By Thomas Brodey
In January of 2020, as tensions with Iran increased, the attention of many young men moved to a topic rarely discussed except in times of crisis: the draft.
Ever since 1940, all American males between the ages of 18 to 25 have been required to register for potential military service via the Selective Service System.
Despite being over 80 years old, Selective Service remains a high-profile part of America’s national defense system. The Selective Service’s website actually crashed under the pressure of so many anxious browsers after US-Iranian relations turned confrontational over the killing of Qasem Soleimani.
Even as the US enters a third decade of uninterrupted involvement in conflict abroad, there has been little effort to rethink the draft. Critics tend to focus either on moral problems with the draft or on the possibility of including women.
The Senate Armed Services Committee recently advanced a proposal by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) that would require women to register for the Selective Service, igniting a spat with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO).
These arguments, however, ignore the most important defect of Selective Service. The current system of Selective Service is fundamentally outdated and incapable of aiding national defense.
Proponents will argue that an influx of new recruits would be essential in the event of a sudden military crisis. But in reality, millions of draftees would be more of a liability than an asset.
For decades, the US military has emphasized the doctrine of technological supremacy and quality over quantity. Its equipment, tactics, and organization all work best in an elite volunteer force.
Without expertise and training, a draftee would be a net drain on the resources and capabilities of the military for a period of months or even years. As warfare grows faster and more high-tech, emergency drafts grow more obsolete.
Selective Service defenders might also argue that drafts don’t have to be last-minute measures. In theory, the government could anticipate a serious threat and draft people early. After all, that’s what Congress did in 1940 as World War II intensified in Europe.
The problem with that idea, however, is that politics have changed along with technology. For one, support for the draft has remained extremely low for the last thirty years, even after foreign attacks such as 9/11.
Voting to draft millions of Americans as a preemptive measure is almost certain to be political suicide, particularly since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.
Only once in recent history, soon after the invasion of Iraq, has a proposal to reinstate the draft made it to the floor of Congress. It was defeated 402 to 2 (the bill was voted upon because the Bush administration wanted to quiet fears of a draft).
If the country faced a threat on its doorstep, by the time Congress could muster the political capital to bring back the draft, it would be too late for untrained draftees to do anything useful.
Perhaps the government is tacitly aware of the obsolescence of the draft. Since 1986, the Justice Department has made no effort to prosecute those who refuse to register for Selective Service.
Consequently, over a million Americans currently between the ages of 18 and 25 haven’t signed up for Selective Service, though required to by law. Even the records that do exist are dangerously out of date.
Only in 2017 did Selective Service start asking registered individuals for their email addresses. It only started requesting phone numbers in 2019. Nor can the Selective Service be bothered to remove elderly individuals from its rolls.
Currently, men in their 80s are still technically registered for Selective Service. Then again, how much could be expected of an agency with barely more than a hundred full time employees?
If officials actually considered Selective Service a vital component of national security, perhaps they might have devoted more effort to ensuring that Selective Service is logistically capable of achieving its objective.
What is to be done with the Selective Service? Some analysts recommend keeping it because warfare is unpredictable, and perhaps someday it would be useful and practical to call up millions of civilians.
War is certainly unpredictable, but wouldn’t a newer and more flexible system be better equipped for modern warfare than one designed for World War II?
A limited draft on specialists with relevant technical or medical training, for instance, could be logistically and politically feasible. But that program would have little in common with the current Selective Service System.
Whatever the future of the draft in the United States, the current Selective Service is neither very selective nor a service to America’s national security.
Thomas Brodey is a senior at Amherst College and a 2021 Morgenthau Grand Strategy Seminar Fellow. He was also an inaugural Marcellus Policy Fellow through the John Quincy Adams Society. His interests include public diplomacy and the early history of American foreign policy.