Who Benefits Or Suffers From The Selective Service System?

Hey there reader.  I hope you’re doing great.  I had an interesting conversation with a colleague about American Exceptionalism the other day.  We analyzed several factors which make the U.S. unique among other nations, institutions like our 800 military bases around the world, our use of daylight savings to save, uh, daylight, our use of the Fahrenheit system to measure temperature, our use of the Imperial unit system to measure length, mass and volume.  Why don’t we use the metric system?  Exceptionalism.

Of course, we’re responsible for reinforcing or reforming these institutions and traditions, we’re active participating agents in society and workforce.  One institution, the Selective Service System seemed especially backwards for the 21st century.  I think it’s time we critically analyze the Selective Service System to find out what it’s purpose is, who benefits or suffers from it and if it’s worth continuing.  But first, here are some quick facts about the System;

  • The program’s annual agency budget was $22,700,000 in fiscal year 2016.
  • 91 percent of all men between the ages of 18 and 25 years old have registered.
  • 95 percent of all men between the ages of 20 and 25 years old have registered.
  • Approximately 17 million men between the ages of 18 and 25 were registered as of 2015.
  • Staff constitutes 124 full time federal employees and 175 part time military reserve force officers.  The Selective Service System is headquartered in Arlington, VA and applicants can register online.

U.S. Draft History

Conscription first came about during the American Civil War.  The Confederacy drafted troops in April, 1862, more than a year before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Union Conscription Act into law.

Union conscription wasn’t universal: draftees could pay a “$300 fee to avoid service” or hire substitutes to fight in their place.  The subjective nature of the draft led to the Draft Riots of 1863 when Irish-Americans attacked federal buildings, African-Americans and black orphanages in New York City.  The Union draft was suspended after the rebels surrendered in 1865 and the Army maintained a peace-time force of more than 100,000 men for the next half century.

Voluntary enlistment was slow at the beginning of World War I,  President Woodrow Wilson created the Selective Service System in May, 1917.  Congress passed the Espionage Act in June, 1917 which suppressed dissent of the U.S. entering the war.  Nearly 2.8 million troops entered into military service over the next two years, however armistice was achieved in November, 1918 and the draft was suspended.  Political dissent was further suppressed during the 1920s in the Palmer Raids led by a young J. Edgar Hoover.

It was reinstated again in September, 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the first ever peace-time lottery draft in U.S. history with the Selective Training and Service Act.  Nearly 45 million men registered and more than 10 million entered into military service between November, 1940 and October, 1946.  The Act expired in March, 1947, the same year the Cold War began.

President Harry Truman signed the Selective Service Act in June, 1948 which “established the first postwar draft in American history.”  The Act was scheduled to expire in June, 1950 but the Korean War began and Congress extended it for another year.  The Act was reauthorized as the Universal Military Training and Service Act in 1951, more than 3 million men entered into military service during Korean War until 1961.  

Protestors and rioters criticized the draft during the Vietnam War: family status and academic credentials made deferment an option for some privileged young men.  Anti-war sentiment grew and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Military Selective Service Act into law in June, 1967 to rationalize the deferment system.  But the draft remained unpopular and polarizing and dissenters burned their Selective Service System Registration Cards.

“The American people were generally willing to accept” the draft “when service was perceived as universal.  However, in the 1960s, that acceptance began to erode.”

President Richard Nixon amended the Military Selective Service Act and returned the process to a lottery draft in 1969.  1.7 million men entered into the armed forces through the Selective Service System from 1965 and 1973.  But the draft remained unpopular: an estimated 500,000 men dodged the draft by moving to foreign countries or by refusing to respond to draft letters and 200,000 men were charged with draft evasion.  8,000 of them were convicted between 1965 and 1973.

The Department of Defense announced it would suspend the draft in January, 1973 and the Military Selective Service Act expired six months later.  President Jimmy Carter reactivated the Military Selective Service Act by executive order on July, 1980 which required men aged 18 to 26 years to register with the Selective Service System.  President Ronald Reagan ran a campaign to abolish Selective Service System in 1980, however he didn’t try to terminate the System while in the White House.

U.S. Draft And Post Draft Analysis

The draft wasn’t practical or universal and in the years following World War 2.  Demographics played a part in public resistance to the draft during the 1960s: millions of young men were born during the baby boom and of military age at the time of the draft.  Also, the Vietnam War was a limited war, it was much smaller in scale than total wars which used the draft as the Civil War, World War 1 and 2 did.

Costs also made the draft impractical during the Vietnam War.  A voluntary military was a smaller than a conscripted military and public resources could be spent more efficiently on a smaller volunteer force than a larger, drafted force.

Wages and benefits would be more abundant if they were spent on a smaller, voluntary military.  Public protests against the war and draft were transformed into public support the troops who served voluntarily.  The professional military received higher wages, better benefits and served more years as a result.

“Besides good pay, careerists demanded quality-of-life benefits such as good housing, child care, health benefits, family advocacy programs, and military stores. It was crucial that the services become “family friendly.””

But conservatives and liberals opposed the draft.  Dissenters on the right argued the state had no right to impose military service on young men without their consent.  Leftists and centrists argued young men without family status or academic credentials were less likely to be deferred.

Scandals and public opposition compounded over time, the Vietnam War more became unpopular.  President Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971 and the public grew restless for a volunteer force.  Ironically, the Department of Defense began to lose confidence after draftees experienced drug problems in Vietnam.  The public could watch troops behaving badly on the television news each night.

Military service peaked in 1969 and fell by 61.8 percent in 2014.  But to be fair, the U.S. population increased by 37.5 percent from 202,680,000 to 324,797,000.  “The Army, Navy, and Air Force had significant cuts in the numbers of personnel with the end of the Cold War, while the Marine Corps numbers have stayed relatively flat.”  And even though the draft was abolished in 1973, troops are still recruited from mostly middle class and working class families today.  4.8 percent of the military personnel were immigrants as of 2008.

Who Benefits Or Suffers From The Selective Service System?

We know the System has high registration rates and it seems affordable.  However, it seems redundant and irrelevant given the draft was abolished in 1973.  Let’s analyze the structure of the System to find who benefits and suffers from the law, after all “A young man who fails to register with Selective Service may be ineligible for opportunities that may be important to his future.”

Based on this chart I found on the System’s website, registration is  required for all male citizens and immigrants residing in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 25 years.  This list included physically and mentally handicapped men who are “able to function in public with or without assistance,” “permanent resident immigrants,” “refugee, parolee, and asylee immigrants,” “undocumented immigrants” and “dual national U.S. citizens.”

This list also included “U.S. citizens or immigrants who are born male and have changed their gender to female” but excluded “U.S. citizens or immigrants who are born male and have changed their gender to female.”

So what would happen if these eligible young men didn’t register with the System?  They’d be excluded from “federal student loans or grant programs…Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Direct Stafford Loans/Plus Loans, National Direct Student Loans, and College Work Study.”

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requires men of eligible age to register with the System to gain U.S. citizenship if he “first arrived in the U.S. before his 26th birthday.”  Citizenship, and the rights that come with it, such as voting are denied if they fail to register.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 appropriated $10 billion to the States for job training programs so 20 million young men could find a vocation and enhance their career.  But if they didn’t register, they’d be excluded from job training.

“A man must be registered to be eligible for jobs in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government and the U.S. Postal Service.”  If they didn’t register, they’d be excluded from these jobs.

Often times the federal jobs listed above require a security clearance and background check.  “Security clearance background investigations will verify whether or not men are in compliance with federal law.”  If they didn’t register, they’d be excluded from these jobs and clearances.

Failing to register with the System is a felony with fine of up to $250,000 or a prison term of up to 5 years or a combination of both.  Anyone who knowingly counsels, aids, or abets another to fail to comply with the Act is subject to the same penalties.  However, millions of young men failed to register with the System.  In fact, only 20 men have been prosecuted for failing to register since 1980, the last indictment was in January, 1986.

So What’s The Purpose Of The Selective Service System?

The primary purpose of the System is to organize young men for the draft.  It also has several other manifest functions; the Solomon Amendment was inserted into the Military Selective Service Act in 1982 which made registration with the System a prerequisite for federal student aid.  And Thurmond Amendment made registration a prerequisite for federal jobs in 1985.  Today, many states have laws which mandate registration in order to obtain or renew a driver’s license.

But the latent effect of the System is to exclude people from fully participating in the workforce if they fail to register.  “The more immediate penalty is if a man fails to register before turning 26 years old, even if he is not tried or prosecuted, he may find that some doors are permanently closed.”

If the primary purpose of the System was to organize men for the draft no longer exists, then the System should be abolished given the harmful, latent effects it has on the men who suffer from failing to register.  These are the same men who would benefit from the System the most; high school dropouts, the unemployed, ex-offenders, legal and undocumented immigrants.

How much does it cost a State when someone fails to register?  Well, the System estimated men who failed to register in California were denied access to more than $99 million in federal and state financial aid and job training between 2007 and 2014.  A combined $35 million in federal and state financial aid and job training were withheld from citizens in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts from 2011 to 2014.

Big Picture

In order for a war to be just it must be fought in defense.  If we haven’t been attacked, then there shouldn’t be a draft which makes the Selective Service System moot.  Furthermore, wars are fought on a limited, instead of a total basis today.  We use better technology to minimize labor costs which puts fewer lives in harm’s way and out of combat.

And with fewer lives lost, the public has less cannon fodder to protest against.  In fact, support for the military has grown after the draft was abolished.  “A Gallup poll last June found that 74 percent of more than 1,000 Americans surveyed had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military — versus 58 percent in 1975, at the close of the Vietnam era.”

In June, 2012 the Government Accountability Office published a report which stated the “DOD has not reevaluated requirements for the Selective Service System since 1994” and recommended “that DOD (1) evaluate its requirements for the Selective Service System in light of recent strategic guidance and (2) establish a process of periodically reevaluating these requirements.”

Abolish The Selective Service System

The System is a throwback the early days of the Cold War.  We haven’t been attacked in quite a long while and we no longer need or want a draft.  The System benefitted millions of men but at the same time excluded of millions of men who failed to register.  The System is wasteful and costs more than it’s worth.  The sooner we abolish it, the better.


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I want to write about new experiences, the people I meet and the things I learn. I moved from Tempe, AZ to Arlington, VA with my dog 5 years ago. We love it here.

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