By instituting draft registration, President Carter said he intended to send a signal of national resolve to the Soviet Union. The Russians must be smiling. Not only has the issue become embroiled in a legal battle that will have to be resolved by the Supreme Court. It has sparked antidraft protests reminiscent -- in a small way -- of the days of the Vietnam war. Some youth are even defying the law. Far from showing Moscow how tough the US is, the registration program seems to show how confused and divided it is. The lesson is borne home again that an action taken for domestic political reasons, without sufficient thought and debate, can turn out to be counterproductive.
If the draft sign-up may be questionable on military grounds, it is nonetheless the law. Demonstrating against it is one thing. But the young men who refuse to go to a post office and register -- and they are in a minority -- betray a lack of maturity and judgment. Registration is not conscription. It does not involve a physical examination or classification, or even a draft card. It is simply a modest preparation for a possible national emergency requiring a draft. If the President decided the nation was in fact facing such an emergency , a draft would still have to run the gauntlet of congressional approval. At the moment there is little enthusiasm for it. Even tough-talking Ronald Reagan, knowing he would be walking into a political minefield if he advocated a draft, is against it.
The United States may in fact need national conscription as the most sensible answer to its military manpower problems. Unfortunately, election politics has eliminated rational discussion of the question. But public and politicians will have to face the issue as they decide what to do about what everyone agrees is a growing Soviet challenge to US interests in the world.
They may also have to confront the issue of drafting women as well as men. A federal court in Philadelphia ruled registration unconstitutional because it deprives men of the equal protection of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, however, blocked the decision on grounds it could harm US security interests. It will now be up to the full high court to make a determination on whether the Selective Service Act is constitutional.
There are arguments to be made on both sides of this highly emotional and difficult issue. On grounds of equality, we sympathize with the view that women no less than men shoudl be required to serve their country. If women want equality in the workplace and elsewhere, they should be willing to accept equality of sacrifice in the matter of the nation's defense. Many have done so in many countries in the past. This is not to fail to see the practical problems that would arise with universal military conscription, however, even if women were exempted from combat roles.
What would be most helpful is a nonpoliticized, calm public airing of the entire national security question. Many of the young men and women now opposing draft registration vow they "love liberty" and would volunteer to defend the nation if it were threatened from without. The problem lies in defining what constitutes a threat.