On reviving the draft

July 12, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - There's a scene in Michael Moore's controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 in which the filmmaker mischievously confronts congressmen on Capitol Hill with Army enlistment pamphlets, suggesting they give them to their sons to encourage them to fight in Iraq.

It's a classically provocative Moore gambit that touches on the sentiment of some antiwar demonstrators that if those who have backed the war had to face sacrifice in their own families, they might not be so supportive.

That view, in turn, has sparked interest in the same quarters for a reinstatement of the military draft, already the subject of a bill by Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York that was introduced months before the Iraq war.

The bill calls for men and women between the ages of 18 and 26, with no exemptions except for high school attendance, to serve two years either in the military or in some kind of community service at home.

Mr. Rangel said in sponsoring it that "disproportionate numbers of the poor and members of minority groups compose the enlisted ranks of the military, while the sons and daughters of the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent." Most of these, he says, have joined up for "economic reasons."

He acknowledges there is no chance a draft bill can pass in an election year, so fearful are parents that their sons and daughters might be called up and so intimidated is Congress to buck that sentiment. In any event, Mr. Rangel says, "we already have a backdoor draft" by keeping enlistees beyond their tours of service and recalling National Guard and Reserve members time and again.

Discussion of a possible draft has been heightened recently by Pentagon actions resulting from manpower shortages growing out of heightened demands in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So-called stop-loss orders keeping troops in Iraq past their enlistment terms, and more recently call-ups of Individual Ready Reserve forces to meet specific job needs, have created morale problems. Especially complaining are members of the National Guard and Reserves who see themselves as being "drafted" by another name. Shifting of U.S. forces from South Korea also has been announced to help fill the gap.

Mr. Rangel says the manpower situation has become so desperate that recruiters are offering high school graduates bonuses of as much as $20,000 to sign up for six years.

At a hearing Wednesday of the House Armed Services Committee, the Army vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard A. Cody, was asked whether the military was "stretched thin" by its manpower obligations.

He replied: "Absolutely."

Further, he said those on duty in Iraq were being called on to do tasks for which many had not been trained.

Nevertheless, another witness before the committee, David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, when asked about the possibility of conscription, said "the administration does not support resumption of the draft" and has no "secret plan" to do so.

A former official from the Nixon era, Noel Koch, wrote in an article on the draft that its use at that time had "shattered class distinctions" and better distributed the burden, as Mr. Rangel's bill seeks to do.

Looming over the Bush administration in any talk of bringing back the draft is the experience of the Vietnam War, when the draft or fear of it fueled antiwar sentiments among millions of young men facing the prospect of having to serve in a conflict they strongly opposed.

Without a draft, the protest of the president's invasion of Iraq and his efforts to link Iraq to the broader war on terrorism resulting from the 9/11 attacks has not yet begun to approach the home-front dissent of the later stages of the Vietnam War.

Mr. Rangel says untold numbers of marriages have been broken and jobs lost by a "bankrupt" reserve system stretched to the breaking point by the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite the emergency measures the administration has been obliged to take to meet its hard-pressed manpower needs, it holds to the view that no draft is needed.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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