It has been 30 years since the last time an American entered the armed forces through the not-so-tender mercies of the draft, on June 30, 1973. The next time could be just around the corner, if President George W. Bush is re-elected.
No, no, no, a thousand times no, say the White House, the Pentagon and Congress. They insist they have no plans for a draft. In any case, take this to the bank: It will not happen before Nov. 2, 2004. Still, the rumors refuse to die, and it was the Pentagon itself that started the buzz.
Last month, on its anti-terrorism Web site, the Pentagon posted a plea for volunteers to serve on the draft boards and appeals boards that will decide whether men (current draft law does not affect women) can get deferments or exemptions. The law created the boards as an insurance policy, in case of an emergency need for more troops.
The Selective Service System - the civilian agency that registers men when they turn 18 for a possible future draft - had nothing to do with this announcement. But it did get a lot of applications for draft board membership as a result. (Hint: Opponents of war are also eligible to sit on these boards.) When the appeal created a flurry of stories, the Pentagon quickly took it off the Web.
At the time, an organization vitally interested in the draft, the Center on Conscience and War, got a flood of anxious e-mails and calls. The center's executive director, J. E. McNeil, did not see the incident as evidence of movement toward the draft. But in recent weeks, she has heard of rumblings, from the Republican side of the aisle in Congress, about a draft after the election.
In a perfect world, the Pentagon would reject a draft. It likes its soldiers willing and malleable, not angry and cynical. But the current situation is far from perfect. Despite the capture of Saddam Hussein, young Americans are likely to keep dying in Iraq. Reserve and National Guard troops have been deployed far longer than they expected. This may soon start to erode enlistment and re-enlistment rates. At the same time, Bush's reckless preventive-war strategy could commit further troops to battles in other countries.
If Bush's policy keeps demanding more and more troops, and the supply of volunteers dwindles, it only takes a simple act of Congress to start the draft. That would be a profoundly bad idea.
As one of 230,991 draftees in 1965, I have some interest in this. When Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan) proposed this year to create a fairer, more comprehensive draft, including women, it got me thinking about the issue again. If there were a draft, I felt, a lot of young people and their parents might have had second thoughts about cheering Bush's invasion of Iraq. Then I had a second thought of my own: Naaaah!
"There are usually two reasons for a draft," McNeil said. "One is people who believe that having a draft will keep us out of war. The reality is that the draft has never kept us out of war." The second argument, which seems central to Rangel's thinking, is that a draft would make the military more equitable. It would pull in people from all strata of society, rather than just those who volunteer because they need a job or could not otherwise afford college.
Some even argue, against the evidence of history, that a draft would conscript the children of members of Congress. "During Vietnam, not one single member of Congress had a child who was drafted," McNeil said. "The reality is that the middle class and the upper middle class always have more options than the lower class in the face of the draft."
As the law now stands, once Congress activates the draft, it would be somewhat tighter and fairer than in the early Vietnam era, with fewer exemptions. Selective Service would leap into action, using a lottery to start by drafting 20-year-olds. But unless they make the draft age 55, to conscript war-loving lawmakers, "fair draft" is an oxymoron, like "smart bomb" or "friendly fire."
As divided as this country is now, a new draft would only exacerbate the division. And it would give this war-without-end presidency an endless source of warm bodies to pursue its cowboy foreign policy. Who knows what "October surprise" invasion Bush may have in store to boost his re-election chances in 2004? Then the next step might be a "February surprise" draft in 2005.
Bob Keeler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.