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Is It Time to Bring Back the Draft?

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on and recruiting volunteers gets harder, the idea of a military draft seems less far-fetched.

By Patricia Smith


With American forces bogged down in Iraq and the military struggling to meet its commitments around the globe, some lawmakers and military experts are asking a very controversial question: Is it time to bring back the draft?

It's been more than 30 years since the U.S. last had a draft, during the tumult of the Vietnam War. Although the Bush administration says the military can meet its needs with the current all-volunteer force, some analysts aren't so sure.

"To put it into terms that most Americans can understand," writes Philip Gold in his book The Coming Draft, "the Army is living, people-wise, from paycheck to paycheck, and is only one lost paycheck away from disaster."

Of the four military service branches, the Army, which is carrying much of the combat load in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems to be having the hardest time. It failed to meet its recruitment goals in 2005, although it did meet them for 2006. But there are some indications that the Army is relaxing its standards: The age limit for enlistment has been raised from 35 to 42, and high school dropouts made up 19 percent of new enlistees in 2006, up from 6 percent in 2003.

Five years into the war on terrorism, the U.S. military is stretched to the limit. Its 1.4 million active-duty troops may sound like a big pool to draw from, but that figure includes support units, training units, headquarters personnel, and others who do not go to the front. During a prolonged war like the one in Iraq, frontline units have to be rotated out and replaced while they rest and retrain. So keeping 138,000 ground troops in Iraq and 23,000 in Afghanistan, while maintaining forces elsewhere in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia creates a strain.

And what if another military conflict arises—in North Korea or Iran, for example? A Pentagon-appointed panel recently concluded that the military would lack the forces to handle its current operations if new crises emerged.

Military Opposition

Still, most of the top military brass seem to be opposed to a draft. The Pentagon says volunteers meet the military's needs better than a conscripted force would. First, volunteers are more committed to being in the armed forces than people who are forced to join would be. And many volunteers are considering a career in the military, so as a group, volunteers stay longer. (During the draft, only one of every eight soldiers re-enlisted once his original tour of duty was over; today, one of every two re-enlists.) With less turnover, there are fewer people to train, and the armed forces as a whole are more experienced.

Furthermore, the Pentagon says volunteers are a better fit for today's military, which makes use of a lot more technology and sophisticated equipment than in the past: fewer, but more-skilled soldiers are what the armed forces need, they say.

"Today's force is smarter, more experienced, and more economically diverse" than the draft-era military, says Bill Carr, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for military personnel policy. "The overrepresented in Vietnam, in the last draft, were the poor. They are the most underrepresented in today's military."

The most outspoken advocate for returning to the draft is Congressman Charles Rangel of New York. A Korean War veteran, Rangel has introduced legislation to reinstate the draft three times and has announced plans to do so again when the new Congress convenes this month.

Question Of Fairness

Rangel is proposing a draft in which all men and women, ages 18 to 42, would have to register. (Currently, only 18- to 25-year-old men have to register with the Selective Service.) The President would then determine how many are needed for the military and they would be required to serve for a specified time period. The remainder would have to do some kind of national civilian service.

(Many details of Rangel's proposal have yet to be worked out, but education deferments—the loophole through which many upper-middle-class men avoided the draft during the Vietnam era—would be allowed only to finish high school.)

Rangel sees the draft as a question of fairness: requiring that the burden of fighting a war be shared by all segments of American society.

"There's no question in my mind," he says, "that we wouldn't be in Iraq, that we would have gone the diplomatic route, if indeed we had a draft, and members of Congress and the administration thought that kids from their communities would be placed in harm's way."

But Gold, the author of The Coming Draft, sees the potential effect on policy differently. "Just giving a President hundreds of thousands of bodies to play with is, I think, morally and politically wrong," he says. Tim Kane of the Heritage Foundation, who has analyzed the demographics of the military's recent recruits, says the numbers don't support Rangel's underlying assumptions.

"These claims that the military is full of people who are underprivileged and poor are pretty widespread, and that is just not true," Kane says.

According to his analysis of Defense Department data, recent recruits come mostly from middle-class neighborhoods, and in terms of race, they look quite similar to the U.S. as a whole. Very few come from upper-middle-class or wealthy families. There were, however, five members of the 109th Congress with close relatives serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, and one Senator, Max Baucus of Montana, had a nephew who died in Iraq.

Turbulent History

Last month, a group of students gathered at Lebanon High School in Lebanon, N.H., to discuss the draft with a reporter. Almost all opposed the idea. "Governments are here to reflect and carry out what the people want, and I don't think a draft is part of that," said Luke Giveen, a sophomore.

Eleventh-grader Andrew Kelly added: "When a war is necessary enough, people will realize it and they'll step up to defend the country. When the government has to force people to defend the country, it has overstepped its bounds."

The United States has instituted the draft three times—during the Civil War and the two world wars. In the Civil War, when draftees could buy their way out of service, riots broke out in New York among gangs of immigrants when the police tried to enforce conscription. More than 100 people died in the rioting, which lasted for five days. During World War I, there were some draft resisters who went to jail.

Vietnam

The draft was in effect continuously between 1940 and 1973, with few protests during World War II and the Korean War. Vietnam was another matter.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the rising death toll and growing unpopularity of the war prompted widespread opposition to the draft, with many men burning their draft cards in protest. About 100,000 men left the country to avoid being drafted—"draft dodgers" or "conscientious objectors," depending on your point of view—and countless more stayed in school to maintain their exemptions, or volunteered for service that would keep them out of Vietnam. (How President Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, stayed out of Vietnam were issues during their campaigns.)

Amid this turbulence, and as America's involvement in Vietnam wound down, President Nixon abolished the draft in 1973.

"There was a new political consensus that the federal government should no longer possess the authority to command citizens to serve," says Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor at Boston University. Bacevich thinks the all-volunteer military worked well until after 9/11, when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the broader fight against terrorism multiplied demands on the military. But he doesn't think a return to the draft is the answer.

Most politicians and military experts agree, along with most Americans: Polls indicate that at least 70 percent oppose reinstating the draft.

"There isn't a chance in the world that the draft will be brought back," former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said last year, trying to put rumors of an impending draft to rest.

"The bottom line is that we have a dilemma here," Bacevich says. "If we are going to pursue the global war on terror, and if that means that circumstances like Iraq won't be one of a kind, we don't have enough soldiers to get the job done. What do we do? I think the answer is nobody knows."