Another cold-war vestige

Murray Polner

July 21, 1992|By Murray Polner

DOES anyone remember why draft registration resumed in 1980?

A failing Jimmy Carter used millions of men as pawns to try to recapture his diminishing political base by sending the Soviets a "signal" after their invasion of Afghanistan.

Even his Selective Service director considered the step unnecessary.

But this vestige of past wars became a part of the permanent bureaucracy.

It was praised in 1991 by Gen. Samuel K. Lessey Jr., then the director, as "a rite of passage, an American thing to do."

Draft registration has served no purpose except to provide a costly budget, most recently $27.5 million, for jobs and fringe benefits for several hundred Selective Service data processors and record-keepers.

Since 1980 about 15.5 million 18-year-olds have been forced to register for a draft nobody wants or expects to see again, and that was aimed at the Soviet Union, which no longer exists.

Lists are regularly combed in the hunt for prey who may have failed to register. While this failure may no longer bring prosecution, the law weighs heavily on young men (but not women): no registration, no federal education aid, no Pell grants, no federal civil-service jobs.

Thirteen states deny non-registrants financial assistance and states such as South Dakota and Tennessee require registration before acceptance into state schools and as prerequisite for state jobs.

The lightning victory in the gulf war relied exclusively on volunteers. In addition, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney made it clear the gulf war would never have led to a draft.

So why maintain the fiction that registration is vital to national security?

"Threats to national security and world peace can occur at any time," Robert W. Gambino, the Selective Service director, said in a recent report to Congress. Another spokesman called it "mobilization insurance." But for what? Against whom?

The $2.7 million saved could finance 135 medical research grants of $200,000 each for AIDS, cardiovascular disease or cancer. Or 1,000 rookie police officers in New York City. Or 1,000 more Baltimore teachers.

Murray Polner is author of "No Victory Parade: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran."

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