Selective Service registration is one of the most visible forms of gender discrimination in the United States today, impacting half of the country’s young adults — a total which includes much of UTD’s student body. Despite this, it is an issue that often seems to recede into the background of societal discourse, sometimes almost ignored. However, for an all-too-brief moment over the summer, it roared back into the news.
Following a decision last year by the U.S. military to open up all combat positions to female soldiers, Congress debated requiring 18-year-old women beginning in 2018 to register with the Selective Service System, the government agency tasked with taking the names of America’s young men for a draft that has not existed since Vietnam. Interestingly enough, the bill was proposed in the House by Selective Service opponent Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon. By making politicians face the idea of their daughters being forced to sign up for the remote chance to be sent to die in a World War III, DeFazio sought to point out how unnecessary the Selective Service system is in its entirety. Instead, some prominent political figures, including women, endorsed the idea. Nevertheless, the provision was struck from the defense budget before fading away once again.
Despite there being no active draft, Selective Service still affects young people today. Under U.S. law, men are required to register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of their 18th birthday, though some late cases before age 26 such as for young male immigrants may be accepted. Signing up can be done easily enough through its website, which features pictures of good-looking, happy young males doing activities like hiking instead of, you know, being shot at and blown apart in an active warzone.
The penalty for not registering is a maximum five-year jail term or $250,000 fine, though that has not been enforced since 1986. However, a web of federal and state laws has since emerged to go after men who do not sign up. Are you a non-registered male and need loans for college, or want a position within the federal government? Too bad for you! Are you an 18 to 25-year-old young man studying at a Texas university and being hired for an on-campus job? Better have your registration in your personal documents so HR can make a copy! Most surprisingly, registration is also tied to receiving a driver’s license in the State of Texas, alongside over 40 other U.S. states and territories, according to the Center on Conscience & War.
Texas’s laws stand in stark contrast to those in my home state. Growing up in Massachusetts, I never needed to show my proof of registration to receive my driver’s license, which I achieved when I was 20, or to obtain research assistant positions at the university I attended there. I just needed to answer “Yes” to having signed up on my FAFSA to obtain student loans, and that was that. When I filled the Selective Service form out online as a senior in high school in 2001, it was an honestly degrading experience. I angrily shoved my printout card into a filled desk drawer, never wanting to look at it again, and I was glad to put that memory behind me as I moved on with life.
Draft registration in America is a bizarre anachronism, previously only showing up for major conflicts such as both World Wars when conscription was used. When the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, Selective Service ended and for the next six years was never a part of young men’s lives. It only exists today because the Carter Administration restored it in 1980 as a chest-thumping move towards the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan, and it has never been suspended again since. Its male-only registration requirement and motto of “It’s What A Man’s Got To Do” is completely out of step with a society that is embracing more nuanced concepts of gender equality. Given that an actual draft has not existed in 43 years and the military is perfectly happy with an all-volunteer force, there may be no point to registration’s continued existence, period.
Why, then, is this not a more popularly discussed topic? Surely we have stories to tell, and that does not just include those who had to deal with Selective Service personally. For example, how does a female HR employee at UTD who makes copies of young male student workers’ registration for paperwork feel about the issue? How do women who remember their high school years feel about remembering their male friends and boyfriends being forced to sign up? How do sisters feel about their brothers having had to or having to go through this?
The need for women’s views are particularly important in this matter, for the issue is often used as a bludgeoning tool for men to discredit existing patriarchal structures, holding back proper discussion. Rather, the Selective Service System is a prime example of how traditional, male-dominated culture has also harmed men in tandem with women, and it can be discussed without minimizing or denying sexism against women and its impact on their lives.
Nonetheless, a discrimination problem exists, and the first go-to solution usually suggested is requiring women to sign up too. Many female political leaders have voiced their support of such a measure, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. However, previous attempts to do so have not succeeded due to socially conservative politicians’ opposition to forcing women to go to war. When discussing the idea in February, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said “I’m the father of two little girls…the idea that their government would forcibly put them in the foxhole with a 220-pound psychopath trying to kill them, doesn’t make any sense at all.” But if he had sons, should he be okay with sending them off to die by the hands of said psychopath in said foxhole? After all, “It’s What A Man’s Got To Do.”
Thus arises the other option. Instead of kicking down women to the level of men who have had their rights deprived by forcing them to sign up for Selective Service, why not raise men up to the level and dignity of women who have freedom from conscription? The whole point of registering people for “the draft” is rendered moot by its four decades of nonexistence. Let us just cancel the whole farce and be done. So many in Congress, though, remain glued to the idea that we just might need the Selective Service System, which is why the idea of its dissolution has thus far failed. Larry Romo, its director, has called it “a very inexpensive insurance policy.” Selective Service’s budget is $23 million yearly, with the agency predicting a needed $8 million increase to begin taking the names of 18-year-old women as well.
However, it is easy to imagine an alternate history where Selective Service registration was never brought back in 1980. The result is that it would not exist today. Of course, national tragedies such as 9/11 could have brought consideration of reinstatement, but the historical weight of decades of its absence would have stopped the idea in its tracks. No one in 2016 would have to sign up or be denied student loans and other benefits.
The most damning evidence for the utter absurdity of the system in its current form, though, lies in its upkeep. Young men technically have to give it address changes until they turn 26, and not doing so is listed as a felony — except this provision is not enforced, and it is safe to say hardly anyone submits these changes. Journalist Max J. Rosenthal wrote in a June article for Mother Jones that “in 1982, just two years after draft registration had resumed, the US General Accounting Office…found that 20 to 40 percent of the addresses for 20-year-olds were outdated. The GAO pegged the number at 75 percent for 26-year-olds.” These statistics render the Selective Service System’s database an utter joke. Even if we wanted to run a draft today, would that be the go-to source we would use for it?
Selective Service’s continued existence is comical in a truly dark sense. Our country has wasted money for almost four decades forcing half of our 18-year-olds to sign up for a completely useless list for a draft that does not exist. When we decided non-registration was not worth jailing people over, rather than acting responsibly and ending Selective Service again we kept it around with a whole new maze of penalties. Furthermore, there is evidence that they are hurting our ability to reach and help some of our poorest of the poor.
In 2014, Washington Post reporter Tina Griego documented in an article the case of Danieldevel Davis, a then 40-year-old man trying to turn around a troubled life that included growing up in foster homes and multiple prison sentences. When he attempted to enroll in college in Virginia, he was told he could not apply for financial aid due to never having registered for Selective Service when he was younger. Davis’s experience is not alone; Griego wrote that “In California, the Selective Service System estimates, men who failed to register were denied access to more than $99 million in federal and state financial aid and job training benefits between 2007 and April of this year. Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts saw $35 million in combined lost benefits between 2011 and spring 2014.” These and other state-by-state numbers represent the hidden costs of the Selective Service System, critically injuring our ability to uplift disadvantaged men from poverty.
We need to abolish Selective Service, not expand its ability to do harm by forcing the other 50 percent of America’s young adults into its cruel grasp. Instead of a draft, all we have is a sad, vestigial ghost we have yet to exorcise. It serves no true purpose today except to diminish and hurt those affected by it. Selective Service, like other such bad policies, can be repealed. Earlier this year, Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado filed a bill to do just that. While it has gone nowhere since, their efforts represent something worth getting behind.
Selective Service registration is an utterly sexist, demeaning, and pointless exercise. And while forcing women to sign up as well would take away the sexism and make it slightly less demeaning, it would do nothing to remove the damage and senselessness. It has no practical use, nor does it represent the priorities we should have as a society in the 21st century. Don’t extend it — end it.