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Selective Service update long overdue

Published 07/13/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 07/12/2013 01:05 PM

A spot currently running on the radio in Connecticut reminds young men they are required by law to register for the draft when they're 18 and warns them of the consequences if they don't.

If you don't register, you won't get a government job or get into a government training program and you won't be eligible for a federally funded student loan.

Unmentioned is the threat of being imprisoned for up to five years or fined up to a rather impressive $250,000, for failing to sign up for what amounts to no more than a waiting list or database in the event the draft is ever revived. No one's been prosecuted under the law since 1986.

Also note the message refers to men 18 and older; women don't have to register even though they are now equal members of the military.

The Defense Department lifted its ban on women in combat in January and made them eligible last month to serve even in the most dangerous and demanding combat roles, including the Navy SEALS, Army Rangers and Marine infantry. A woman will only be eligible for combat if she meets the physical requirements, whether as an infantrywoman or a SEAL, but this is also true of men in the more demanding combat arms. Even before the ban was lifted, some of the 280,000 women in Iraq and Afghanistan saw combat and more than 150 have been killed in action.

It will require an act of Congress to amend the Selective Service Law and register women and Congress has not indicated any sense of urgency in the matter. It has been more concerned about a more immediate problem, the 26,000 sexual assaults that took place in the military last year.

Gen. Martin Dempsey sees a connection between the two. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believes admitting women to combat will actually alleviate problems of sexual assault and harassment, saying "the more we treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally." We will see.

But equal treatment includes the right to be drafted and if Congress fails to act with some speed, the courts will surely be asked to intervene. In 1981, the Supreme Court found the exclusion of women from the draft was justified because they were also excluded from combat, so the result of a new challenge is pretty predictable.

Interestingly, all of this is happening on the 150th anniversary of the first draft on July 2, 1863 when President Lincoln ordered the conscription of 300,000 men under a law that had been passed by Congress the previous year. (The Confederates passed a draft law first.)

The draft, with its provision allowing anyone to buy his way out of service by paying $300 for a replacement, proved unpopular, to say the least. This is also the 150th anniversary of the July 13, 1863 draft riots in New York City that took about 100 lives, most of them black, including residents of the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue that was burned to the ground.

The draft became a way of life for all Americans in the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, though abuses, usually dealing with exemptions, never went away and there were few objections when it was finally ended by President Nixon in 1973. Registration was revived by President Carter when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980 but no one's been actually drafted for 40 years.

With a volunteer military considered a success, even when overextended in two demanding wars, questions are again being raised about whether the Selective Service System should finally be abolished.

Some see it as a necessary framework for future emergencies, using the "you never know what's going to happen" argument. Others see benefits in having young men and women register to perform some form of service to their nation. Both points are valid and argue for retention of registration or at least for an avoidance of undue haste in determining its future.

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