Draft Chatter

 George W. Bush’s decision to unilaterally invade Iraq in March 2003 has placed a severe strain on the US military. The Army currently has almost half of its 32 combat brigades deployed there, with two more assigned to Afghanistan. This means that three-quarters of its forces are either committed to combat zones or recuperating from recent combat.

About 60,000 of the 140,000 troops in Iraq are activated reservists from National Guard or Reserve units. These “weekend warriors” have been involuntarily kept in the war zone an extra three to five months, despite promises that their tours would be limited to one year. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has used “stop loss” orders to keep about 50,000 GIs on active duty past their discharge or separation dates.

In late July, David Chu, the Pentagon’s top personnel official, told the House Armed Services Committee that while Iraq was straining the troops, recruiting “continues strong” and retention rates are “generally good.” Nevertheless, a recent Army survey of 11,000 National Guard members returning from Iraq found that 43 percent planned to leave when their contracts ended, according to an August 4 report in the Wall Street Journal. If reservists continue to leave at this rate, the Pentagon could be forced to request a return to the draft unless troop levels are drastically reduced in Iraq. 

Many soldiers trained as military police, or civil affairs, transportation, and construction specialists are reservists, jobs particularly important to US efforts to occupy and “pacify” Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, the need for military police (MP) units is so great that 13,000 of the Army National Guard’s 16,000 MPs have already been called up for at least one deployment, with several thousand being called up twice.

The New York Times reported in July that the Army has been forced to accelerate the process of bringing new recruits onto active duty because of staffing shortages. In the past, recruits were allowed to remain in the Delayed Entry Program for up to one year before reporting for basic training. When the newspaper asked the Army’s top recruiting official Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenback about this, he responded, “I worry about recruiting and retention every single day. We are recruiting a volunteer force during a time of war, something we’ve never done before.”

Saying the D-word

Three months before Bush invaded Iraq, two Black lawmakers, Democratic US Representatives Charles Rangel of New York and John Conyers of Michigan, introduced the Universal Service Act. Fellow Democrat Fritz Hollings of South Carolina introduced a companion bill in the Senate. This would require every able-bodied male and female ages 18-26 to perform two years of mandatory public service, either in the military or the public sector. The president would decide how many were needed for military duty. Deferments for college or “critical skills,” which caused so much controversy during the Vietnam War, would not be allowed. 

“If our great nation becomes involved in all-out war,” Rangel argued at the time, “the sacrifice must be shared equally. For those who say the poor fight better, I say, ‘Give the rich a chance.'” In a subsequent New York Times editorial, Rangel added, “I believe that if those calling for war knew that their children were more likely to be placed in harm’s way, there would be more caution and a greater willingness to work with the international community [on] Iraq.”

The response of the Bush White House was immediate. “The disadvantages of using conscription to bring in men and women  are well known,” argued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He attacked Rangel’s suggestion that officials might be more likely to resort to war if their children weren’t at risk, stating, “I don’t know anyone in [the Pentagon] who thinks we should go to war lightly.”

Opposition to the “all volunteer force” (AVF) was widespread among professional military officers 30 years ago. Today, such an opinion would be a career killer. Everyone from chairman of the Joint Chiefs on down intones the same mantra: “This is the finest military we’ve ever had, there’s no need to even consider returning to a draft.”

To no one’s surprise, congressional liberals greeted Rangel and Conyers’ bold proposal with a deafening silence. Only a handful of legislators signed on as co-sponsors, and no hearings on the bill were scheduled. Democratic candidates John Kerry and John Edwards have refused to be drawn into any discussion of alternatives to the AVF. Public letters sent by Ralph Nader in July, calling on them to publicly promise not to re-institute a draft, went unanswered.

Ghosts of Vietnam

The 1973 creation of the AVF ended more than 40 years of military conscription. The draft was approved at the outset of World War II and was used as a goad to spur military enlistments during the Cold War that followed. Tens of thousands of US troops were deployed at hundreds of military bases around the world.

Following the shock of the 1968 Tet offensive, however, during which a supposedly defeated enemy occupied over 200 Vietnamese cities, political leaders from both parties realized the terrible price our intervention in Vietnam was exacting on public confidence in the military. They likely feared that the deteriorating situation could lead to public debate about the wisdom of our military commitments in Korea, Japan, the Middle East, and even Western Europe.

Dozens of books and articles have been published about the US military’s disintegration during its long and bloody war in Vietnam. Suffice it to say that the collapse of the military there led directly to the decision to scrap conscription and to rely, instead, on an AVF.

Draft historian George Q. Flynn has observed that “Nixon decided to end the draft, not because it was failing, but because its political cost had become too high.” Two months after his election, Nixon appointed the blue ribbon Gates Commission with the mandate to “develop a comprehensive plan for eliminating conscription and moving toward an all volunteer force.”

One influential commission panelist, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, had earlier published an anti-draft manifesto in the New York Times. His arguments in support of an AVF and against the draft later formed the basis for the Gates Commission’s report.

Essentially, the commission concluded that an active duty force of two million GIs could be generated solely from volunteers, provided that three basic changes were made. First, pay and benefits for GIs would have to be improved to a level comparable to equivalent civilian jobs. Second, the Guard and Reserves would have to retrain so that they deployed as part of the active force. Third, women must be actively recruited into all service branches. Once these reforms were implemented, the military was able to meet most of its recruiting goals. However, with the exception of the brief Gulf War in 1991, these volunteers weren’t truly tested by real combat until last year.

Partly because of big jumps in personnel spending needed to recruit and retain a volunteer force, the military was forced to “downsize” its active duty force levels from 2.1 million in 1991 to 1.4 million by 2003. This shrinkage, of course, has also contributed to the personnel shortages experienced since our invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

What Are the Odds?    

The issue of whether conscription will resume in the near future has been hotly debated on the Internet and in other media. Draft registration has been legally required of all male youth since 1980, and numerous state and federal laws have been adopted to punish young men who don’t register. For example, in some states, they aren’t allowed to receive a driver’s license until they offer proof of registration. Congress could broaden the registration requirement to include women by simply amending the law.

Some alarmists have pointed to the fact that many draft boards have filled vacancies in recent months. Roughly 2000 draft boards with 10,350 members, and appeal boards with 11,000 members, have been in place since registration was reinstated. The recent appointments do not necessarily mean that conscription is just around the corner.

For over 30 years, every institution of government and the media has treated the “all volunteer force” concept as a sacred cow that does not often pasture in their own backyards. A whole generation of public servants has risen to power without ever wearing a uniform. A recent survey found that only four members of Congress had children serving in the US military and most of these were attending the elite service academies.

Is the US ready to return to an era when every physically fit young person is expected to perform at least some military or public service, even if it could result in bodily injury or death? Whether Kerry or Bush is elected, the odds are still against a political consensus supporting a resumed draft. However, if unforeseen developments lead to new military commitments elsewhere in the world, this could change, as soldiers like to say, “in a heartbeat.”