war on the rocks

Rebooting the Selective Service

May 9, 2016

Registering for the Selective Service is easier than it’s ever been. As long as you know your social security number, you can register in less than two minutes. Ordering a meal and creating a playlist require a deeper level of engagement than the act of registering to potentially go to war. What should be a grave consideration has become just another to-do.

In addition to the military-strategic justifications for the Selective Service System, it is also the only statutory opportunity the nation has to connect with every young American. If we’re going to have a Selective Service System, it should be structured in such a way that it asks young people to consider their relationship to their nation in addition to offering  an outlet to actively pursue that relationship more deeply.

Fifteen years of continuous war has led to a healthy debate about the all-volunteer force. Since the Secretary of Defense’s “no exceptions” announcement, a distinct but interrelated debate has started to play out concerning Selective Service.

A unifying theme between both debates, as retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry puts it, is, “[t]he question of ‘political ownership’ of our military within our democracy.” The Selective Service is the closest thing most citizens have to “ownership of our military.” More broadly, it’s one of the few responsibilities of citizenship.

Oddly, 15 years into America’s current wars, registering for the Selective Service means less than it ever has. Registering for the draft used to have a visceral effect on people’s daily lives and lifelong trajectories, whether they were burning a draft card, seeking a deferment, volunteering to serve, dodging, or being conscripted (that was partly because at times, the potential for combat was real). Today, a more effective Selective Service System could reap some civic rewards without compromising the strategic benefits of the all-volunteer force.

Rather than focusing on whether or not Americans should register for an unlikely draft, here are a couple practical suggestions for improving the Selective Service System:

First, registration should provide a compelling advertisement about the benefits of service —whether in the military or as a civilian — and offer clear, actionable information about completing this type of service. I work with an organization that  makes it easy for young people to search for civilian national service opportunities. Second, the registration process should occur with more frequency. As of today, registration is required once (though technically, the registration is supposed to be updated in case someone moves). Registration should occur often enough to be a conscious part of a young person’s life between the ages of 18 and 25.

There are many compelling counterarguments to these suggestions. For instance, it could be argued that registration should be as convenient as possible to support mass mobilization. Anything more than that, it could be argued, exceeds the mandate of Selective Service and might decrease its ability to achieve its central strategic priority.

This argument ignores the lived history of the Selective Service and the reality that Americans are disengaged from their longest wars. Traditionally, registering for the Selective Service carried with it the potential for “skin in the game.” This sentiment has decreased with distance from the repeal of the draft. Additionally, by increasing the frequency with which people register, it’s also likely that the Selective Service would have more up-to-date contact information in the event of total war in an era when young people are increasingly mobile.

Modest Selective Service reforms would not solve the challenges of today’s civil-military relationship. But, by increasing the frequency with which young people are required to register and encouraging young Americans to serve their country and community, the Selective Service could make citizenship a more personal experience.


Jason Mangone is on the Leadership Council of Service Year Alliance (formerly the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project), an initiative to make a service year a cultural expectation and common opportunity for every young American. He is a former Marine infantry officer.


Image: U.S. Navy