Uncle Sam wants you

January 17, 2003

WOULD THE Bush administration be so eager to go to war with Iraq if the president's children and those of his top aides were likely to be fighting on the front lines? Would Congress have so quickly given Mr. Bush broad authority to undertake a military strike against Iraq if many of the lawmakers had relatives in harm's way?

If the combat troops assembled to fight our nation's battles were drawn as much from upper-class elites as from those in the middle to lower end of the income scale, would the nation appear to be looking for an excuse for a military adventure its leaders have already decided to undertake?

Probably not. But Rep. Charles Rangel's proposal to reimpose the draft is not the solution. It's up to him and other members of Congress not to cede to the White House their constitutional responsibility to help shape policy on such critical issues.

Mr. Rangel's frustration is understandable. He was part of a small minority of lawmakers last fall who voted against granting the president almost open-ended authority to do what he believes necessary to ensure Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.

Already about 150,000 active-duty troops have been mobilized to the region. Another 100,000 may follow, and 265,000 National Guard and reservists may be called up for the mission as well.

The New York congressman reasons that policy-makers aren't much concerned about professional soldiers sent into battle because they don't know them. If war with Iraq is worth undertaking, he says, the sacrifices of war should be borne equally by all segments of society.

Even so, his proposal to impose universal conscription on men and women between ages 18 and 26 is as impractical as it is unpalatable. He doesn't want any exceptions - the disabled and conscientious objectors would perform noncombat service - but the military doesn't need all those people.

What's more, the all-volunteer force in place since 1973 has worked well. Yes, the lower ranks are more often filled by those without family wealth. It offers an opportunity for them to get education, training and job skills they would not otherwise have been able to afford.

African-Americans, whom Mr. Rangel mostly represents in his Harlem district, tend to enlist - and re-enlist - at a somewhat higher rate than whites. But Pentagon statistics show there are disproportionately fewer of them in combat roles. Less than 10 percent, for example, of basic Army infantry troops are black, compared with about 14 percent of the civilian population between 18 and 24.

Mr. Rangel's larger point, that a prospective military venture in Iraq requires more thoughtful consideration than it has gotten in Washington, is dead on.

Opposition to an Iraq strike is growing in polls, and may swell further when more reservists are called up. The volunteer army was designed so the country can't go to war without those civilian soldiers.

Once they put a familiar face on the costs of war, Congress may well take a second look.

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