Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Draft?
Election year politics cloud reality
By now, every young American has heard about it. Our leaders in Washington have declared the War On Terror an endless war, requiring endless military engagements and endless tightening of security and increased public surveillance back home. Both presidential candidates promise to keep the U.S. militarily involved in Iraq.
So far, we have seen the Pentagon's "stop-loss" policy keep Army Reserves and National Guard troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan long after their tour was supposed to have ended. We've read reports of Individual Ready Reserves, some in their 50s and 60s, being recalled for duty in both theaters of combat. We've watched a stream of high-level military officers make public statements condemning their lack of supplies and troops.
It appears that the military does not have the personnel to fight an endless war. So America, remembering Vietnam and our last war of attrition, wonders where we are going to find the soldiers.
Is there any reason to jump to the conclusion that a draft is coming? That depends on who you ask, and what political party they belong to.
On Oct. 5, the U.S. House of Representatives voted against legislation to reinstate the draft by a margin of 402 to 2. On the surface, that display of overwhelming opposition from one of our legislative bodies would seem to discredit the rumor of a pending draft. Yet things in politics, especially in a time of war, are seldom as simple as they appear.
The Universal National Service Act (HR 163) was proposed shortly before the invasion of Iraq by several notably liberal representatives in order to force Congress to earnestly examine what repercussions the war might have.
It proposed that all Americans (male and female) between the ages of 18 and 26 should serve a two-year term in the military or in a loosely defined national service position. There would be no exemptions for anyone but high school students and conscientious objectors.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) explained his reasons for co-sponsoring the bill.
"Mr. (Charles) Rangel (D-NY) and I put this bill in in January 2003 because we knew that not every American was at equal risk, that the wealthy would not go, and the war would be like all the others. But no one wanted to talk about it then."
The bill was not discussed at all for nearly two years, but as it became more obvious that the current invasion of Iraq would not be over in a few months, as many in the Bush administration had predicted, the dormant legislation began to look more menacing. Messages went swirling around the Internet that a draft was soon going to take place.
Republican and Democratic legislators received floods of mail from concerned youth and parents, according to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). The Selective Service System was also inundated with questions about a new draft.
John Kerry made several public statements to the effect that a draft would not happen under a Democratic administration, but was possible, or even likely, with his opponent in the White House.
Suddenly, only a few weeks before the election, Republican legislators decided to put the bill on the table in order to quiet the groundswell of discontent being heard from all corners of the country.
But they brought it up in such a way that it could not be discussed for more than 40 minutes, or amended in any way before the final vote. It is customary for controversial legislation to be reviewed before a related House committee, brought to the floor for a six-hour debate, amended, and then voted on, according to Rep. Lofgren. The House Republicans allowed none of this to happen.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) defended the Republican's unconventional method, saying they wanted to "expose the biggest hoax in show business," and that the Democrats had caused the stir to begin with by their ill-conceived bill, and then directed the country's fears toward the Republicans.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) rebutted that fears of the draft did not originate with the legislation, but with the unfolding reality of the war.
"Not one thing, not one thing about this war that has been told to the American people or that has been told to these college students has been true. Not one thing," said Rep. Ryan. "Bremer says we need more troops. The Pentagon says we need more troops, and this president cannot get them from the international community. There is only one option left. Let us be honest with the American people."
Republican representatives asserted that there was no need for a draft, and that defeat of the bill would put the issue to rest once and for all.
Rep. McDermott, directing his comments to his Republican colleagues in the House, disagreed: "If Mr. Bush gets re-elected and he asks you for a draft, you will roll over for him like butter in the hot sun. There will not be anything left of you but a puddle of butter, because you know that you will not be able to stand up to him."
The bill was defeated amid a storm of accusations of misfeasance from both sides.
Yet the legislation did not propose much beyond what is currently on the books, according to the Selective Service System's interpretation of modern draft law. The law has already been revised since Vietnam, closing the loopholes for college deferment, marriage, paternity and sole son survivorship. The only thing new in HR 163 was the call to draft women as well as men.
According to recent news reports, the SSS has a budget of $26 million, and stands at the ready to implement a nationwide draft within 75 days of Congressional approval.
According to Donald Rumsfeld, all branches of service are meeting or exceeding recruitment goals. Any talk of a draft, he says, is "false, mischievous" and "nothing better than a scare technique."
The Bush administration and the Republican party present a quite united front against the idea of a draft, citing the fact that the all-volunteer army is better trained, more loyal and less expensive than a conscripted force.
Yet there is little question in anyone's mind that we need a massive influx of soldiers to carry out the administration's mission in Iraq. The only debate is whether or not we are able to meet that need solely through ramped-up recruitment of volunteers.
Former U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said earlier this month that we should have had more troops in Iraq from the beginning. His was the latest in a long line of statements from high level people involved in the occupation that reveal major shortcomings in the planning and execution of the war.
Among those critical of the operation are former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki and General John Riggs, head of the Army's transportation efforts, who have both called for increased numbers of troops.
The Pentagon's own Defense Science Board warned that inadequate troop strength means that the United States "cannot sustain current and projected global stabilization commitments," according to the Congressional Record.
The U.S. military is relying heavily on National Guards and Reservists, who currently make up 40 percent of the troops in Iraq. The International Herald Tribune reports army planners are relying on the National Guard alone to supply 43 percent of the American troops needed in Iraq next year.
The Army alone has blocked the return home of more than 40,000 soldiers, about 16,000 of them National Guard and Reservists, under the Pentagon's highly unusual stop-loss policy, says Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).
Republican Rep. Heather Wilson did not respond to Alibi inquiries, but when asked if she favored a draft during a recent debate with Democratic challenger Richard Romero at Congregation Albert, Rep. Wilson stated, "No, we have plenty of volunteers." State Sen. Romero responded, "What we have is a backdoor draft. I was drafted (during Vietnam). I don't support a draft, but we have to clean up this mess the president has caused in Iraq."
The Alibi spoke to Rep. Lofgren, who is a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, when she was in Albuquerque campaigning for Romero last week. She is concerned that the Ready Reserves who already completed their active duty service are being called back in record numbers, but compliance is very low.
"You can imagine why. You're 35 years old, you're back with your wife, you have a young baby and a civilian job. You don't want to give all that up."
What's the penalty for the men and women who don't show up?
"They could be charged with desertion. That phenomenon has made Americans across the country very anxious."
Rep. Lofgren does not think the defeat of HR 163 has ended the public's fear of a draft. While she is not convinced a draft is inevitable, she says, "Mothers across the country are worried," because the war effort is "not being sustained through volunteer efforts." She herself has a 19-year-old son, and does not support a draft.
In order to be successful in Iraq, she projects the military will need approximately 350,000 troops, or more than double what we have now.
Is the military going to be able to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan without having a draft? Or will lawmakers do an about-face after the election is safely behind them, and suddenly see the necessity for conscription?
Rep. Conyers doesn't think the latter outcome is so far-fetched.
"We are running out of troops," he said during the Congressional debates. "It is not a secret. We are continuing to keep National Guardsmen in the service beyond their career. We are taking Reservists and we are running out of volunteers. So let us not be astounded that what follows is a draft. The only problem is that we cannot announce it until after the election."
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