“No one who supports war has to go through this level of introspection…No legal or political structure compels people to articulate why you are willing to go to war.”

By Chris Lombardi, CCW Board Member

“I’m against war and empire, period,” Ethan Foote said soon after he sat down with me and CCW staff in June.

That week, the Supreme Court had just decided not to weigh in on the fate of male-only Selective Service System registration, the stated purpose of which is to collect information to be provided to the Department of the Defense in the event of a military draft. Instead the Court punted to Congress on the question of whether draft registration should be expanded to include women or abolished entirely, the latter of which is the option CCW advocates.

Foote was writing for Waging Nonviolence to urge a national campaign for abolition, calling Selective Service  “a form of extortion and an affront to individual rights [and] part of a system destroying human life.” He did so as a Board member of CCW, but also as an individual resister to the system, who decided during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” that he could not in good conscience even have his name on a list of potential draftees.

That decision drew Foote to CCW, which has campaigned to abolish Selective Service for decades, and our Fund for Education and Training (FEAT), which provides some support to those who decide not to register at all and have been denied federal financial aid. Over the 16 years since then Foote has returned that support tenfold as an intern and volunteer at CCW before joining the Board. (We even still use the coffee pot Ethan bought for the office!)  Right now, as Congress considers what to include in this year’s “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act, will it choose Senator Ron Wyden’s Repeal Selective Service Act or Senator Jack Reed’s directive to expand registration to women, thus telling every young person in America to make themselves available for war? As CCW and a coalition of faith and peace groups urge the former, Foote’s Voice of Conscience feels especially important.

So how did this millennial, who wasn’t even born when President Jimmy Carter ordered draft registration resumed in 1980, become such a passionate advocate for abolishing Selective Service? That’s what the three of us wanted to know.

Born in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., which was literally built over a Civil War-era military base, Foote was raised by liberal parents: “My Dad went to a Quaker college!” He vaguely remembers his folks talking about marching against the 1991 Gulf War (which happened when he was just learning to walk), and how afterward the military was sold as a humanitarian organization. But by the time he was a teenager, George W. Bush had been elected and Foote started reading more deeply about U.S. foreign policy.

By 2003, when the U.S invaded Iraq under demonstrably false pretenses, the 16-year-old Foote who joined the marches against that war knew about the U.S. history of invading nations for resources. “People might know the front-page stuff about the war,” he said, “but there was so much more people needed to know…[So] I was imbibing massive amounts of antiwar material.” Meanwhile, getting his driver’s license reminded him about the existence of draft registration: “I could check a box that signified my support of the system.” Foote told his parents he didn’t want to do that; unlike when registration was restarted in 1980, there was this ongoing war, in which thousands of young men and women served as human resources.

As his 18th birthday approached, Foote knew he was in danger of becoming a human resource himself for the U.S. military, his name and contact info handed over to recruiters and registered for a possible military draft. He also knew he wanted to go to college—and unless he registered for the draft, he’d have trouble getting financial aid to do so. That’s when Foote found CCW and FEAT, to which he applied for – and received – a student loan.

He notes now that pro-military teens never have to look hard at the system and declare their beliefs: “No one who supports war has to go through this level of introspection…No legal or political structure compels people to articulate why you are willing to go to war.”

His conviction deepened when Ethan started at Oberlin College and kept learning—about abuse of COs during World War I, and that era’s assault on civil liberties. “War sickens this country,” he said. By then, with the Iraq war at its height, “public discourse was starting to shift” from reflexive post 9/11 support for U.S. interventions—catching up with Foote and others who had shifted long before.

Legal sanctions for non-registrants, which continue to be imposed extra-judicially, without due process, have become more prevalent in recent years, and so has the injustice: “Contesting a parking ticket? You get your day in court. Contesting participation in war? You become a second-class citizen by fiat,” Ethan wrote in Waging Nonviolence.

Taking that stand was life changing. “I was proud that I’d done all this work,” he said. “Of the moral clarity that I had then.” In 2009, for his required Winter Term project at Oberlin, Foote became an intern at CCW just as the Afghan war was ramping up with the US troop surge. It was again life-changing, as CCW’s phones rang steadily from service members questioning their continuing role. Even though Ethan often handed off the calls to more experienced staffers, “realizing you’re talking to someone in the military at that moment [is] window into a world we don’t see.”

“CCW is at the intersection of antiwar theory and real life.” That’s why he came back to CCW a decade later, after establishing his thriving career in music that will soon include a doctorate in composition from Duke University. (If you’ve been to one of our Zoom events, you’ve heard some of the music he writes; check him out in this 2017 performance at the Kennedy Center.) And as the struggle for abolition of Selective Service continues, this 30-year-old remains committed.

What’s his advice to young people facing registration?

“Look into what you’d be getting into. Look at what the institution does with those names. If you feel like you can absorb the consequences maybe you should not register.” Either way, he added, “If you care about these issues, stay involved. Be informed. History is on your side.” What does the other side have to offer? “Centuries of carnage and destruction.”

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