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Unused Since 1973, Military Draft Infrastructure Remains Ready

Selective Service program analysts Vince McClure (right) and Cristine Nguyen demonstrate the machines that would determine who would be drafted if the U.S. reinstates a military draft.
Jagmeet Mac
American Homefront Project
Selective Service program analysts Vince McClure (right) and Cristine Nguyen demonstrate the machines that would determine who would be drafted if the U.S. reinstates a miliatary draft.

The last American was drafted in 1973, but the U.S. maintains an elaborate infrastructure to re-activate the draft if Congress ever decides it's needed.

The military draft, dormant since the early 1970s, is back on policymakers' minds. As women take on more combat roles in the services, Pentagon leaders have breached the subject of whether they should also be required to register. Meanwhile, some members of Congress question whether the Selective Service system is still needed at all.

First off, the obvious. The last American was drafted in 1973. President Jimmy Carter brought the Selective Service system out of deep freeze in 1981, after the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan, once again requiring "male persons" to register on their eighteenth birthdays. They must remain registered until they turn 26. If they don't they could lose federal education benefits and be disqualified for federal jobs. 

But it would basically take a Martian invasion, as Julie Lynn, California Director of the Selective Service joked, to actually reinstate the draft.

"I mean after September 11, all of the armed forces got more volunteers than they could handle," Lynn said. "They turned away volunteers because they were getting more people than they could use."

Nevertheless, the Selective Service continues to be funded at about $23 million a year and has about 100 employees nationwide.

"We're a very inexpensive insurance policy," said Selective Service Director Larry Romo.  "It's just like Heaven forbid, we don't want to use nuclear weapons, but we have nuclear weapons."

A lottery machine, but nobody wants to win

The Selective Service headquarters in Arlington, Virginia is also home to "The Machine" -- actually two, clear, fish-tank-like hexagons manufactured by Garron, the same company that makes the devices used by many state lotteries.

Like a lottery machine, the Selective Service devices contain numbered ping-pong balls that blow around inside a tank. 

Every month, Selective Service Program Analyst Vince McClure or one of his colleagues rolls out the machines, boots them up, and makes sure they would be ready to jump into action should duty call.

The first machine has white ping pong balls — the “precedence number,” McClure explains. “With numbers from one to 366. And the other has blue balls in it, with the dates of January 1 to December 31.”

Those are the birthdays.


In each machine, the racks drop balls into the tank and they mix, until one rolls into the tube. Each birthday gets paired with a precedence number.

In a real draft, the Selective Service would come for 20-year-olds first. So if you’re 20 years old, and your birthday pops up at the same time as precedence number one, that means you.

Next up would be 21, 22, 23, 24-year-olds. Then, the 18 and 19-year-olds. And finally, 25 and 26-year-olds.

Students enrolled in undergraduate degree programs at the time they're drafted would be allowed to finish their current semester. Then, they'd have to leave school for induction into the armed forces. But students in their senior year of undergraduate studies would be allowed to finish and graduate no matter which semester they're in. The "student deferments" of the Vietnam era no longer exist.

2100 local draft boards ... that never meet

Though no draft is underway, the Selective Service system maintains more than 2100 local boards nationwide, made up of volunteers.  Somewhat similar to the pre-1974 "Draft boards," the local boards would approve or disapprove requests for deferments and exemptions, though they would have less power than the old boards to actually decide who is and isn't drafted. Under the current system, any applicant denied a deferment or exemption may appeal to a higher-level "Area Board" and a single "National Board."

For now, though, the local boards never meet, and their members responsibilities include little more than taking an online training class and waiting in case a draft is ever reinstated.

Some critics view the entire Selective Service mechanism as wasteful. Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman, a member of the Armed Services Committee, has made several attempts to abolish it.

"This is a very elite military," Coffman said. "So I don't see how if there were a national emergency, that we could suddenly take all these people in and somehow assimilate them into the United States Army."

Coffman, who volunteered for the Army in 1972, predicts Congress will soon face a decision about the future of the Selective Service system: As the Pentagon opens more jobs to female service members, he says lawmakers will be forced to decide between requiring women to register for Selective Service, or eliminating the entire registration system. 

John Ismay has more on that in Part 2 of this report.