11/27/2013 02:47 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

It's Quick, It's Easy and It's Time to Get Rid of This Law

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination provided an opportunity for a great many people to spend a great deal of time saying a great many things about the Kennedy presidency, the Kennedy era, and the Kennedy legacy. Pundits and historians weighed in on everything from the Cold War and civil rights to Vietnam and tax cuts.

There was a consensus, at least in my own observations of all this reminiscing, that Kennedy's call to public service remains inspiring even if it now seems so long ago. What politician today, after all, would dare ask us to consider not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country, for fear of enraging Tea Party "patriots" and Ayn Rand acolytes?

The story has been often told that Bill Clinton was one of those inspired by Kennedy, and as president himself Clinton created AmeriCorps as an homage to Kennedy's Peace Corps. In truth, while it is a good program and even a noble one, AmeriCorps has not generated the same glamour that the Peace Corps has.

Before turning to a career in politics, of course, Kennedy has already served his country in the Navy during World War II, and he spoke to a generation of men who had also served in the military. Two generations, actually. American men had been subject to a military draft from 1940 until 1972 (with a brief pause right after World War II). When Kennedy spoke to the nation at his inaugural in January 1961, he was speaking to a country already conditioned to the idea of national service.

Since 1973 we have had no draft, but in 1980 we brought back its necessary first step. In July of that year President Jimmy Carter reinstituted draft registration for all young men when they turn 18. There was no military need for this -- it was a pure bit of political posturing on Carter's part. His presidential campaign was floundering against charges that he was not an aggressive Cold Warrior. The Soviet Union had recently invaded Afghanistan, and Carter wanted to demonstrate that he could get tough with the Soviets. In a preview of a dynamic that has become all too common, those charges were leveled by Ronald Reagan, who spent the Second World War making morale-boosting movies, against a man who had had a distinguished career as a naval officer.

"It's quick, it's easy and it's the law," young men have been told ever since, but you must read the fine print to discover that failure to register comes with hefty potential penalties: a maximum of 5 years in a federal prison and/or a $250,000 fine. In addition, failure to comply with the law can disqualify you from certain federal jobs (and state jobs in some places). And thanks to a series of bills sponsored by the truly loathsome Representative Gerald Solomon (think Tea Partier avant la lettre) men can be denied federal financial aid for college or job training if they don't register. The Solomon Amendments tie one's conscience to one's bank account.

Draft registration, therefore, is an artifact of the Cold War, like NORAD and Dick Cheney, but it has now gone on longer than the Cold War-era draft itself, and has outlived the USSR by two decades. It is so antique that women are still not considered draft-eligible in the Selective Service system, though the Pentagon itself now trains women for virtually every kind of combat role.

More to the point, it serves no purpose. The Iraq war put such strains on military staffing that the Pentagon created a "stop loss" program for soldiers and sailors -- essentially holding people beyond the term of service for which they had originally signed up. Reinstating the draft during that war might well have made military sense. But when a handful of Democratic congressmen floated the idea they knew it would go nowhere.

Their proposal too was a stunt designed to draw attention to the shabby way ordinary enlisted men and women were being treated by the Bush Administration. Those Congressmen knew that within 48 hours of re-instituting the draft, tens of thousands of angry parents would be in the streets protesting the war. Republicans in Congress and White House officials quashed the idea right quick, but in truth I suspect few Democrats would have voted for it either.

If we aren't going to have a draft in any imaginable future, and if we aren't even going to enforce the Selective Service registration law -- the last prosecution took place in 1986 -- then it is time to get rid of draft registration.

As it happens, I write this on my birthday, 30 years to the day when I decided to break this law. I did so after much deliberation and consultation. I talked a great deal about it with my parents, who never wavered in their support of my choice. Back then, the nation marked the 20th anniversary of the JFK murder, and I thought about that too as I contemplated my draft registration card. I also wanted to heed the call to service, to contribute to the greater good of this country. But at 17 I could not, in good conscience, participate in cheap Cold War theatrics masquerading as the flexing of military muscle. There are so many other, more productive ways to serve.

My own son will face this decision in almost exactly five years. I will support whatever decision he makes about this, but I hope that by the time he approaches his 18th birthday we will have ended this empty exercise in militarism and thought more broadly about how we can ask what we and our children can do for the country.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (Oxford University Press).