Debating a draft

President Carter's plan for registering young men and women for a possible military draft strikes us as largely a diplomatic and political move. It is designed to let the soviet Union know in still another way that the US is resolved to check further Soviet expansion in the Gulf region. It also reaffirms the posture of toughness which the President is trying to project at home in an election year. Whether the plan is warranted militarily at this time is something which will require more national public debate than we have seen to date. The issue is complex and more light needs to be shed on it.

Let it be said first that registration does not mean conscription. Mr. Carter assures the public that this is not a step toward resumption of the draft , which would be instituted only in the event of a national emergency. the administration, including the military, apparently believes the present world situation justifies preparations for such an eventuality. One question needing answer, therefore, is whether the situation really is that ominous, or whether the situation really is that ominous, or whether the United States is not imprudently feeding a crisis atmosphere by talking publicly about "war" and taking such a step as military registration before there is a clearly perceived reason for it. The fact that registration would not involve a physical examination or classification -- or even a draft card -- suggests to us that Washington does not anticipate any early emergency. Is it, then, needed?

There is, at the same time, the larger question of whether a national draft, even in peacetime, may not be the way to meet the nation's requirements for an adequate and efficient defense. The President says the allvolunteer force is "performing its mission well" and recruitment is "holding up well." That is the official position. Yet many studies, statistics, and reports out of the Defense Department and the services show that the all- volunteer army is notm working well. Last year the armed forces did not meet their recruitment goals either in quality or quantity. Educational standards were so low that six of every 10 Army recruits were of below- average intelligence as set by Army qualification tests. Army reserve strength, moreover, is short by half a million men.

What needs public discussion is how best to remedy this state of affairs. The manpower problem for the armed forces is essentially one of retention -- keeping the professionals in the service once they have been trained. Is it, then, best to provide sufficent financial and other incentives to assure high retention rates? Or should there be peacetime conscription? Would a draft, however, fit the needs of modern warfare, which relies so heavily on specialized skills? Defense Secretary Harold Brown says flatly that "peacetime conscription will not solve these problems." And what about the massive cost of maintaining a draft, as against the equally high cost of keeping the all-volunteer force up to strength? How best can the US spend its defense dollars?

The issue is complicated even in moral terms. We see great value in a military system which requires young people -- and, yes, women as well as men -- to give a period of service to their country. Democracy should entail duties and responsibilities as well as rights. Certainly a peacetime draft would demonstrate not only to the Russians but to everyone that America is determined to defend its vital interests. There are merits, too, in having a more "democratized" army. Yet there is also much to be said for a system of government which allows for the greatest possible freedom of the individual and prefers to keep the military on a voluntary basis except in time of war. That, too, lends force and credibility to the image of a democratic and peace-loving nation.

It would be tragic if this contentious issue brought renewed divisiveness in American society. Even in the present world circumstances the need is to show unity of resolve and purpose. This is why it is important that there be a thorough and honest public airing of the whole national defense issue. The administration should make plain where it is (or ought to be) headed and why. The Congress and press, too, should examine the options. If a convincing case can be made that a peacetime draft is the answer, there should be no hesitating to take the plunge. If not, the nation should quietly get on with upgrading the all- volunteer force to meet the present-day challenge.

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