Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, January 3, 2004
by Susan Ives
My inbox has been buzzing with questions about the draft.
A year ago, as it became clear that the Bush administration was headed for a war on Iraq, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., stumped for the reinstatement of conscription.
His ostensible reason was “to let everyone have an opportunity to defend the free world against the threats coming to us.”
In a New York Times column, he further explained that “if those calling for war knew that their children were likely to be required to serve — and to be placed in harm’s way — there would be more caution and a greater willingness to work with the international community in dealing with Iraq.”
Although there isn’t an official count, at least seven members of Congress have sons in the military today. During the Vietnam era, 118 of the 234 Congress members’ sons who were eligible for the draft took college deferments. Al Gore was the only senator’s son to serve there.
Starting in 1948, men were drafted to fill military vacancies. The draft ended with the pullout from Vietnam and the establishment of the all-volunteer military in 1973. President Carter reinstated draft registration in 1980 in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Most men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register.
Rangel, a decorated Korean War veteran, was concerned that the military is disproportionately minority and poor, ambitious black and brown kids willing to serve a hitch for a paid-up college education. A draft would force everyone to “share the sacrifice,” he said. His proposal was for universal service for everyone, men and women, between the ages of 18 and 26, with no exemptions for college.
Rangel’s proposal sparked lively discussions in the peace movement. They immediately got Rangel’s point about shared sacrifice and the disproportionate burden carried by the poor.
They also predicted a backlash if the draft were to be reinstated, just as the draft during the Vietnam era helped turn the tide against that war. There was an anticipatory schadenfreude, a half-hope that the administration would slip on that cleverly dropped banana peel.
It only took a moment for that fantasy to pass, and it’s fair to say that most people who oppose the war on Iraq also oppose a revival of the draft.
A Defense Department official told the Associated Press last January that military leaders are “horrified by Mr. Rangel’s proposal to return to the days when people were forced to serve,” possibly the first time that the Pentagon and the peaceniks found themselves holding hands and singing Kumbaya in perfect harmony.
The next scare was a couple of months ago. A Pentagon Web site that focuses on the war on terror, www.defendamerica.gov, ran a notice stating that the Selective Service was looking for citizens to serve on draft boards. Panicked messages were soon crisscrossing the Internet. False alarm.
The term for a board member is 20 years, and many of the original appointees, whose terms expired in 1999, have not been replaced. The Selective Service staffs about 2,000 five-person draft boards with community volunteers. This was just a routine request to fill routine vacancies, the Selective Service said.
The latest round started weeks ago when Internet links to the Selective Service System 2004 annual performance plan started circulating, coupled with ominous comments that the price tag for this program is $28 million. The report was released in April. I haven’t been able to figure out why it just slipped onto the radar. The price tag is consistent with other years ($25 million in fiscal year 1999) and the performance goals look similar to those of years past.
Another false alarm.
But Rangel hasn’t given up. Disturbed by the disproportionate number of African Americans, Hispanics and young men from rural areas who are being killed in Iraq, in November he and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., revived the proposal for a draft. They are also calling for a General Accounting Office study of the demographic disparity in military deaths.
Draft: bad idea. Study: great idea. No one, but no one, wants a draft. And no one wants poor, minority and rural kids to be the only ones coming home in body bags. It bears watching.