US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered his "full apology" for his recent remarks diminishing the value of the Vietnam War-era military draft, after three prominent lawmakers protested them as "deeply offensive."
The rare expression of contrition from the head of the Pentagon added a new wrinkle to the passionate debate about the burden of "fighting for freedom" that has been accompanying US preparations for a possible war against Iraq.
"I always have had the highest respect for their service, and I offer my full apology to any veteran who misinterpreted my remarks when I said them, or who may have read any of the articles or columns that have attempted to take my words and suggest they were disparaging," Rumsfeld said in a written statement.
He added that the last thing he wanted was "to disparage the service of those draftees."
The controversy was sparked on January 7 when the defense secretary was asked to comment on a recent legislative proposal that would restore the draft abolished in the United States in 1973.
Rumsfeld recalled that the draftees of years past had been thrown into battle with little training "adding no value, no advantage really, to the United States Armed Services over any sustained period of time."
Three congressional Democrats -- all former veterans of the US military -- said it was "not only inaccurate, but also deeply offensive, to describe the service of these men who answered the call of their country as without value."
In a letter sent to Rumsfeld earlier in the day, US Senate Democratic Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Representative Lane Evans of Illinois, said the comments "distort American history and are a disservice to an outstanding group of patriots."
While presenting his apologies, the defense secretary admitted that his comment on the draft was "not eloquent," but complained that it was also "so unfortunately misinterpreted."
The proposal on the draft, made public by New York Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel, a veteran of the Korean War who represents predominantly black Harlem, sought to make sure that Americans from all walks of life had a chance to take part in the war on terror.
Unveiled as the Pentagon is dispatching thousands of troops to the Gulf region for a possible showdown with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the plan reflected the growing unease in many constituencies about multiplying US military involvements overseas.
"If our great country becomes involved in an all-out war, the sacrifice must be shared," Rangel said in a tongue-in-cheek statement, adding he was concerned that minorities and other disadvantaged groups were more likely to face enemy bullets than members of other social groups.
Rangel also noted that out of 535 members of Congress, who voted overwhelmingly last year to authorize use of force against Iraq, only one had a child in the enlisted ranks of the military.
The implicit charge of racial and social disparities had the Pentagon up in arms.
The department issued a special report designed to rebut it, but still had to admit that African-Americans constituted about 30 percent of the enlisted force, compared to their 12-percent share in the overall population.
The median annual income of the families of white recruits was about 33,500 dollars in 1999, versus 44,400 dollars for the average civilian family, according to a senior defense official.
Meanwhile, there were about 16.7 million veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars as well as World War II still alive in the United States last year, according to government figures. And most of them served as draftees.
© 2003 AFP