A Dishonorable Discharge for Selective Service

This article was published by the Copley News Service.

There is nothing as permanent as a federal agency. Once created,government bureaucracies are almost impossible to kill, no matter how outdated.Consider the desperate attempt of the Selective Service System and its allies toreverse the House Appropriation Committee's decision to terminate the agency.

Two decades ago, President Jimmy Carter, shocked that the Sovietleaders would lie to him and invade Afghanistan, decided to reinstateregistration. Afghan guerrillas armed with Stinger missiles, not Carter's list ofuntrained 18-year-olds, finally ousted the Soviet invaders.

Candidate Ronald Reagan promised to eliminate registration, but afterthe Soviets pressured the Polish government to crack down on the Solidaritylabor union, President Reagan decided to preserve the program. Neither thePolesnor the Russians took much notice; internal failure eventually caused bothcommunist regimes to collapse.

Since then, the Cold War has ended, the Soviet military has imploded,and America dominates the globe akin to the way the British Empire andperhapseven the Roman Empire once did. The United States has proved itself capableof bombing into oblivion small nations like Yugoslavia, without sufferingasingle casualty.

The changing international environment caused the Defense Departmentto change its mobilization requirements. In 1979, it wanted the firstdraftee within 13 days of mobilization. Now, it doesn't desire the firstconscriptuntil six months plus 13 days after mobilization, a contingency likely tooccuronly if the Martians finally invade Earth.

Indeed, the Pentagon acknowledged in 1993 that dropping the sign upwould have ''no effect on military mobilization requirements, little effecton the time it would take to mobilize and no measurable effect on military recruitment.''

But now Gil Coronado, director of the Selective Service, says thesignup is ''most essential to U.S. national security.'' Why? Because PresidentBill Clinton says it is. Right. Mr. Avoid-Service-at-All-Costs is anauthority on military manpower.

The facts speak for themselves. Clinton didn't want to take the heatfor killing the program, despite the changing international threatenvironment, after evading the draft himself. With the commander in chief standingbehind registration, it should come as no surprise that his national securityadviser and Defense secretary say the same thing.

In a letter to the Washington Times, Coronado also cites the agency'sability to draft health care personnel. However, that has nothing to do withongoing registration, unless Selective Service plans on sending 18- to25-year-olds to medical school before putting them into uniform. Perhaps he supportsthe old czarist lifetime draft.

Even more hilarious is the argument, voiced by Coronado, as well as Representatives Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., and Steve Buyer, R-Ind.,that registration aids recruiting. Observes Coronado, the agency''communicateswith every man who registers to inform him about volunteer serviceopportunities in the armed forces and civilian community.'' The two congressmen chargethat it would be ''ironic and reckless to terminate the system at a time whenthe military services cannot reach their goals for recruitment andretention.''

Does anyone seriously believe that registration causes 18-year-oldstosprint down to the recruiting office? It would be better to address personnelproblems directly, not use them as an excuse for bureaucratic aggrandizement.

The supporters of Selective Service conveniently ignore four points.

First, draftees have to be trained as well as conscripted, meaningthat it would be five to six months before any significant number reached the battlefield. Thus, at most, registration advances by a couple of weeksthe production of a few extra soldiers months after the United States hasgone to war. As a result, the program is useless for the smaller conflicts wearelikely to see in the future.

Second, starting from scratch, Selective Service got the firstconscript in uniform in 73 days in 1917 and just 63 days in 1940; two decades ago,boththe Congressional Budget Office and Selective Service System figured thelatter could get the first inductee in about a month. All of these estimatesand Selectives Service could do better today meet the Pentagon's current mobilization requirements.

Third, past experience demonstrates that crises generate volunteers.Afuture threat serious enough to cause Congress to impose conscription wouldalmost certainly cause tens or hundreds of thousands of volunteers to floodthe training camps. Thus, the difference between getting the first drafteeon mobilization day plus 13, with peacetime registration, and mobilizationday plus 30, with post-mobilization registration, would be irrelevant.

Finally, Selective Service's list ages quickly. Although most18-year-olds sign up, most registrants don't report their address changes. Whichmeans a post-mobilization sign up would yield a more accurate tally.

Registration didn't make any sense when Carter reinstated it. Itmakes even less sense today, when Clinton wants to keep it. Congress should killthis obsolete program and agency.