- - Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Is the draft coming back?

To the dismay of many younger Americans, mandatory military service could be at least back on the table as a blue-ribbon panel prepares to release the fruits of two years of study Wednesday on the question of national service, military readiness and a possible reboot of the Selective Service System, which has been on standstill since 1973 and the days of the Vietnam War.

Congress will get some recommendations when the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service rolls out the first comprehensive review of the military draft and registration system.

The report could propose drastic revisions of the national registration system, including at least a partial revival of the draft or a mandate for women.

The commission’s 11 members have briefed the Pentagon, the White House and lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill this week, and some of the conclusions in the 255-page report have begun leaking out.

Politico reported Tuesday that the panel will recommend that young women be required to register with the Selective Service System as young men have had to do. Proposals in Congress to include women have stalled in recent years, but the Obama administration approved a change allowing women in the military to serve in combat roles.

Senior military leaders have long looked askance at the draft. They say an all-volunteer service, while challenging at times, creates a more effective fighting force. But the system is once again under scrutiny.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pentagon on Friday announced a temporary closure of all physical recruitment centers across the U.S. and said the military will rely on “virtual” recruiting for the foreseeable future.

Under congressional mandate, members of the bipartisan commission have traveled the country for the past 2½ years to seek innovative ways to inspire a rising generation of Americans to serve their country. Until recently, a surging private economy has made the task harder by scooping up potential recruits.

Members of the commission include a former head of the Peace Corps, a former undersecretary of the Navy and a former member of the National Security Council, as well as representatives from Congress and private advocacy groups.

“We wanted to listen to the American people and learn from them. … We had to take into account a number of views and perspectives,” said Tom Kilgannon, president of the Freedom Alliance and a member of the commission.

Draft proponents, including retired Army Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich and Col. Larry Wilkerson, who was a top adviser to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in the George W. Bush administration, point to looming manpower shortfalls and a system in which a tiny fraction of the country fights the nation’s wars and often endures multiple deployments in hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. Laich has laid out a national, no-deferral lottery system for the 4 million Americans each year who turn 18. Those picked in the lottery would have a choice of two years of active-duty military service, six years in the reserves or the National Guard, or participation in a college ROTC program before accepting their commission or taking one of the first two options.

The all-volunteer force, he told a congressional briefing last fall, is “unfair, inefficient and unsustainable,” according to a report in the Military Times.

Military-civilian divide

The commission’s final report is expected to include suggestions to expand the scope of the next generation’s involvement in military, national or public service, and reduce what Gen. Laich and Col. Wilkerson warn is a growing military-civilian divide.

Among the suggestions: including more volunteer opportunities for high school students, revising the registration system to determine the best military recruits, and improving the promotion of federal service opportunities such as the Peace Corps.

But the hot-button question has been a national draft, a source of debate and division for the country since President Lincoln inaugurated the federal government’s first broad conscription in 1862.

Commissioners said they found on their tour that Americans are divided on the question of mandatory military service.

“We heard from people who said we should go back to standing conscription, [and others] who said there should be no registration system at all,” Mr. Kilgannon said.

As mandated by Congress, the commission was tasked with reviewing the Selective Service System to determine whether it needed modification.

The commission has debated a number of options, including ways for registrants to share information about their skills and whether the system could be leveraged to bring in more manpower in times of emergency.

The question of women and military service was another item. The U.S. government requires men ages 18 to 25 to register with the Selective Service System. Women do not have to register.

Feedback from that discussion has raised the prospect of requiring women to register. Whether it is recommended in the final report could not be confirmed.

One factor in the decision is the sea change in the role of women in the military since the draft last operated in the 1970s.

“If we have a draft, we need the best qualified individuals in our military regardless of gender,” one commenter told the commission. “All combat positions have opened to women, and they have proven themselves as outstanding warriors and contributors to our military.”

Despite rumors circling news streams and social media, commissioners say a call to restore full conscription is unlikely. A 2018 interim report said the commission was weighing a number of reforms to the Selective Service registration system before recommending an outright renewal of the military draft.

Learning curve

At one time, every young man could recite his draft number and status. Now, commissioners say they are struck by the lack of familiarity with the differences between the registration system and an outright draft.

Although the nationwide military draft was halted in 1973, the Selective Service System allows Congress and the president to tap a pool of conscripts if needed.

The commission found that many young men were unaware of their obligation to register. Most men, the report said, register “incidentally” when they receive a driver’s license or apply for federal student aid.

“For most men, registration is a passive process, with many men not even aware of the obligation for which they have registered,” the report said.

At the start of the year, social media exploded after the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani with the hashtag #WWIII. Twitter users expressed their fears of an impending draft as Washington and Tehran appeared to be on the brink of all-out war.

The social media hysteria over a potential war illuminated underlying fears and misconceptions among the younger generation, Mr. Kilgannon said. During their travels, he said, commissioners found widespread misunderstandings about the way the system works.

“Our report is going to address [misunderstandings] and help educate the public about how all of that works,” he said. The #WWIII hashtag “showed a lot of interest among young people for their propensity to serve in the military [and] their concerns to serve in the military. We have to do a better job of educating and inspiring our people towards military service.”

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