WASHINGTON, D.C.—With the military’s ranks stretched thin and faced with a prolonged guerrilla war, there is sudden speculation about a reinstatement of the draft. A Gallup poll released earlier this week shows the American public is adamantly against the idea. Eighty percent of those polled by Gallup and CNN are against; 17 percent
If Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has anything to do with it, the draft will never see the light of day. When lawmakers started talking about dusting off the draft just before the Iraq war started, Rummy startled everyone with his off-the-cuff claim that the 16 million Americans who had been drafted from 1917 for the first world war up through the Vietnam war in 1973 had “no value, no advantage really, to the U.S. armed services over any sustained period of time.” He later apologized to veterans groups, but the Pentagon still insists that draftees serve shorter stints in the service than volunteers, making training conscripts inefficient. And modern-day brass moans about how draftees don’t meld into a cohesive fighting force, whatever that means. Beating Hitler doesn’t count?
In January 2003, New York Congressman Charles Rangel, himself a decorated Korean War vet, introduced legislation to restore the draft. More recently he became the lead sponsor of legislation to dump Rumsfeld. “I believe that if those calling for war knew their children were more likely to be required to serve—and to be placed in harm’s way—there would be more caution and a greater willingness to work with the international community in dealing with Iraq,” Rangel said in an October New York Times editorial.
Needless to say, Rumsfeld didn’t go for that idea. “We have people serving today—God bless ’em—because they volunteered,” said Rummy. “They want to be doing what it is they’re doing. And we’re just lucky as a country that there are so many wonderfully talented young men and young women who each year step up and say, ‘I’m ready; let me do that.’
“The people that are in the armed services today are there because they want to be there and are ready and willing and, without any question, capable of doing whatever the president may ask,” Rumsfeld added. As for whether the volunteer army is just a thinly disguised way to get the economically underprivileged, particularly blacks and other minorities, to fight America’s wars, Rummy opined, “I do not know that that’s historically correct. And I do not know that, even if it were historically correct, that it’s correct today.”
It’s all beside the point. Like it or not, we’re headed for some sort of twisted version of a draft. Members of the Guard and Reserves may well be “volunteers,” but it’s doubtful they volunteered to leave their civilian lives to become sitting ducks in a desert for a year or more. The Pentagon already has announced plans to call up tens of thousands of National Guard and Army reservists for possible duty in Iraq. Members of the Guard and reserves are often older than their active-duty soldiers. They have families. And they often have decent jobs.
Recruitment levels in the Guard and reserves have shown declines, and Pentagon officials fear they may decline markedly over time as the country adjusts to the perception of the Iraqi war as a protracted guerrilla struggle.
The Pentagon now relies on the Guard and reservists to such an extent that the U.S.’s ability to fight more than one war at a time depends on mustering these units out of civilian life and into uniform. Moreover, many young people join the military to get work in tight economic conditions and to earn the money to pay for college. Earlier this month The Washington Post reported that some 1300 members of the Guard and reserves
filed complaints with the Labor Department in 2003, claiming discrimination when they returned to their jobs from military duty. It is against the law to discriminate against returning soldiers.
“Registration and conscription are two different things,” said Dan Amon, a Selective Service spokesman. “The draft machine is not being oiled up. But young men must continue to register—that’s the law.”
Additional reporting: Ashley Glacel