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Wachtell Publishes Article in Tikkun

Dr. Cynthia Watchtell, research associate professor of American studies and director of the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program at Stern College for Women, published an article in Tikkun titled “Conscientious Objectors and Draft Registration: A Timely Lesson from WWI.” Through the biography of her paternal grandfather, Benjamin Wachtell, who was drafted into the United States Army during World War I, she examined the subjects of military conscription and conscientious objection. Conscientious objectors refuse, based on “religious or other conscientious scruples,” to participate in a war, either by not serving as a combat soldier (though willing to do noncombat service) or taking an “absolutist” position and completely refusing to serve in the military at all.

Unknown to many people, registering for the military is still required of American men between the ages and 18 and 25, with severe penalties for not complying: a fine of up to $250,000 or a prison term of up to five years, or a combination of both.

In the article, Wachtell linked today’s mandatory draft registration, which makes no accommodation for conscientious objectors, with the drafting of conscientious objectors during World War I. “Both a hundred years ago and today, conscientious objectors have been severely punished and penalized for their beliefs,” she pointed out, citing such brutalities as being beaten, stabbed, and subjected to what was euphemistically labeled the “water cure.” Seventeen “absolutists,” who refused to serve in a noncombatant capacity or as furloughed farm laborers, were sentenced to death, though the sentences were never carried out.

Wachtell noted that “World War I teaches us that conscientious objectors, including absolutists, must be allowed to honor their convictions without the fear of punishment or reprisal.” Currently, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service is convening meetings nationwide on finding ways to get more Americans—particularly young people—to serve, “and the commission needs to hear that we must provide young men an acceptable option to register as conscientious objectors.”