THERE'S SAFETY in numbers, or so President Carter wants the nation to believe. His proposal to reinstate draft registration would build a national data bank with names and numbers for millions of American youths--a computerized blueprint for national mobilization. Carter admits it's a symbolic act to demonstrate American resolve to the Soviets, not a military necessity. But the symbolic value of draft registration sends a quicker message to American voters than to the Kremlin: Carter can appear to take a hard line against the U.S.S.R. and to bolster national defense through a relatively inexpensive information-gathering process. Draft registration is his placebo to soothe America's war fever; its numbers can't make us any safer, but can at least make us feel better.
The White House makes its case for registration--which it calls "selective service revitalization"--in a pea-soup fog of war; sometimes it's easier to puzzle out how the rebels are faring in the hills of Afghanistan than to divine Carter's rationale for sending 19- and 20-year-olds to their local post-office windows. His proposal comes under the umbrella of the "Carter doctrine," his promise to defend the Persian Gulf by--gasp--any means necessary. A year ago, his administration rejected a return to draft registration; the Pentagon had much more confidence in the volunteer army than Congressional critics looking for something to criticize. Today the White House says, "Recent events have shown us that more dramatic efforts are in order. We need to show our determination to check Soviet aggression." The military requirements of defending American interests haven't changed much since then, but Carter feels a need to liven up the foreign policy drama he's writing.
Draft registration has unquestionable symbolic value, domestically, as the political success of Carter's arms-akimbo military posture shows. It plays on a centuries-old collective emotion, the kind of thing history texts mention under the heading "Rise of the Nation-States." Napoleon's levee en masse introduced the modern world to the idea of the nation-in arms, and the rest of Europe ended up adopting the same means to frustrate France's expansionary ends. National mobilization took the very decision of war and peace out of the hands of European leaders in August 1914; once the go-ahead for mobilization reached the countryside, and soldiers gathered at railway depots, the various nations-in-arms had little choice but to fight. The ideology of national mobilization tends to foster a feeling of security; however, it has also historically promoted military adventurism, and even the kind of expansionary nationalism dimly remembered today as cries for "lebensraum."
No wonder, then, that registration--and the actual draft it makes possible--helps allay the voters' fear of weakness, and spreads a halo of potency around the same armed forces we've had for almost a decade. The symbol Carter invoked in his State of the Union speech can mesmerize Americans easily enough. But it will not show the Soviet Union determination or anything else unless it represents a substantial military advantage. It will have to be as handy a weapon in whatever struggle Carter anticipates with Russia as it's been in the battles in Iowa and New Hampshire.
THE STRONGEST ARGUMENT against draft registration--one that should make as much sense to the man or woman afraid our military has gone to pot as to the student whose political mythology crystallizes around the Vietnam war--is that it answers no current military need, fills no breaches in our national barricades. It is the form of national defense without the substance. Its proponents recite a list of indictments against the volunteer army (which the Defense Department, characteristically, calls the "All Volunteer Force" or AVF): its recruiting techniques don't fill manpower quotas, its recruits aren't smart enough to fight a modern war, and the kids it brings in from the inner cities are more interested in getting high than in defending their homeland.
The weight of these charges wasn't enough to convince either the Pentagon or the White House last year to scrap the AVF. Actually, the three services fell only 7 per cent short of their recruiting goals last year, and platoon sergeants swore to New York Times reporters that the latest privates were as good as any they'd seen. More immediately relevant, though, draft registration would neither replace nor bolster the volunteer army. Carter has explicitly stated he doesn't plan to use peacetime conscription to fill recruitment quotas. And the inductees of a peacetime draft are as little likely to be gung-ho as their volunteer peers.
Presumably, then, draft registration would only be of use in the event of war--but what sort of war? Carter's coupling of the registration proposal with his new doctrine has created the fuzzy impression that somehow draft registration will help when the Soviets close their geo-political pincer on the Persian Gulf. But it's obvious a Carter Doctrine war would require equipment far more than men. It would be a war of relatively small forces relying on sophisticated weaponry as well as air and sea support--the kind of war Israel has been winning for decades. It demands quality, not quantity, of soldiers, and draftees would simply not fit the bill. The 13 days draft registration would save in getting those men onto the field would also be 13 fewer days of training. Military historians like B.H. Lidell Hart agree that in contemporary warfare, sending green conscripts into battle before they know how to use all the gadgetry would cripple any fighting force.
The Pentagon understands this as well as anyone; that's why it wants a Rapid Deployment Force of 100,000 men trained in the art of the brushfire war and the lightning intervention. But it has requested draft registration anyway under the influence of a doctrine it calls "the one-and-a-half war theory," tested in 1978 in the largest simulation of a world war ever. The computer assumed a global one-two punch from the Soviet Union: a move into some secondary theater of war--like, say, the Persian Gulf--pinning down America's most mobile and effective forces, followed by a massive assault in Western Europe. This half-war followed by all-out war apparently scared Pentagon analysts, who found American military manpower and reserves couldn't handle the simultaneous demands. No wonder: the computer predicted 500,000 casualties in Europe in the first six weeks. To replace those numbers, the U.S. doesn't even have the transport aircraft to deliver the bodies of recruits, let alone equipment, supplies, and ammunition.
TO KEEP THE U.S. prepared to win the sort of war the Pentagon outlined in 1978 would essentially require a war-time level of military spending, today. The simple realities of a domestic economy, not to mention other valid claims on government resources, rule out such a budget. It's naive, however, for anyone--anti-draft activist or Pentagon computer--to assume that such a huge war would not escalate up the nuclear ladder, from conventional warfare to "limited nuclear war" to Armageddon. If the planning to fight this conventional war in Europe means that the U.S. has given up the idea of nuclear deterrence altogether, then our military policy needs total rethinking, not just the cosmetics of draft registration.
Under the guise of showing Brezhnev our fists clenched in anger over Afghanistan and our readiness to defend the emirates and kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, Carter has proposed reviving draft registration. He's just not mentioning over national television that the real purpose of that draft would be to fight a conventional World War III in Europe.