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The Future of Military and National Service

Updated: May 31, 2022

By: Robb Davies

In 2016, former President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17 NDAA), which established the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (the Commission). The Commission’s mandate is to study America’s national service institutions, among them the military, Peace Corps, and AmeriCorps. By March 2020, it will report non-binding recommendations to lawmakers for reforming—or potentially dissolving—the Selective Service System (SSS). That federal agency requires all 18- to 25-year-old male citizens and immigrants (with or without documentation) to register for the inactive military draft. The agency invites antipathy from both sides of the aisle, stemming from resistance to progressive social reform to fiscal or utilitarian objections. However, abolishing the flawed but singular mechanism for implementing emergency mass mobilization may be imprudent, if not reckless.

The controversy is obvious: the draft riles America’s libertarian spirit. Its apprehension to conscription first became evident when the Continental Congress denied General Washington’s appeal for a draft though desperate for reinforcements. Both Civil War belligerents imposed conscription, and disgruntled New Yorkers infamously carried out the Draft Riots of 1863. The impetus for the SSS (or rather, its predecessors) was the U.S. military’s sluggish World War I debut. Conscription was discontinued after the “War to End All Wars,” but begrudgingly revived in 1940, shortly preceding early American fumbles in the Pacific and North African campaigns. A victorious but war-weary government suspended the draft in 1947, only to reenact it in 1948 with the Military Selective Service Act as the Iron Curtain lacerated Europe. The brief reprieve exacerbated American unpreparedness for the Korean War, which would produce horrific casualties resulting from rushed deployments of hastily-trained personnel. The United States sustained conscription until the Nixon Administration indefinitely suspended it in 1972, responding to public disillusionment with the Vietnam War and the draft’s blatantly unfair implementation. Reacting to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, President Carter obligated selective service registration (the practice maintained today) in 1980, but stopped short of a draft.

As ordered in Section 553(b) of the FY17 NDAA, President Obama appointed three of the eleven Commissioners, with Congressional leadership appointing the rest. Implementation was left to the Trump Administration. Given its scope and potential impact on controversial social policies, as well as the Administration’s reactionary positions on civil rights, President Trump’s guidance to the Commission hews surprisingly close to the goals endorsed by the 114th Congress and Obama Administration.

The Commissioners, though mostly subscribing to conventional national security positions, range along the political spectrum. Reflecting civil rights initiatives favored by Democrats, one Obama appointee is retired Navy Commander Shawn Skelly, a transgender woman. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s appointee, Freedom Alliance president Thomas Kilgannon, is perhaps the most ideologically-driven Commissioner and not a national service institution veteran. He not only opposes transgender people in selective service, but also recent personnel reforms like gender integration and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Chief among controversies the Commission will broach is the modern utility of the SSS in the all-volunteer era. Many consider the agency an inequitable anachronism. While the vast majority of male citizens comply with registration (92 percent in FY17), those refusing or otherwise falling through the cracks often suffer harsh consequences ever after. Throughout FY17, the agency referred nearly 185,000 suspected violators to the Department of Justice for possible felony prosecution, which could include a $250,000 fine and five years’ imprisonment. While actual prosecutions are rare (the last was in 1986), the so-called Thurmond and Solomon amendments permanently bar violators from federal employment or student financial aid respectively. The majority of states enforce similar statutes.

The Commission’s mandate also includes studying the quality of America’s strategic manpower reserve. The requirements of 21st century warfare increasingly depend on skills transcending traditional recruiting determinants like age, sex, and physical ability. Future conflicts may require more hardware than humans, their outcomes likely being determined by troops and civilian employees with science, technology, and engineering backgrounds. While combat roles may increasingly comprise a smaller footprint of operating forces, those left over will remain inherently physically grueling and need capable young people performing them. However, some studies find two-thirds of American youth unfit for military service owing to obesity and other inhibitors. These trends vex military planners and will preoccupy the Commissioners.

President Clinton characterized the SSS as a “low-cost ‘insurance policy.’” Its $22 million annual budget is less than two-thirds of NBA superstar Stephen Curry’s salary and supports a skeleton crew of 124 full-time employees. In a national emergency, it can activate 11,000 local draft board volunteers to generate the forces needed to deter or defeat America’s increasingly capable geopolitical adversaries. Abolishing the agency’s function altogether would, according to former SSS director Lawrence Romo, require “a minimum of two or three years” to rebound in a crisis.

The agency and its scope undoubtedly need overhauling, but whatever succeeds its current form should be able to rapidly mobilize the best of American society to confront the worst of its conceivable existential threats. Political fights over budget constraints and civil rights are important and necessary for smart, moral, and inclusive defense policy. But undermining the core function of selective service could stunt the country’s ability to effectively posture for the worst-case scenario. In the previous decade, another Congressionally-appointed committee concluded that the September 11 terrorist attacks were the result of a “failure of imagination.” Major war is not imminent today, or even probable—but neither is it unimaginable.


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