Our overextended armed forces in Iraq and around the world are forcing the unthinkable to be thought -- reinstatement of the military draft.
With an election just 11 months away, there is as yet no groundswell of support for a draft. That may change if, in the longer term, we continue to police the world.
President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld won't go near the subject -- at least not on the record. But in November the Pentagon placed a notice on its Web site seeking "men and women in the community who might be willing to serve as members of a local draft board."
Hmm. Why have draft boards if a draft is out of the question?
After the notice set off alarm bells, it was hastily pulled from the Web site without explanation.
The explanation is easy to figure out. It is well documented that morale has been plummeting among troops being asked to serve long tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and National Guard and Reserve units forced to serve for long periods away from jobs and families. The threat of falling re-enlistment levels is very real.
Bush and military officials insist that enough soldiers are in Afghanistan and Iraq to stabilize and secure those countries and that the numbers involved actually can be reduced by next summer.
But the Pentagon recently alerted 43,000 National Guard troops not previously mobilized to be prepared for active duty. New orders will also send 85,000 new Army and Marine combat troops to combat zones.
The Army Reserve is about to send 160 soldiers back into combat after only 10 months at home following a one-year tour of duty overseas, a departure from past standards.
In a recent poll in Stars and Stripes, a respected newspaper for the military, roughly half the soldiers surveyed indicated they would not re-enlist when their tours end.
Congress has become increasingly nervous about the strains on troop strength as an election approaches. Republicans as well as Democrats are calling for an increase, rather than a reduction, of troops on the ground -- particularly in Iraq.
If our troops are already dangerously overstretched and we face a declining interest in voluntary military service, what do we do? Logic suggests we should enlarge the military by demanding that young men and women patriotically serve their country in uniform for at least a short period.
The voluntary military has worked well since President Nixon abolished the draft 30 years ago. The general consensus is that volunteers have improved the quality of the military, bringing fresh respect, higher educational levels, tangible career benefits and greater efficiency. Women have been encouraged to join, allowing the services to resemble society at large more than in the past.
The Bush administration, however, isn't working very hard to keep the troops happy. It has been trying to cut back benefits, seeking to reduce funding for military housing and aid to schools that educate the children of military families as well as threatening presidential vetoes of bills to expand health care for reservists. Wounded reservists awaiting medical care have been housed in tumbledown barracks.
Two Democrats have introduced legislation calling for mandatory national service -- either in the military or civilian community causes -- of all men and women between the ages of 18 and 26.
Rep. Charles Rangel of New York has been the most aggressive booster because he thinks low-income minorities are more tempted to volunteer for military duty than richer, better-educated whites -- and are paying a disproportionate price in combat.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, a state with a heavy military presence, is the other sponsor. Hollings need not fear any political backlash; he is not seeking re-election next year.
Rangel has not yet generated a groundswell of support for a draft. Still, we can't avoid thinking about it.
Marianne Means is a Washington, D.C., columnist with Hearst Newspapers.
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