Draft registration: an idea whose time never was

There are laws whose enforcement ensures our survival. There are laws whose frivolity makes enforcement ludicrous. And there are laws made ludicrous by their utter irrelevance to the matters they pretend to address. Draft registration is one such law: a misbegotten symbol which neither serves any military purpose nor deals with the conundrum of military obligation in America - a question which, truly, concerns our survival.

For the issue involved here is not who sends (or fails to send) postcards to the computer. Nor is the issue conscription per se. Rather, the issue is the nature and extent of the military claim which a mature mass democracy may make upon its citizens vs. the kinds of wars that democracy is likely to fight.m

Or, to ask it another way, does military service any longer rationally relate to either the obligations of citizenship or the political and technological nature of modern war?

In essence, there are only three non-pacifist positions on the nature of the military claim. The first declares such service an obligation of citizenship: inherent, inalienable, and enforceable. The second position argues the opposite, holding that defense is a service to be procured like any other, and that to conscript a person is to reduce him to involuntary servitude. The final position turns entirely on assessments of need; whatever is required (and politically feasible) is therefore justified.

Each of these positions enjoys some merit. But none takes full account of reality.

* A person who accepts society's benefits should be willing to undertake that society's defense. But to justify conscription solely as an obligation of citizenship is to confuse citizenship with civic virtue; to confuse a legal status with the intellectual and moral capability to accept responsibility for that status; and to place an unsupportable burden on something most Americans have come to regard as a mere accident of birth.

* Compulsion is a nasty affair. But the argument for paid volunteers fails to acknowledge that warfare is an activity quintessentially different and set apart; that the economic inducements which put a man in uniform will not sustain him on the battlefield; and that never in American history has unaugmented voluntarism worked. Nor is it working now, despite all the recession-induced enlistments and psychometric manipulations.

* The third position - whatever is necessary is justified - has the alleged advantage of pragmatism. But this practicality disintegrates when confronted by a single question: whom shall we fight? Given the present facts of geopolitical and military life, there is no enemy on this earth whose defeat would require massive, long-term civilian mobilization.

Any conceivable conflict would either go nuclear, or be resolved one way or another long before draftees could make any difference. Of course, this is not exactly a provable assertion, but if the present disarray of American strategic thought is any indicator the problem we face is not lack of enemies but massive conceptual inability to deal with them: a deficiency notoriously difficult to compensate for with bodies.

Draft registration, then, lacks both military utility and ethical rationale. Prosecutions of nonregistrants would be both gratuitous and preposterous: gratuitous because no draft is planned, preposterous because of the carnival of protest it would generate.

The sooner this symbolic nonsense is exposed for what it is, the sooner we can address the essential question, which is simply: upon what basis may America expect, or demand, military service from its citizens?

Old answers no longer avail.

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