Feeling a draft coming on

January 03, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Greetings, young'ns. Uncle Charlie wants you. Yes, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat and Korean War veteran who voted against President Bush's Iraq war powers resolution, has announced plans to introduce a bill to reinstate the military draft.

But cheer up, kids. The Bush administration has assured us that it would rather eat old Al Gore-Joe Lieberman bumper stickers than bring back the draft and, inevitably, huge waves of anti-draft demonstrations.

For example, when CNN's Larry King asked in mid-December whether there might be a draft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld responded, "Absolutely not. Absolutely not. No!"

Today's military wants well-educated, highly trained and deeply committed technicians to run its high-tech gadgets and to stick around for more than the two-year maximum tour of duty Uncle Sam requires of draftees.

So why does Mr. Rangel want to bring back the draft? He wants to make a political point. As he said Sunday on CNN, we Americans have gotten "too cavalier" about using our military to enforce our foreign policy.

"I think if we [members of Congress] went home and found out that there were families concerned about their kids going off to war, there would be more cautiousness and more willingness to work with the international community than to say `Our way or the highway.'"

He's right. Without a draft, we Americans feel a lot less involved in our wars than we used to. Beirut, Grenada, Panama, the first Persian Gulf war and Afghanistan have scrolled across the background of our lives as just another TV show between The Bachelor, American Idol and The Sopranos.

With most Americans looking the other way, as Mr. Rangel suggests, the unilateralist hawks who want the United States to go it alone in imposing our policies around the world have too easy a time getting what they want. If we do go to war, we should do it with the rest of the world's support.

It is easy to understand why Mr. Rangel would think the return of the draft would make his fellow members of Congress think a little longer and harder before they send our nation's sons and daughters into harm's way. Ask your parents, children. Or your grandparents. Nothing took the steam out of the antiwar movement as rapidly and completely as the birth of the all-volunteer army.

Yup, the return of the draft certainly would turn congressional trips home into a far more bracing experience.

Which is precisely why it's not likely to happen.

Besides, the experience of previous drafts indicates that the sacrifice would most likely not be spread very evenly. Kids with money, power and connections inevitably find ways to get out of drafts that snatch up the rest of us.

Besides, this is a different kind of era for Americans. Whether we realize it or not, we all were drafted on 9/11. When foreign intruders invaded mainland America for the first time since the War of 1812, and took thousands of casualties, every American was drafted.

Suddenly, after generations of going to wars elsewhere, war came to us. As Americans under fire we all have a wartime obligation to pay attention, pitch in and make sacrifices, if only to save our own hides.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration, eager to please voters in an era of feel-good politics, has been reluctant to ask for sacrifices other than, say, some of our privacy rights and civil liberties.

Our gas-guzzlers burn more gasoline than the oil shock of the early 1970s. Yet the administration that has oil industry veterans for president, vice president and national security adviser has given remarkably little attention to our nation's continued dependency on foreign oil, other than to propose drilling for more in Alaska's wildlife regions.

An administration that does not ask Americans to sacrifice muscle cars and sport utility vehicles is not likely to ask us to give up our young people to a military draft.

But I appreciate Mr. Rangel's efforts to raise the right questions. Someday Mr. Bush might give us some answers.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company. His column appears Fridays in The Sun.

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