Selective Service: End It, Don’t Mend It

The leaders of the Army and Marine Corps made headlines Wednesday when they called for expanding the Selective Service System to include women.

In response to a question by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the Army, stated “I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft.” Milley’s counterpart, Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller, said after a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that registration was a step that any young American must take on the way to adulthood. All U.S. citizens should be included, Neller said, “now that the restrictions that exempted women from [combat jobs] don’t exist.” He continued, “It doesn’t mean you’re going to serve, but you go register.”

The logic seems unassailable. If the military no longer discriminates against women who are qualified to serve, why should registration be limited only to men? And if the law remains unchanged, and compels only men to sign up, it will only be a matter of time before an equal protection challenge is brought before the courts. 

Over at the Washington Post Online, I suggest a different idea: rather than requiring women to register for the draft, let’s do away with Selective Service altogether, for women and men.

The entire architecture of the conscripted military is anachronistic and unnecessary. We’ve operated with an all-volunteer force for decades, and no one, regardless of gender, expects that they’ll be drafted. Meanwhile, the wars that we actually fight don’t depend upon conscription, and future wars aren’t likely to, either.

I go a bit into the history of the draft, but point out that the main reason why mass conscription didn’t remain in place after the end of World War II was because it wasn’t necessary. The wars in Korea and Vietnam didn’t call for more than 10 million men to fight them. The Selective Service System was open to criticism for being unfair, especially as the number of deferments expanded during the Vietnam War, but the alternative – universal military training – would have been worse: compelling millions of men into a military that didn’t want them or need them.

I’ve heard the other arguments for a return to conscription, but none are compelling, and any possible benefits are offset by the costs.

For example:

a draft would likely reduce the military’s fighting effectiveness. Today’s force is uniquely capable precisely because it is comprised entirely of volunteers, men and women who choose to join the military for a variety of reasons, including the desire to serve their country, but also because of the exceptional opportunities and benefits available to those in uniform. Overall compensation for troops is more than competitive relative to their comparably skilled peers, and Americans are willing to invest in their professional development because we are confident that many of them will remain in service long enough for our investment to be worthwhile. By contrast, draftees of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s weren’t expected to stick around after their obligation expired, and thus received minimal training. A conscripted military might be larger, but it wouldn’t be better.

As for the claim that the all-volunteer army explains Washington’s greater propensity to go to war, and that a draft would make lawmakers actually think before starting them, I point out that this ignores the very few protracted ground wars fought in the first 16 years of the post-conscription era (none, by my count), and likewise cannot explain why other countries around the world with volunteer militaries are far less war-prone than we are. 

It isn’t even obvious to me that the draft was the decisive factor in ending the U.S. war in Vietnam: 

It may be true that self interest drove some men with other priorities to oppose that war, and that the draft, therefore, helped hasten the war’s end. On the other hand, the existence of a draft actually made it easier for President Lyndon Johnson to dramatically increase the size of the U.S. ground commitment in Vietnam with little public debate. The protests came too late to prevent more than 58,000 names from being carved into that memorial on the Mall.

In the highly unlikely event that we ever again needed a mass-conscripted army to defend the United States, Congress could pass a law to reconstitute the Selective Service System. But the sensible course right now is to stop requiring men (or women) to register for the draft. 

You can read the whole thing here.