Forty-two years after the U.S. officially ended conscription of young men and opted for an all-volunteer military, the apparatus still exists for the draft and can be reactivated if necessary.
This relatively unpublicized fact was spelled out to Newsmax in a recent interview with Lawrence Romo, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and director of the U.S. Selective Service.
The 12th person to hold the position since Congress voted to authorize the draft in 1941, Romo oversees an agency with an annual budget of $22 million and 123 full-time employees, plus part-time directors of the draft in each state.
For those who assumed the draft boards and Selective Service were closed for business when Congress ended conscription in 1971, this is something of a surprise.
"But just remember — we don't have an active draft," Romo told Newsmax. "We have the mechanism to activate a draft, but it would only be activated by an act of Congress and presumably at the request of the president during an emergency."
Pointing to a photograph on his office wall of President Jimmy Carter signing a measure requiring draft registration in 1980, the Selective Service chief recalled that Carter did indeed move toward reactivation of military conscription when Americans were held hostage in Iran.
But, before the reactivation of the draft could be implemented the crisis ended and Carter was out of office.
"Calling for re-institution of the draft is never a popular thing," said Romo. In the 1960s, Barry Goldwater and other Republicans campaigned strongly for replacing the draft with a volunteer army and this goal was finally achieved under Richard Nixon. In recent years, several Democratic lawmakers have suggested reinstitution of the draft, the most vigorous being New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, a decorated Korean War veteran.
With women increasingly playing more active roles in uniform, reactivation of the draft would create a new and unpredictable situation.
Under the legislation now on the books, men aged 18-to-25 are required to register with the Selective Service. When asked if the law applies to women as well, Romo replied: "No. In order for it to apply, Congress would have to amend the Military Service Act."
Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska both spoke of pursuing such an amendment a few years ago but so far no action has been taken in Congress.
In discussing how the draft could be reactivated if Congress took action, Romo emphasized that he and his colleagues at the Selection Service are strong supporters of the volunteer army — or "Volar," as it is called in military shorthand.
In so doing, the present selective service director demonstrated how much he differed from his most celebrated predecessor. Gen. Lewis Hershey, who headed the Selective Service from its genesis in 1941 until his retirement in 1970, famously declared: "I hate to think of the day my grandchildren will be defended by volunteers."
"We learned from the Vietnam War that it is better to raise armies from people who want to serve than people in general," said Romo. "And when the economy is good, recruiting is hard. But there is always incentive to serve one's country in uniform and volunteer to do it."
As for reinstitution of the draft, Romo doesn't see it, at least not in the foreseeable future.
"But if there is a national emergency and Congress acts, we are prepared," he said. "Let's say for now, we're in deep mothballs."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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