Military Draft? Official Denials Leave Skeptics
The Pentagon says no. The Selective Service System says no. And Congressional leaders say absolutely not. Yet talk of reinstating the military draft persists around the country, driven by the Internet, high-profile moves by the military to shore up its forces and fears that all those solid reassurances about no need for conscription could quickly melt away if world events took a turn for the worse.
“The mood of, if not the country but a significant plurality of the country, is highly skeptical,” said the founder of StopTheDraft.com, Barry Zellen, who has seen traffic to his site jump in recent months. “If the world spun madly out of control, where would they get the boots on the ground?” Congressional aides say their offices receive a steady stream of telephone calls and e-mail messages inquiring about the status of the draft. Lawmakers themselves are regularly asked if Congress is preparing to re-establish the system, abolished by President Richard M. Nixon 31 years ago. “Everyone says, `We’ve got young children, and we don’t want them in the draft,’ ” said Bill Ghent, a spokesman for Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware.
At the offices of the Selective Service System, which in 1980 resumed registering men at age 18 in the event the draft was ever resurrected, inquiries arrive daily along with a barrage of requests from news organizations for interviews about the idea of restoring mandatory military service. “People think it is some big government conspiracy,” said Harald Stavenas, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, which gets its share of draft questions as well. But top lawmakers, joined by Pentagon leaders and administration officials, say that there are definitely no plans to resume the draft and that the military is much better off relying on a substantially motivated volunteer force rather than on conscripts. “The idea of bringing back the draft, I think the chances are slim and none Ã¢€” and slim left town,” one member of the House committee, Representative Ken Calvert, Republican of California, said this week after returning from Iraq. “People can relax about that issue.” The senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, agreed. “I don’t think we’re going to need to reinstitute the draft,” Mr. Levin said. “The combination of recruiting and retention is doing fairly well.”
The roots of the anxiety about the draft can be traced to several developments, among them recent steps taken by the Defense Department to bolster forces stretched by service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier this year the Pentagon issued an order requiring some soldiers to remain in uniform beyond their expected dates for leaving the service. This week the military announced that it would recall to the barracks 5,600 former active-duty soldiers with certain skills who have time remaining as reservists. And Congress is moving to expand the size of the Army and the Marines.
Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, says unease about the prospect of a draft surfaces frequently in his travels around the country. He says unwillingness to accept official reassurances is attributable to public cynicism about the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq. “I think it is skepticism that we have been misled so many times about this war: weapons of mass destruction, ties to Al Qaeda, a cakewalk,” said Mr. Korb, now at the liberal Center for American Progress. “People are clearly worried and figure, `They are just waiting until the election is over to spring the bad news on us.’ ” He and others said this could appear to those people to be nothing less than logical progression, after the military’s resorting to an extension of tours of duty and the recall of former active-duty soldiers. “I think what is behind the current public discussion is the sense the Defense Department is using coercion to maintain the service of those who might otherwise get out,” said James Burk, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University who studies the intersection of military and public policy issues. “That kind of coercion has a resonance of what the draft is all about.” Neither Mr. Korb nor Professor Burk believes that compulsory service will be reinstituted without mobilization of a scale far beyond anything now needed. But neither do they believe that the buzz will subside. “It will simmer on the back burner and in the chat rooms,” Professor Burk said.
The issue has also been addressed on opinion pages of newspapers around the country. A column in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called a draft a “poison pill” too unrealistic for the president to consider. Another, in The Chicago Tribune, said that with a military whose members are all volunteers, “we lose our sense of shared sacrifice as a nation.” Indeed, many editorials and op-ed articles focus on the idea that a draft would distribute the burden of war across racial and economic divides. In The Washington Post this week, Noel Koch, who as a Nixon speechwriter wrote a legislative message on the draft’s end, said nonetheless that the draft had “shattered class distinctions” in the military, mixing high school dropouts with college graduates, rich with poor.
Seeking to blunt public speculation, the Web site of the Selective Service System carries a long notice saying in part that “both the president and secretary of defense have stated on more than one occasion that there is no need for a draft for the war on terrorism or any likely contingency, such as Iraq.” “Additionally,” the notice says, “the Congress has not acted on any proposed legislation to reinstate the draft.” “The bottom line,” said Dan Amon, a spokesman for the Selective Service System, “is it would take an act of Congress because we could not turn it on ourselves. And there is no mood or sentiment in Congress whatsoever for the draft.”
Polls show there is little public sentiment for it either, no small consideration in the Congressional thinking. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 70 percent of those surveyed were against reinstating the draft, and the opposition was shared almost equally among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
The speculation was initially spurred last year when the Selective Service System began trying to fill vacancies on local draft boards. That was accompanied by reports that the agency had received an extra $28 million in its budget. But Mr. Amon said the draft board recruitment effort had been undertaken because of the expiration of the 20-year terms of members appointed after President Jimmy Carter re-established registration in 1980. And the $28 million was the agency’s regular budget, cut to $26 million by Congress, he said.
E-mail messages circulating about a draft also point to legislation pending in both houses of Congress that would require either military or some other national service. But those measures, written by Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York and Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, both Democrats, are much more a political statement than potential law, since they have no Republican support and no chance of passage this year. Mr. Rangel acknowledges that his initial goal in introducing his measure was to stir opposition to the war in Iraq, his point being that privileged Americans Ã¢€” including politicians Ã¢€” would be far less eager to commit troops if their own sons and daughters had to fight alongside those who join the military to get ahead.
He said the inequality in the burden of warfare was being borne out by the “cruel” Pentagon decision to call back former active-duty soldiers. And he said Americans were right to remain vigilant about the possibility of a draft, given the Iraq conflict. “If we are really saying we are going to stay there for as long as it takes and we don’t have international people sharing the sacrifice,” Mr. Rangel said, “sooner or later Americans have to say, `They are now talking about us.’ ”
Many of his colleagues reject that view, saying there are plenty of Americans willing to join the military on their own. “You have drafts when you can’t get the requisite numbers,” said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California. “There is not now indications that you can’t get the requisite numbers. But we watch those numbers every month.”
This simply isn’t going to happen. Period. Aside from the facts that the military leadership doesn’t want conscripts and the public doesn’t want conscription, two trends mitigate against it.
First, a draft would take well over a year to institute. There is simply no way it’ll get through Congress in an election year and, even with Selective Service registration already in place, it would take a minimum of months to get draft boards and the system set up. We’d need additional capacity at basic training centers as well. Then, the people drafted would take months to train. Even then, all you’d have are junior personnel–privates and lieutenants. What we’d do with them is unclear, since there wouldn’t be a commensurate surge in mid-level leaders. (We’ve got more than enough generals.)
Meanwhile, the demand for soldiers will be on the downturn. Within a few months, as our forces in Iraq are gradually going to be replaced by Iraqis. There is no other large-scale operation on the horizon. So, by the time we got usable soldiers out of a draft, the need for them would likely be over.