Unrepentant Resister:
Looking Back 20 Years to my Draft Resistance Trial

by Andy Mager

Twenty years ago, as a nervous 23 year-old, I stood before a Federal Court jury in Syracuse explaining my refusal to register for the draft. My spirits were buoyed by the hundreds of activists who had demonstrated outside the courthouse despite breath-freezing weather and were overflowing the courtroom.

No one was being drafted, but young men were required to register with Selective Service to provide lists of potential draftees if Congress reimposed the draft. This system was initiated in 1980 as part of President Carter’s reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of US hostages in Iran. I was singled out for prosecution because of my public resistance and related activist work.

Representing myself in court, I worked hard to explain to the jury why I had refused to register and why I believed my refusal was justified on moral and legal grounds.

Following a two and a half day trial, I was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison – 30 months of which were immediately suspended. This left a sentence of six months in prison followed by 30 months on probation. (The sentence was calculated to reduce my anti-war activism: violating probation could lead to the additional two and a half years in prison.) The support of the draft resistance movement, locally and nationally, lightened the burden of my sentence.

I often say that I learned as much during my “semester” of prison as during three semesters of university. There were a few frightening and trying moments, but nothing like what you see in the movies. Coming from an upper middle class, educated family, prison (even the mild federal minimum security variety) exposed me to parts of our society which I hadn’t experienced first hand. It was, for me, time well spent.

A New Draft?
Today, as the war in Iraq maims and kills many thousands of US soldiers and Iraqis, a new draft is more likely than at anytime since 1973. The US military is over-extended. The signs include long-term deployment of “weekend warriors” (reservists and national guard soldiers), stop loss orders and extended tours of duty. Those killed or maimed (underreported by the Pentagon) add to the shortfall, as do unmet recruiting goals.

The Bush administration will increase military personnel in Iraq unless the peace movement compels it to admit failure in Iraq and withdraw US troops. It needs more soldiers for a long-term military presence in Iraq, yet it knows that a draft will accelerate resistance to its war. To overcome this concern, if a draft is imposed, it will likely follow a contrived “national emergency,” and the White House — as it did after 9/11 — will seize every opportunity to bang the drums of patriotism.

Young people may hold the key to putting the brakes on the ongoing military aggression in Iraq.
We don’t need to wait for a draft to hear their voices. Passionate, articulate and conscientious young people are already resisting this war from within the military. (See accompanying article, page 18.)

Resistance Loves Company
During the early and mid 1980s, youth anti-militarism work in Syracuse was led by Upstate Resistance (UR), a small group affiliated with the Peace Council. The relationship between the focussed UR group (which included an SPC staffperson and other SPC activists) and the larger broader Peace Council was synergistic, with a couple of rough spots regarding tactics.. Born out of the “Organizing to Stop the Next War” conference in 1981, Upstate Resistance was a regional network committed to individual and collective resistance to war.

Upstate Resistance was already active when I moved to Syracuse in late 1981, only several months after my decision to “go public” with my refusal to register. That decision was inspired by meeting fellow war resisters of my generation as well as resisters from the Viet Nam era, Korea and World War II at a War Resisters League national conference.

While the public and the media frame war resistance in terms of “heroic individuals,” organizations and movements play a critical role in enabling that resistance and transforming it from isolated acts into meaningful political action. Upstate Resistance played that role masterfully through strong local and regional organizing. Its excellent mainstream media work resulted in scores of newspaper articles, including feature articles in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, New York City, Long Island and Philadelphia. Local television and radio coverage was also extensive and much of it respectfully conveyed our key messages. In our media work we insisted on group photos and interviews with other activists besides me, a stand which sometimes put us at odds with even “friendly” reporters.

One tactic which Upstate Resistance adopted from earlier struggles was the use of “complicity statements.” These statements invite people who aren’t subject to draft registration (or a possible draft) to openly state their willingness to “support, aid and abet” those who violate the law for reasons of conscience. While people have rarely been prosecuted for signing such statements, they demonstrate the existence of a broader movement. Such statements also encourage those not directly affected to engage in the same soul searching which we’re asking of young people.
At my sentencing Cornell student Brett Beeman spoke out about his decision to publicly resist registration, a sign that the efforts to “grow the movement” were succeeding.

Lessons to be Learned
As one of only 20 young men prosecuted for refusing to register since 1980, I was part of the tip of the iceberg of youthful resistance to war planning. During the 1980s draft resistance movement, we spoke about the need for resisting from the very beginning in order to prevent a draft and the war-making it would enable. With the advent of counter-insurgency warfare and high tech weaponry, large numbers of soldiers seemed less “necessary,” but we’ll never know whether our resistance helped prevent additional wars. We do know that there have been no prosecutions of draft registration resisters in over 15 years.

My life was transformed by grappling head on with the question of participating in war. I believe that this issue can likewise help today’s youth shape their life choices in a violent and unjust world. That’s why I’m so pleased to see the growth of youth anti-militarism again here in Central New York (see page 3).

Today, while Selective Service claims high compliance rates, it has accurate addresses for perhaps half of those registered; many registrations result, not from compliance, but from drivers license applications or other rites of passage for young men. Selective Service knows that if it were dependent on true cooperation, compliance would be low enough to threaten the system’s credibility.

We must challenge educators, faith communities and others dealing with moral and ethical issues to encourage young people to wrestle with their beliefs and ideas about these life and death issues. A good place to start is the question: “Should you travel to distant lands and kill people with whom you’ve had no direct contact?”

I remain proud of the stance I took over 20 years ago, and of the anti-war organizing by groups like SPC and Upstate Resistance. My war resistance continues as an activist and organizer as well as through refusing to pay federal war taxes. While I’ve always worked to make my actions politically effective, one never knows what their ripple effects will be. I do know that in the years to come I’ll be able to tell my young son that I stand up for what I believe. And I’ll be able to encourage him to do so as he charts his own life path.

Among other duties at the Syracuse Peace Council, Andy coordinates the Peace Newsletter. His book about his draft resistance experience, “Fighting the Flow: A War Resister in the Reagan Era,” remains unpublished. See [www.magers.info/draft] for more information.