Strain on military brings back idea of draft

October 01, 2006|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to The Sun

It's a time of struggle for those responsible for recruiting, training and retaining America's armed forces, stretched thin by a five-year conflict in Iraq and a continuing war in Afghanistan, where 20,000 American troops are serving.

Two weeks ago, the top U.S. brass in Iraq announced that cuts in the more than 140,000- member U.S. force there that were supposed to begin this year are not expected to start until next spring at the earliest.

Last week, 4,000 members of an Army brigade and their families were told their Iraq service was being extended for two months, just as another brigade had been told in August.

Also, at the annual Infantry Warfighting Conference at Fort Benning, Ga., last month, the buzz among the officers and civilian attendees was that after the November election President Bush will change the rules on National Guard mobilizations in ways that will be more demanding and onerous than now. Then a lieutenant general told an audience of junior officers at the conference that "the rest of your lives will be spent in this war."

With decisions and talk like that, recruitment is probably going to be even harder for the regular Army and the Guard. Even with lowered qualifications and higher bonuses for enlistees, recruitment is meeting only this year`s "modified" - read "lower" - quotas.

All of this had led to a renewed discussion of the possibility of bringing back the military draft, done away with at the end of the Vietnam war.

There is a good bit of public opinion that favors that. For example, Mark Shields, the PBS commentator, wrote earlier this year that "at the top of the liberal agenda ought to be the immediate return by the United States to a military draft." The Sun's Dan Rodricks has written that 18- to 21-year-olds should be drafted into the military and/or another public service program.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a liberal New York Democrat, has proposed draft legislation requiring 18- to 42-year-olds for "a period of military or civic service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security."

But there is lots of opposition too. Critics worry that reinstitution of the draft could damage the nation's long-term interests by turning public opinion against crucial conflicts that produce significant casualties over time.

In a newly published book, The Coming Draft, author Philip Gold is outspoken in his opposition to military conscription. His book`s subtitle is "The Crisis in Our Military and Why Selective Service Is Wrong for America." "It [stinks]," he writes. "Is it needed? The answer is not only no but hell no." But he fears the military draft might be coming and reluctantly concludes we will have to have something like it.

Gold's short, readable book is a very good history of the military draft. It was advocated by national leaders from George Washington on - unsuccessfully until the Civil War. Then it was in effect through World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam. It was ended in 1973.

The ex-Marine conservative rebuts the popular notion that the war in Iraq is unlike those previous ones in which there was military conscription. That is, without the draft the burden of fighting for their country is borne by the poor and minorities. "Blather," he writes, and he cites studies that those who serve today "are indeed a cross-section of America."

Or at least not much less so than in previous wars. Nonetheless he commends some recent books that argue otherwise. Notably AWOL by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer, who say the children of the nation's elites - embers of Congress, presidents, Ivy Leaguers, tycoons, etc. - are not to be found in the armed forces.

Gold hates the Iraq war for the toll it is taking on the military. It diverts money and attention badly needed to modernize the nation's fighting forces, he notes. For instance, the Navy now has fewer ships than in the 1930s.

He says if the military draft is resumed there should be a broader definition of conscientious objection. If someone refuses any assignment in any of the armed services in any place in their home state, the nation or abroad, that will be OK, but such person "will pay a special surtax on your income tax for the next thirty years."

Shades of the Civil War, when wealthy draftees were allowed to pay substitutes!

The stressed and strained military should be hoping for a draft, you would think, given its Iraq-related recruitment problems. But a reporter covering that Fort Benning Infantry Warfighting Conference wrote that no one there was talking it up.

One expanation for that may be an anti-draft remark by a Marine personnel officer quoted in AWOL.

"The armed forces do not reflect the general population in many ways. For instance, males, conservatives, the able-bodied, and the young are disproportionate in the military compared with the general population. We tolerate those differences, why not class?

"Perhaps the lack of socioeconomic diversity actually enhances readiness. It's possible that the middle class make better soldiers."

As do volunteers compared to reluctant and resentful draftees.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer.

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