selective Service.

Under Selective Service, all men must register within 30 days of their 18th birthday. Failure to register is a felony, with a fine up to $250,000 and five years jail. Registration is also tied to college federal student aid, citizenship if not natural born, federal job training, and employment in certain federal jobs. In some states, it is also linked with auto registration and renewal, veterans’ dependent benefits, state employment, state educational assistance, and enrollment in state colleges.

Secondly, we do not advocate that 18-year-olds prepare to make claims as COs simply to get out of military service. A CO claim is based upon "deeply held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs." This is a First Amendment right. Also, it is "against participation in all war," not just "selective" wars; so it is also a statement of personal conviction, not of public policy. On the other hand, few 18-year-olds can fully articulate their CO convictions. For most, it is a leading in its early stages and one that we, as a community, can help them nurture.

Lastly, while we shun violence, we hold in the Light those young men and women who serve in our military. While we oppose war, we honor their decisions to participate as they are led.

In a State of Emergency, a draft can be instituted fast—compare how quickly the USA-Patriot Act moved through Congress. Should Congress pass a draft, however, implementation would more likely take about 180 days. Twenty-year-olds would go first. An induction notice could give someone as little as nine days to declare a CO status officially. So, if considering a CO status, young Friends should prepare ahead of time. Here are the steps we recommend:

Steps for the 18-Year-Old Registrant to Consider:

  1. Before your 18th birthday, start a record showing your beliefs, convictions, and/or religious training. Examples include: attendance and participation in meeting, upbringing in a Quaker household, absence of violent actions in school or community, participation in nonviolent activities, testimonies from others, influential readings or persons, etc.
  2. Write a letter to the meeting declaring your intent to register for the Selective Service System as a CO. This letter is both a request to the meeting for its support and a legal document declaring your CO conviction. The letter should state: a) that you are conscientiously opposed to participation in war of any form, b) that it is based on moral, ethical, and/or religious beliefs, and c) that these beliefs are deeply held.
  3. Pick up a Selective Service System Registration Form from the Post Office. Do not register online or by phone, since it will not allow you to add anything manually. After filling out the form in the appropriate boxes, write in a blank area in the middle of the form, "I am a conscientious objector." Sign and date your statement as well as the one in the box on the form. Do not write in the margins because they are cut off when Selective Service microfiches your form.
  4. Before sending the form, get witness signatures on the form from two members of the meeting, preferably from the ministry and counsel committee (or similar). Have them write, for example, "I, [name], trustee for the [name] Monthly Friends Meeting, witness [your name]’s conviction as a CO." Sign, date, and consider notarizing. Again, don’t have these signatures in the margins of the form.
  5. Begin collecting letters of support from friends, neighbors, teachers, or others who know about your convictions. These will help demonstrate that your claim is deeply held. A convincing letter may come from someone who disagrees with you, but who can vouch that your beliefs are sincere.
  6. Make copies and keep in safe locations. Store one copy at the meeting with its other secure documents. Send copies to CCCO, 1515 Cherry St., Philadelphia, PA 19102, and the Center for Conscience and War, formerly NISBCO, 1830 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009. Keep your own materials in a file and regularly update with new documentation.
  7. Finally, send the form to the Selective Service System as required, but send it certified mail, return receipt requested. In addition, photocopy it, trifold it, and mail the copy to yourself to establish a postmarked paper trail.
  8. The acknowledgment form sent back from Selective Service will include a change-of-information form. Write on this form that the "registration acknowledgment" did not reflect a status as CO and should be noted as such. Again, send this form by certified mail, return receipt requested. And send a copy trifolded to yourself as above.

Steps for the Meeting to Consider:

  1. Prepare and nurture all your youth. The meeting should actively prepare and nurture its Young Friends in Quaker ways, especially in the Peace Testimony, nonviolent conflict resolution, and the value of all human life. This is done, of course, both programmatically (as in First-day school, retreats, etc.) but also through personal interactions with children and with each other.
  2. Document how the meeting upholds the Peace Testimony. What peace programs does it fund? How does it nurture nonviolence in its youth First-day schools? In what ways are individual members witnesses to peace? What adult forums address this topic? Are any members of the meeting COs from prior times and have they shared their experiences with the youth? Do you support parents and guardians as they nurture loving and peaceful environments to raise their children?
  3. Meet with the candidate during a monthly meeting for business. Listen to his statement of belief and support the candidate in his conviction. Provide, if requested, a clearness committee to help any candidate with both logistics and an opportunity to explore internal questions of conscience.
  4. As witness, document the meeting’s response to the CO’s declaration. Write a minute recording the meeting’s support. Consider publishing in the meeting’s newsletter. Ensure the candidate that the meeting’s support is ongoing.
  5. Keep copies of the registrant’s Selective Service form, his request to the meeting for its endorsement, the minutes of the meeting, and other supporting evidence in a secure place, such as a lock box or safe.

We hope by sharing what we are doing with our own youth, we can inspire other meetings to create their own programs for their youth. We welcome dialogue with those from other meetings, so feel free to contact us. Detailed lessons are forthcoming on Friends General Conference’s Religious Education website (www.FGCQuaker.org). Our young people are a precious resource. They deserve the opportunity to consider how to live the Peace Testimony in these perilous times as they feel led to do so.