Proposals for Reform
The last part of a three-piece series
The National Advisory Commission on Selective Service is a blue-ribbon committee in the hoary tradition of blue-ribbon committees. What its 22 members say about the draft when they report to the President January 1, will represent the thinking of responsible adults everywhere. And because the Commission has been most attentive to Johnson's pronouncements and most careful to tune their logic to his, what they say will be listened to.
It is inconceivable that the Commission will suggest either compulsory national service or a volunteer army, though they might offer the latter as a long-range goal. Commission sources say both ideas are too extreme, both require much more study before they can be considered practical alternatives to the present draft. The Commission, the sources say, will make detailed recommendations for reform of the present Selective Service System.
They will propose, first, that registrants be given more information on their rights and obligations under Selective Service law. When a man becomes 18 he is obliged to register with his local draft board, but at no time does he receive so much as a post card from anyone telling him to do so. If he wants to appeal his classification, he can learn the proper procedure for going about it only from a tiny pamphlet supplied by the local board. At one time each state was to appoint a government appeals agent to usher a man through the elaborate appeals process, but the position is unfilled in some places and the government agent makes no pretense of aiding his charge in many others.
The Commission will probably ask for minor changes in the structure of the more than 4000 local boards without questioning the existence of the local boards. The five men who sit for two or three hours a month as a local board often do not represent the people they classify. It is unfair to claim that only a representative body can do justice, but it is doubtful that the boards in Mississippi, where no Negro sits on a draft board, or Chicago, where board members often do not live in the neighborhoods they serve, can avoid some off-hand bigotry. Besides, the prime argument for having local boards is that they are representative; that they will be more likely than a national board to know that opthamologists should be deferred in Alaska because people there often have eye trouble. By setting up some residence criteria and ordering an end to segregation the Commission could ensure better representation. A clause limiting a member to 5 or so years on the board could keep the group responsive to changes in the community.
The Commission may propose that a full-time clerk be made an official part of the board, perhaps to serve as chairman. This would be a half-pint of professionalism to counter the image of five old poker partners disposing of young lives between antes. Funds to re-decorate or re-locate boards could be allocated for the same reason.
To appease those who charge that boards are arbitrary in their decisions, now plucking one Peace Corpsman from the Phillipines, now blessing a second's trip to Nigeria, the Commission will ask for Selective Service National Headquarters to establish strict guidelines for deferment. Selective Service officials admit the local boards will follow any formula the national headquarters hands them -- they have too many men to classify to do otherwise -- and that the guidelines have been left vague on the theory that a man unsure of his draft status is a man who may enlist.
"We figure that we have the guidelines set about right when the same number of registrants complain they're too loose as board members complain they're too rigid," says Colonel Dee Ingold, special assistant to the director of the Selective Service.
Before guidelines can be drawn, deferment policy must be determined; and on that crucial point there is probably still no agreement within the Commission. Two days of intensive meetings which ended vesterday may have produced a consensus, but, as happened earlier in the Commission's 6-month existence, some member could re-open discussion simply by stating he was dissatisfied with the policy.
There is a possibility the Commission will vote to abolish II-S and set up a lottery. The American Council of Education, the most powerful university lobby, has failed to find a philosophical argument for II-S that would sway the dullest head. The II-S is, however, convenient: with the draft pool now twice as big as the military requires some way must be found to exempt men. It also maintains the colleges as a source of ROTC officers, and "channels" -- to use the Selective Service word -- young men into careers which serve the national purpose.
Against expediency is weighed the draft exam and class rank, two adjuncts to II-S with enormous political consequences. Professors do not like the use of class rank as a factor in determining deferment because they resent being drawn into the Selective Service process; psychologists dislike it because, they say, it leads to grade-grubbing and unnatural tension -- and they claim that grades often don't have any relation to performance after college. The draft exam can be attacked: congenital inaccuracy which makes it impossible to answer some questions because the right answer is a) not given or b) given more than once, albeit in various forms.
The Commission will very likely do in II-S to satisfy these critics. If this is done, a lottery such as the one proposed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) would be needed to select men from the swollen draft pool. In the lottery system, all men reaching the age of 18 would be examined by the local draft board. Those who passed the physical and mental tests would be assigned a number by the board. After these numbers were assigned, the selective service system would conduct a national drawing. It would put into a "fish bowl" as many numbers as the largest local board had registrants, then draw out each number and make a record of the order in which it appeared. Each board would receive a copy of this list, and the men whose numbers were selected first would be called first by the local board.
A man would go to the bottom of the following year's list if his number is not called. He would remain eligible for the draft for another year but, barring a war, this would be a mere formality.
Hardship deferments would be retained; educational deferments might be granted for up to four years. A man who wanted to finish college before facing the lottery could do so and take his chances with the 19-year-olds after graduation. Only prospective doctors would be allowed to go straight to graduate school.
The critics of the lottery charge that it substitutes blind chance for human judgment, that it replaces the luck of birth and upbringing with the luck of the draw. Why gamble, they ask, when the local draft boards can determine by objective standards who should receive deferments and who should not?
The Commission will probably not be convinced by this and will give the lottery and the country a whirl.