Time to Kill Draft Registration

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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 tokill the Selective Service System, along with registration. Theissue goes to the full committee this week for its approval, andthen to a conference committee with the Senate. Congress shoulddefund the agency.

Registration never made sense. President Jimmy Carterreinstituted the draft sign-up to show the Soviets that he wastough. President Ronald Reagan promised to kill the program, butflip-flopped after the Soviet-inspired crackdown in Poland.

Even then, however, Moscow could tell the difference betweena serious military and an outdated list of untrained 18-year-olds.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

No one--outside, perhaps, of Selective Service--now believesregistration is necessary. Six years ago the CongressionalResearch Service concluded that a major military build-up couldbe "much more quickly" achieved "by activating more reserves thanby instituting a draft."

The Department of Defense, too, dismisses the value ofSelective Service's list-making. Observed the Pentagon:"registration could be suspended with no effect on militarymobilization requirements, little effect on the time it wouldtake to mobilize, and no measurable effect on militaryrecruitment."

Indeed, DOD could come to no other conclusion. For yearsthe Pentagon wanted the first inductee to show up within 13 daysof mobilization. Thus, Selective Service said it had to have alist for instance use.

But with the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon now says itdoesn'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 Servicedelivered the first conscript in less than two and a half monthsin 1917 and just two months in 1940. After six decades ofimprovements in communication, data processing, andtransportation, the agency could do significantly better today.

Before President Carter decided to impose registration,Selective Service said it could deliver the first draftee within17 days. The agency's estimate during the Reagan administration,when officials were working overtime to sell registration asabsolutely essential, was just a month.

But arguing over days or even weeks is a waste of time. ThePentagon acknowledges that volunteers and reservists requiringrefresher training would initially fill the camps, leaving noroom for early conscripts. Thus, any time "saved" would beirrelevant.

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

The man who did everything he could to avoid serving in themilitary argues that "As fewer and fewer members of our societyhave direct military experience, it is increasingly important tomaintain the link between the All-Volunteer forces and oursociety at large." True, but what, one wonders, does this haveto do with going down to the Post Office to fill out a SelectiveService card under threat of jail?

More seriously, the President suggests that registration isinternational "insurance." Against what? An invasion from Cuba?

The war against Yugoslavia demonstrates America's vastmilitary lead over every other nation, ability to rely on air andnaval firepower, and friendship with virtually every otheradvanced power. Washington alone spends more than three times asmuch on defense as does Russia, and about eight times as much asChina, its two most obvious potential adversaries.

If war threatens, these countries--and any others--won't bethinking about draft registration. Rather, they will be lookingat America's highly trained five million man active and reserveforce armed with the world's most advanced weaponry. If that isinsufficient to deter aggression, Selective Service's list-makingwon't do so.

Of course, nuclear weapons remain a concern and, incredibly,Robert Gambino, George Bush's Selective Service director, triedto use that threat to justify registration. Retired Gen. MaxwellThurman similarly suggested that "A functioning Selective Serviceis an important backstop should our forces suffer unexpectedcasualties" from foreign use of weapons of mass destruction.

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

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

Doug Bandow

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