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Conscription returns to public discussion

Reinstating the draft is not part of current U.S. war plans, analysts say. At least not yet. But two recent bills in Congress indicate conscription is back in the public discussion.

At the beginning of this year, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., along with Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced the Universal Service Act 2003, a bill requiring two years of compulsory military or alternative civilian service from all American men, women and legal permanent residents ages 18-26. The president would determine the number of people needed and the means of selection. Deferments would be limited to those completing high school, up to the age of 20, with no exemptions for college or graduate students. The bill, introduced in the Senate by Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., remains in committee and is unlikely to come to a vote in the near future.

Rangel, who opposes a unilateral preemptive attack against Iraq by the United States, said the intent of his proposal was to get Americans to think more concretely about sharing the burden of war.

“What if I am wrong in my desire for peace and in my doubts that Iraq is an imminent threat?” he asked. “If President Bush, the Congress and other supporters of an invasion are right and war is inevitable, then everyone who loves this country is bound by patriotic duty to defend it, or to share in the sacrifice of those placed in harm’s way.”

Only four of the 535 members of Congress who voted overwhelmingly in favor of war last October have children in the military, according to Rangel’s news release. Minorities comprise 38 percent of the military and of these 22 percent are black, a figure well above their proportion of the general population, according to Defense Department figures. “They, along with poor and rural whites, do more than their fair share of service in our ground forces,” Rangel said.

Rangel’s bill, which has generated an intense national debate about the demographics of the military, also reflects concern about the Pentagon’s ability to wage a protracted war, or war on two fronts, using an all-volunteer army.

“It’s an open question if the number of people willing to volunteer will be sufficient to meet the need,” said Rangel’s press secretary Emile Milne, who pointed out that post-Sept. 11 patriotism increased the number of enlistments “only slightly.”

The Pentagon recently issued Stop/Loss orders for all branches of the armed services, prohibiting anyone, even those whose term of service has ended, from leaving. Milne said the orders, “tantamount to an involuntary extension of services,” indicate the military’s concern about manpower in the near future.

“What’s going to happen when people start getting killed? The Pentagon has not addressed that and simply says, ‘We can handle a war in Iraq and North Korea in quick succession.’ ” he said.

In December 2001, Reps. Nick Smith, R-Mich. and Curt Weldon, R-Pa. introduced the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 2001, a bill instituting the conscription of all male citizens and residents between the ages of 18 and 22 for a year of military training. Strongly opposed by the Pentagon as well as antimilitarists, Smith’s legislation died in committee and has yet to be reintroduced in Congress.

Several draft counselors, including J.E. McNeil, executive director for the Center on Conscience and War, believe reinstatement of the draft is unlikely for the immediate future. The Bush administration views the politically unpopular proposition as a distraction, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has publicly said several times there were no immediate plans for a draft.

Moreover, the Pentagon views conscription as unnecessary and impractical. High-tech warfare has reduced the need for ground troops, and training novice, short-term soldiers is a costly investment with uncertain returns.

But should a draft occur, it would come quickly, implemented with a single vote from Congress, McNeil warned. No new legislation is needed; the Military Selective Service Act contains a draft law and a process for implementation that merely need presidential approval of funding to activate.

Selective Service currently requires all male citizens and residents between the ages of 18 and 26 to register with the U.S. government.

On its Web site, Selective Service links registration to ensuring a more equitable draft and points out that “for every man who fails to register, another man would be required to take his place.” The agency has revised the draft process since Vietnam and now grants fewer exceptions. For example, college students who are called up will only be allowed to finish the semester; although seniors can graduate. Twenty-year-olds will be the first to be drafted.

“According to one set of regulations you could be in boot camp within two weeks of your selection,” said McNeil. “We’re telling young people not to be panicked about the draft, not to be concerned that it could happen any time soon, but they should keep it in their awareness that it could happen.”

-- Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003