Commentary

Time to Kill Draft Registration

The Cold War has been over for a decade, but you wouldn’t know it after looking at U.S. security policy. Spending on the military is rising; all 18-year-old men must register for the draft.

However, a House appropriations subcommittee has voted to kill the Selective Service System, along with registration. The issue goes to the full committee this week for its approval, and then to a conference committee with the Senate. Congress should defund the agency.

Registration never made sense. President Jimmy Carter reinstituted the draft sign-up to show the Soviets that he was tough. President Ronald Reagan promised to kill the program, but flip-flopped after the Soviet-inspired crackdown in Poland.

Even then, however, Moscow could tell the difference between a serious military and an outdated list of untrained 18-year- olds. Today the U.S. stands astride the globe as a military colossus. The prospect of a clash of mass armies, a la NATO versus the Warsaw Pact, is but a paranoid fantasy.

No one—outside, perhaps, of Selective Service—now believes registration is necessary. Six years ago the Congressional Research Service concluded that a major military build-up could be “much more quickly” achieved “by activating more reserves than by instituting a draft.”

The Department of Defense, too, dismisses the value of Selective Service’s list-making. Observed the Pentagon: “registration could be suspended with no effect on military mobilization requirements, little effect on the time it would take to mobilize, and no measurable effect on military recruitment.”

Indeed, DOD could come to no other conclusion. For years the Pentagon wanted the first inductee to show up within 13 days of mobilization. Thus, Selective Service said it had to have a list for instance use.

But with the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon now says it doesn’t need the first draftee until six months plus 13 days. Which eliminates any plausible case for registration.

Indeed, without any advanced sign-up, Selective Service delivered the first conscript in less than two and a half months in 1917 and just two months in 1940. After six decades of improvements in communication, data processing, and transportation, the agency could do significantly better today.

Before President Carter decided to impose registration, Selective Service said it could deliver the first draftee within 17 days. The agency’s estimate during the Reagan administration, when officials were working overtime to sell registration as absolutely essential, was just a month.

But arguing over days or even weeks is a waste of time. The Pentagon acknowledges that volunteers and reservists requiring refresher training would initially fill the camps, leaving no room for early conscripts. Thus, any time “saved” would be irrelevant.

Still, registration lives on. Of late it has been endorsed by President Bill Clinton, of all people.

The man who did everything he could to avoid serving in the military argues 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 forces and our society at large.” True, but what, one wonders, does this have to do with going down to the Post Office to fill out a Selective Service card under threat of jail?

More seriously, the President suggests that registration is international “insurance.” Against what? An invasion from Cuba?

The war against Yugoslavia demonstrates America’s vast military lead over every other nation, ability to rely on air and naval firepower, and friendship with virtually every other advanced power. Washington alone spends more than three times as much on defense as does Russia, and about eight times as much as China, its two most obvious potential adversaries.

If war threatens, these countries—and any others—won’t be thinking about draft registration. Rather, they will be looking at America’s highly trained five million man active and reserve force armed with the world’s most advanced weaponry. If that is insufficient to deter aggression, Selective Service’s list-making won’t do so.

Of course, nuclear weapons remain a concern and, incredibly, Robert Gambino, George Bush’s Selective Service director, tried to use that threat to justify registration. Retired Gen. Maxwell Thurman similarly suggested that “A functioning Selective Service is an important backstop should our forces suffer unexpected casualties” from foreign use of weapons of mass destruction.

However, Washington wouldn’t mount human wave attacks against a threatening atomic power. Rather, the U.S. would use a few of the thousands of nuclear warheads which it possesses. Even a rogue regime is more likely to fear an overwhelming nuclear barrage than shiploads of green conscripts.

Registration was created at a specific time for a specific purpose. The time has passed and the purpose has been fulfilled. Congress should kill Selective Service and registration.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Reagan.