Stretched forces prompting calls to restore draft

Rumsfeld opposes plans as some lawmakers note benefits of conscription

April 23, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Despite continued opposition from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, some lawmakers say it's time to bring back the draft, 31 years after it gave way to an all-volunteer force.

They point to a stubborn insurgency in Iraq, an anti-terrorism war with no end in sight and the burden of that fight falling mostly to middle-class and low-income soldiers in an Army stretched thin.

"We've never had a war like the one we have now," Rep. Charles B. Rangel said in an interview yesterday. The New York Democrat and Korean War veteran is promoting a plan for compulsory national service, either in the military ranks or in a civilian capacity for all men and women 18 to 26 years old. "It should be an equitably shared sacrifice."

For the moment, a revival of conscription is highly unlikely. "I don't know anyone in the executive branch of the government who believes it would be appropriate or necessary to re-institute the draft," Rumsfeld told newspaper executives yesterday, reiterating a long-standing position. "We have a relatively small military. We have been very successful in recruiting and retaining the people we need."

Even many of those who agree that bringing all classes, racial and ethnic groups together to share the burden of military service see a renewed draft as politically unsalable, particularly in an election year.

"I think politically it's suicide for anyone who tries to do it," said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland, College Park. Serious consideration of the draft could also fuel the anti-war movement, bringing in high school and college students and their families, he said.

The issue gained new currency this week when two prominent senators said the time is right to explore a return to the draft, noting the overstretched military and the future forces needed to continue the fight against terrorism.

"The mission must match the resources," Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and Vietnam War veteran, said on NBC's Today. "We are making continued commitments for the future."

"[The draft] has to be looked at," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, appearing on the same program. "First is resources. Do we have enough troops? Our military is not large enough."

Both senators also agreed with Rangel, pointing to societal benefits of a draft. Hagel said it is wrong to "allow the sons and daughters of the rich and privileged to escape" the "fighting and the dying" in the war on terrorism. Added Biden, "It is not a shared burden."

Some lawmakers, military officers and sociologists echoed Rumsfeld's comments and said the draft is not necessary.

They say the 480,000-soldier Army needs anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 more soldiers. "If you have a draft, you're talking about millions of people," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. They would require additional housing and training bases, at a high cost.

He believes just an additional 40,000 soldiers are needed.

The Army recently decided to temporarily boost the number of soldiers by 30,000 through increased recruiting and "stop loss," a policy that bars selected soldiers, for several months, from retiring or ending their enlistments. That temporary troop increase is to last into 2009, the Army said.

Turmoil in Iraq

The issue continues to resonate as the security situation in Iraq deteriorates and the reserve forces struggle to recruit and retain soldiers. U.S. commanders in Iraq had hoped to reduce American forces to 110,000 by the end of next month, but as a result of continued fighting in the Sunni Triangle and instability in southern Iraq the Pentagon last week said troop levels would remain at 135,000 at least through the summer.

As a result, some 20,000 soldiers completing their yearlong duty in Iraq, including the 372nd Military Police Company from Cumberland, were told they would have to remain another three months. There are few fresh troops in the United States or elsewhere that could quickly replace them.

Meanwhile, those who strongly oppose the war in Iraq warn that the draft will return and sweep up another generation of young Americans, much as it did during the Vietnam era.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who has launched another bid for the White House and opposed the invasion of Iraq, said this week that the Bush administration is preparing to bring back conscription by "quietly recruiting members to fill local draft boards."

"Young Americans need to know that a train is coming, and it could run over their generation in the same way that the Vietnam War devastated the lives of those who came of age in the '60s," Nader said.

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