Published on Monday, June 6, 2005 by the Seattle Times
Despite US Pledges, Fear of Draft Persists
by Christian Davenport
WASHINGTON — Rarely in the more than 30 years since the draft was abolished has the Selective Service triggered such angst. Two years into the Iraq war, concern that the draft will be reinstated to supplement an overextended military persists — no matter how often, or emphatically, President Bush and members of Congress say it won't.
In this atmosphere of suspicion, the Selective Service System, the agency that conscripted 1.8 million Americans during the Vietnam War and 10 million in World War II, quietly pursues its delicate dual mission: keeping the draft machinery ready, without sparking fear that it is coming back.
"We're told not to do a particular thing but to be prepared to do it," said Dan Amon, a spokesman for the Selective Service, which last year registered about 15.6 million young men between the draft-eligible ages of 18 and 25. "We just continue to carry out our mission as mandated by Congress."
These days, the agency spends a lot of time allaying fears and dispelling rumors.
One of the first things you see at the Selective Service Web site, www.sss.gov/, is an explanation of how Congress voted 402 to 2 against a bill to make military service mandatory.
A Washington public-relations firm, Widmeyer Communications, hired by the agency to offer strategic advice, noted last year that "virtually any move taken by Selective Service is seen in many quarters as clear evidence that a draft is imminent."
"There is so much misinformation out there," said Richard Flahavan, associate director of Selective Service for public and intergovernmental affairs. "Most folks, if you pulled them off the street, would believe we could turn on the draft in the dark of night and consult no one."
If there weren't such widespread concern about the possibility of the draft's return, J.E. McNeil wouldn't be so busy.
"Let me tell you why I think there's going to be a draft," said McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War.
There is a "perfect storm" of conditions that could lead to conscription, she said: low recruiting numbers and the strain that Iraq has placed on the United States' all-volunteer military, especially the National Guard and reserves. So conscientious objectors must be ready, she warned, noting that the key to convincing a draft board is to document the objections before conscription is ever reinstated.
"If you're trying to prove a belief or a feeling, you can't rip open your chest and have the words written on your heart," she said.
An objector must be able to answer the question, " 'How did you come by your beliefs?' Not all of us wake up at 5 years old and say, 'I'm a conscientious objector,' " McNeil said.
Although concern about a draft has heightened since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Amon said the Selective Service is "like a small-town volunteer fire company. There may never be a fire, but you still want that department there just in case."
So the agency continues to stay ready, as it has since 1980, when President Carter and Congress revived registration as a show of force after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Registration had been suspended in 1975, two years after the draft was abolished.
Today its mission entails not only registering 18-year-old men (women, who are barred from some ground combat units, are exempted) but helping state legislatures craft incentives to boost registration. Forty-one states, three territories and Washington, D.C., have laws that link Selective Service registration with one's ability to get a driver's license, hold a state job or attend a state university, according to the agency.
Political leaders can't seem to say often enough that there's not going to be a draft. But if there were to be one, Flahavan said, it could be of specific skilled professionals rather than general conscription. That could mean women would be included, and the cutoff age could be extended past 25 years.
Since 1987, at Congress' request, the Selective Service has had a plan to register male and female health-care workers ages 20 to 45 in more than 60 medical specialties in case the country suddenly needed more doctors or nurses. The proposal would require the authorization of Congress and the president.
More recently, the agency has talked about reinventing itself by registering professionals whose expertise could be helpful in an emergency. That way, the Selective Service could become a national "repository or inventory of special skills," according to the agency's annual report.
The "special skills" draft could offer the option of calling up people in a variety of specialties, such as linguists, computer experts, police officers or firefighters, Flahavan said.
Other government agencies besides the Defense Department could draft those workers, the report states. They could include U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The agency knows what angst such a program could cause, and Flahavan stressed that it is "just a concept" that would require authorization from Congress.
"We're not advocating that it should be done," he said. "All we're saying is ... we've been in this business for [more than 60] years. We know how to run a draft."
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