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 Washington Notebook

April 14, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 14

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


Polls show that Americans, by large numbers, oppose a draft. The politicians who would start one are well aware of the potential electoral consequences. “They think it’s political suicide,” says Moskos.

Charles Moskos
Northwestern University sociologist


Overextended military needs bodies; Is there a draft in the plans?

By Joe Feuerherd

 “…that’s up to General Abizaid, and he’s clearly indicating that he may want more troops…if that’s what he wants, that’s what he gets.”

                                                  --- President George W. Bush, April 13, 2004

But where will those troops come from?

That’s a question on the mind of a lot of people, including the leaders of dozen Washington-based peace groups that have made May 15 a day to lobby against a military draft.

“We don’t think a draft is going to happen tomorrow,” says J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, a leader of the effort. “But we would be foolish to wait until Congress takes this up, until the day the president goes to Congress and asks for a draft, to lobby against it.”

Joining the Center in its anti-draft lobbying campaign are the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, Veterans for Peace, the Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington Office, the Church of the Brethren, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, Pax Christi USA, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

One lesson from the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, says McNeil, is that deposing corrupt governments is relatively easy. Occupation, on the other hand, is both difficult and labor intensive.

Does the military need more troops to carry out the administration’s objectives?

“The answer is obviously yes, but the Department of Defense doesn’t want to say so,” Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos told NCR. Moskos, a leading student of military culture, supports compulsory national service, including a military draft.

The problem is severe, especially for an administration that sees the projection of military power as an essential ingredient of foreign policy. Reenlistments are down. Compulsory service — through “stop-loss” orders that currently forbid more than 45,000 “volunteers” from returning to civilian life after their initial enlistment periods have expired - is now the rule rather than the exception.

Civilian contractors perform duties (including providing protection for Iraqi Administrator Paul Bremer) that were once the purview of the military. Reserve troops have seen their service time extended, to the chagrin of loved-ones and employers on the home front. (Reservist morale in Iraq, where he visited in December, “is in the dumps,” said Moskos.) Enticements (such as sign-up and reenlistment bonuses) have little impact (and, said Moskos, lead to pay disparities with non-commissioned officers that reduce morale among the career military.) 

Meanwhile, U.S. commitments are increasing, most notably in Iraq, but also throughout the Middle East. In addition to the post-war U.S. troop deployments in Europe, Japan and South Korea, U.S. troops are active in more than 120 countries, including the Philippines, Haiti, Indonesia, Kuwait, Djibouti, Qatar, Yemen, Georgia, Columbia, and Uzbekistan.

What’s the solution to the manpower shortage? There are three options: change policies so that the military is not overextended (unlikely under the current administration), finance additional inducements to increase the attractiveness of the all-volunteer service (a hard sell at best), or institute compulsory military service.

For its part, the administration denies any intention of instituting a draft.

“The men and women in uniform today are … the finest military in the world and I would say probably the finest military the world has ever seen,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a Sept. 2003 conference on the all volunteer military. “This concept of an All-Volunteer Force has been a booming success, it works.” As a young congressman in the early 1970s, Rumsfeld was a strong proponent of eliminating the Vietnam War-era draft and replacing it with an all volunteer force.

Supporters of an all volunteer military point to its obvious advantages. Volunteers presumably want to be where they are, while conscripts (who may have had other plans) reduce morale. Under a volunteer system, the military can reject those unsuited for service — not the case under a compulsory system. Further, the financial investment in training a draftee, particularly one who would do a two-year commitment and then return to civilian life, is prohibitive.

And, of course, there are political considerations. Polls show that Americans, by large numbers, oppose a draft. The politicians who would start one are well aware of the potential electoral consequences. “They think it’s political suicide,” says Moskos.

Those objections aside, the math continues to get in the way. Whatever one thinks about President Bush’s foreign policy, it’s increasingly clear that the 1.4 million members of the U.S. armed forces are not of sufficient number to carry out its global ambitions.

“We may need a bigger army,” Rumsfeld acknowledged last year. If the studies he has commissioned lead to that conclusion, Rumsfeld told Time Magazine, “I will, with alacrity, recommend it,” though he continued to rule out a draft.

There’s another school of pro-draft supporters, of which liberals in the House of Representatives are the most vocal. Legislation to establish compulsory national service, both military and civilian, was introduced last year by New York Democrat Charles Rangel. The bill has 13 cosponsors, including such leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus as John Lewis (D-GA), Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

“I truly believe that decision-makers who support war would more readily feel the pain of conflict and appreciate the sacrifice of those on the front lines if their children were there, too,” said Rangel, a Korean War veteran.

Moskos is a fan of Rangel’s approach. A 1956 Princeton University graduate, he recalled that more than half of his class of 700 students — including some who would go on to become university presidents and state governors - were drafted and served. In 2003, he said, only seven of Princeton’s 1,100 graduates opted for military service. “The draft should start at the top of the social ladder with college graduates,” said Moskos.

Yet the government says it has no plans to begin a draft. But it does have plans to have a plan if one becomes necessary. “Notwithstanding recent stories in the news media and on the Internet, [the] Selective Service is not getting ready to conduct a draft for the U.S. Armed Forces,” says a notice posted on the draft-readiness agency’s Web site.

Recent solicitations for citizens to serve on local draft boards are not, the Selective Service says, a sign that a draft is in the works. Rather, says the agency, they are prudent steps necessary should a national emergency arise that requires widespread conscription.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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