Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) kicked off a furious national debate on gender, equality and war readiness earlier this month by posing a simple question to military leaders at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing: Should women register for the military draft, now that combat jobs are open to them?
Too bad it was the wrong question. A better one is this: Why should the country require anyone — male or female — to register for a draft that’s purely hypothetical? Or this: Does it make sense to extend the Selective Service rule as a symbolic gesture of gender equality without first examining the rationality of maintaining a registry at all in the digital era?
Congress should start with the last two questions first, setting aside the the role of women in the military to look dispassionately at the practicality of registration and its function as a sort of security blanket for the military. It may well be that this Cold War relic lingers on because it gives the illusion that a massive force of armed Americans could be mobilized immediately to fight whatever threat might come along. It can’t; registry aside, it takes tremendous resources to screen, train, house and feed thousand of new recuits.
Meanwhile, registration comes with a real cost to taxpayers and a steep penalty to teenagers who do not comply. In some states, young men can’t get a drivers license if they haven’t filed the necessary forms with the Selective Service System. In California, they cannot apply for college financial aid unless they are registered.
The reality is that the country hasn’t had an actual draft since 1973, when public support for conscription was sapped by year after bloody year of the Vietnam War. Short of an invasion by foreign troops or extraterrestrials, a draft is unlikely in the near future. Military commanders now see the benefit of a highly trained and professional all-volunteer force, while the public continues to be wary of conscription.
Yet the draft registry was reinstated in 1980, and the agency charged with its keeping keeps chugging along. Why? That’s a question the Government Accountability Office explored in a 2012 study. In a report to Congress, the GAO noted that while defense department officials cling to Selective Service as “low-cost insurance policy in case a draft is ever necessary,” they hadn’t reassessed its requirements for inductees since 1994 and therefore it wasn’t clear whether the agency was even necessary anymore. The national security picture has changed dramatically, as has warfare, since the Cold War ended and the war on terror began. Furthermore, the report noted that the collection of registration data is largely automatic. Much of the Selective Service staff’s day-to-day work is letting people know they have to register and training volunteers how to screen conscriptees in the event a draft is ever activated.
Though it is difficult to imagine a modern-day military scenario that would benefit from having hundreds of thousands of untrained, and possibly unwilling, young people forced into service, it is a possibility for which the country needs to prepare. But we don’t necessarily need an active registry, or the make-work assignments required to sustain it, to effect a draft should it be required. Conscriptions are meant to backfill armies depleted by months and years of war. The registry could be recreated well before the military had pulled together the resources to train, house and deploy hundreds of thousands of draftees.
Consider what happened when President Jimmy Carter ordered the reinstatement of the draft registry in February 1980 in response Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Registration forms were ready by July, and by September the Selective Service had received registration cards from 93% percent of eligible men, as the head of the Selective Service at the time, Bernard Rostker, reported in his book, “I Want You! The Evolution of The All-Volunteer Force.” And remember, this was before the Internet made things such as instant online registration a reality.
If Congress decides, practicality be damned, not to explore the relevance of draft registration, by all means it should change the law so that women must participate. Equality comes with benefits as well as responsibilities. If men must continue to comply for the sake of the nation’s peace of mind, then women should do so too. But that’s the legislative equivalent of putting the cart before the horse in an era when everyone’s driving a car.