Selective Service Trimming some ancient dead wood

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 8:47 PM

Rep. Mike Coffman is a Republican who represents part of suburban Denver in the U.S. Congress.

He is also the son of an Army doctor and was born on an Army post. He has served on active duty and as a reservist in both the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps. He is a combat veteran who served in the first Gulf War and in Iraq again in 2005.

In other words, Coffman is anything but anti-military. So if he thinks the Selective Service System should be abolished, his opinion carries weight. Coffman said just that in an opinion piece in The Denver Post (Feb. 28.). He has introduced a bill that would end the Selective Service System.

He makes a good case, starting with personal experience. Coffman joined the Army with his parents’ permission at 17. That was in 1972 and the draft was still in operation. He has a volunteer’s disdain for how hard many conscripts tried to get out of the Army. And he shows a professional’s pride in the quality and effectiveness of the all-volunteer services.

By all accounts, toward the end of the Vietnam era the conscript Army all but came apart. In Coffman’s words it was “fractured along racial lines ... broken from drug and alcohol abuse, and suffered from a fundamental lack of discipline and low morale.”

The draft ended in 1973, with the last conscripts leaving the Army about two years later. Readiness, discipline, moral and training all improved in the all-volunteer Army that followed.

The Selective Service System was dismantled, but events intervened. As Coffman recounts, in 1980 President Jimmy Carter wanted to caution the Soviet Union after it invaded Afghanistan and asked Congress to reinstate the Selective Service System. Since then, American males have been legally obligated to register within 30 days of turning 18.

But in the intervening years the military has never asked for a draft and Congress has never given it serious thought. No one has been prosecuted for failing to register in 25 years.

Nonetheless, in that time the Selective Service System has cost the taxpayers more than $700 million. Coffman says his bill doing away with it will save $24 million per year, as well as free military personnel for more important work.

Coffman’s bill has a provision to allow the president to reinstate the Selective Service System by executive order if needed. That, however, sounds like window dressing. There is little reason to think it would be used.

In 1942, it may have been possible to take raw draftees, put them through basic training and send them off to war. Today’s military it too high-tech, too complex and too specialized for that. It is doubtful the services could quickly and effectively absorb a large influx of untrained men — or that they would want to.

Coffman is right to recognize the Selective Service System as an obsolete vestige of the Cold War. Ending it will save taxpayers money and spare young men an unnecessary inconvenience.