Commentary

Time to Dismantle the Selective Service System

By Aaron Steelman
March 19, 1997

President Clinton’s mythical bridge is supposed to take us to the 21st century, but his 1998 budget request of $24 million for the Selective Service System leads one to believe that the real destination may be 1958. After all, why continue to fund a program that was designed for a Cold War world now that the Soviet Union no longer exists and communism is dwindling across the globe?

To answer that query, proponents of draft registration employ two sets of arguments — what we may call the practical and the political. On the practical side, they say that registration is a low-cost insurance policy against future possible threats. In other words, by keeping the SSS intact, the United States is sure to have an adequate number of soldiers should a conflict break out. The problems with that argument are abundantly clear.

In the first place, given the current state of the world, it is nearly impossible to concoct a military scenario that would require the creation of a huge conscript army. Even the largest American military operation of the past 20 years — the Gulf War — was carried out swiftly and successfully without the aid of draftees.

But, for argument’s sake, what if another, larger conflict were to arise? Would the United States be able to defend itself without draft registration? The presence of America’s reserves, which bolster total military personnel to nearly 4 million, makes that little more than a rhetorical question. According to the Congressional Research Service, a “requirement for major increases in combat forces could be met much more quickly by activating more reserves than by instituting a draft. A draft would not provide the trained officers and non-commissioned officers to man effective units; it would only turn out freshly trained junior enlisted recruits.”

On the political side, President Clinton has argued that as “fewer and fewer members of our society have direct military experience, it is increasingly important to maintain the link between the All-Volunteer Force and our society at large.” But keeping draft registration intact does not do that, as millions of American men know from their own personal experience.

Most 17-year-olds receive their draft cards as they are planning to go off to college. They sign them like they sign the dozens of forms they must return to their future alma maters — with some annoyance but little thought. And unless they go through ROTC during the next four years, it is likely that the military will not enter their minds for years to come. Draft registration does nothing to link the civil population to those in uniform.

Another related argument is that registering for the draft represents a duty to one’s country. Columnist Doug Bandow has pointed out the folly of that contention: “The highest form of service is rendered by those who serve voluntarily, not those who are forced, under pain of fine or imprisonment, to fill out a Selective Service card. There is no higher calling than voluntarily defending one’s family, neighborhood, and community. Signing up for an outdated list is another matter entirely.”

As Congress and the president attempt to bring the budget into balance, they should hold the Selective Service System up to serious scrutiny. Like the Tennessee Valley Authority and numerous other programs that remain in the budget, it is a relic of a different time and a different world.

Aaron Steelman is a staff writer at the Cato Institute.