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The Draft: Will They Bring it Back?

Trendy Wrigleyville did not exist in 1966 when the Army came calling for John Meissner.

By MICHA GAUS

Trendy Wrigleyville did not exist in 1966 when the Army came calling for John Meissner. He left his then-blue-collar neighborhood on the doorstep of the Cubs stadium to become part of the largest draft group in the Vietnam War, joining a radar unit in Germany. But when he returned to the States two years later, far more than the demographics of his neighborhood had changed.

"I really left with a peer group and came back alone," Meissner says. War, drugs and social upheaval had taken their toll, each claiming a cohort of his boyhood friends. Resisting the draft in its early years did not even seem possible, he remembers, leaving the military's call to be answered by a grim fatalism.

"What really struck me about the draft was the unfairness of it," Meissner says. "The people who were getting scooped up were the people who couldn't avoid it. You were expected to take it for granted that guys were supposed to go and not come back. It wasn't treated like the tragedy it was."

As the Vietnam War progressed, active draft resistance spread, as draft cards-and offices-were torched, and tens of thousands chose Canada or jail over induction. The war's unpopularity, due in large part to the draft, finally killed conscription in 1973, ending an institution in place during peacetime and war since Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.

Conventional wisdom holds that if the United States' involvement in Vietnam resulted in anything positive for this country, it nullified the concept of a draft for future generations.

That is, until now.

Pentagon war planners sent up trial balloons last November to test public reaction to a new draft and took the first steps toward making conscription a reality again. Critics scoff at these warning signs, saying the administration is too savvy to grab such a third rail and could use other means to fill the ranks.

Troop Crisis Building

Underlying the debate over the draft's return is the reality of hard numbers-the military will be compelled to increase its ranks if wartime re-enlistment and recruitment rates fall. And if international and Iraqi forces continually fail to materialize in adequate numbers, a second-term president would find instituting a draft easier.

Preparations for a new draft began last November because of a building troop crisis, hastened by the Pentagon's decision to salvage morale by transferring whole units at a time out of Iraq, breaking with the hated practice of "subbing"individuals in Vietnam. Many of those replacing these battle veterans, in the largest movement of troops since World War II, are part-time National Guard and Reserve soldiers, whose deployment has caused no small amount of grief among reservists ordered to do much more than they expected.

The increased responsibilities and risks of part-time duty today are major shifts from the Vietnam era, when politicians anxious not to provoke constituents' furor mostly refused to mobilize Guard units. The Guard became a haven whose rules bent easily for well-connected young men, like future-President George W. Bush, who supported the war but wanted to avoid fighting in it.

Despite the current administration's talk of a pullback of U.S. forces following some sort of limited and still-nebulous transfer of control to Iraqi authorities in June, military officials have said a minimum of 100,000 troops will remain in the country through at least 2005.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's decision in January to recruit 30,000 more soldiers for the Army only amplified the sense of urgency surrounding the military's commitments, already heightened by fighting two wars simultaneously while maintaining spheres of influence on every non-iceberg continent.

Preparations Underway

In a move more provocative than policy-oriented, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) introduced bills last winter that would reestablish a draft for all citizens 18-26, with deferments for education permitted only through high school. Rep. Rangel had voted against a House resolution authorizing the president to take action in Iraq, and Sen. Hollings voted in a similar Senate resolution. The bills must pass Congress and gain the president's signature before the Selective Service System-the federal agency in charge of implementing a draft-could induct anyone. And although it is unlikely the bills will leave committee before November's election, they nevertheless start the legislative process necessary for a new draft.

The Pentagon took the first step last November, calling for "trusted and objective" volunteers to fill the nearly 21,000 slots on local draft and appeal boards, which adjudicate conscripts' appeals for deferments and conscientious objector status. (Active and retired military personnel are ineligible to sit on the board, as are scofflaws with traffic fines of more than $400).

The Selective Service System received $28 million in the current federal budget, a $2 million spike in its funding, which as recently as five years ago was on the brink of elimination in the Capitol. If a draft were to reappear, it would probably follow the lottery system instituted in late 1969, which matches birthdays to 366 randomly chosen numbers-accommodating leap-year births-to determine the order of induction, low numbers first. Previously, a bevy of deferments allowed many affluent men to avoid service, placing the burden of fighting on the poor, working class and people of color.

Like Vietnam, the return of embittered veterans could turn the public-already seriously divided-decisively against the war. Because of advances in battlefield medicine and body armor, deaths in this war are lower, while serious but nonfatal injuries - lost limbs, blindness, disfigurements - are higher.

But proposals for a new draft look much different than what existed 35 years ago. Rangel and Hollings' bill would make it harder to dodge the draft by ending most deferments and forcing students to enlist after completing the semester in which they receive their call-up. College seniors would serve after completing the academic year, despite the possible burden of repaying student loans which can reach into the $100,000 range. It would also require women to join the ranks, although it sets up a two-year non-combat domestic national service option.

Escaping the net cast by this type of draft will be much more difficult, too. In the clampdown of Washington's war on terror, Canada's safe harbor has frozen. Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge signed an agreement three years ago with Ottawa to repatriate asylum seekers en masse.

Something Up their Sleeves

Military observers are not convinced conscription is on the comeback. More likely, they say, is the widening of current streams of recruits by coupling mandatory national service with incentives for military duty.

"I'm not persuaded that the reappearance of a draft is imminent," says Michael Foley, a professor of history at the City University of New York-College of Staten Island and author of Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War. "There has been a lot of speculation about increased Selective Service budgets and calls for new draft board membership, but these seem pretty routine and, in my view, don't represent new policy changes."

Local enlistment is steady, says Technical Sergeant Phillip Guffa, an Air Force recruiter in suburban Schaumburg. Moreover, unwilling conscripts would threaten tight-knit fighting units. "We operate with a strong form of teamwork - you need to be able to trust the people around you," he says. "The only advantage to the draft is that it gets more people into the office." Most, he predicts, would be rejected.

"The political repercussions would be too strong, even after a reelection," argues Stephen Zunes, a politics professor at University of San Francisco and Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus think tank, "because of the unpopularity of the overseas mission, combined with strains of libertarian philosophy, and self-interest that transcends ideology. The draft radicalized a whole generation of American youth-that's not something they want to repeat."

If the Bush administration is sly, Zunes wagers, it will forgo a lottery draft in favor of mandatory national service for young people with incentives to serve in the military. It is not far from the type of politicking for which the president's top adviser, Karl Rove, is known.

Zunes says some politicians like the idea of national service-"They can make an appeal for that," Zunes says. "And with all the cutbacks in social spending, it makes for a cheap workforce. It's harder to resist-it seems more selfish if you do-and inducements will fill the ranks."

Like Vietnam, the return of embittered veterans could turn the public-already seriously divided-decisively against the war. Because of advances in battlefield medicine and body armor, deaths in this war are lower, while serious but nonfatal injuries - lost limbs, blindness, disfigurements - are higher.

"Wait until these guys come home," Zunes says. "They're permanently and majorly disabled - they're going to be [angry]. That's not a very auspicious political climate for bringing back conscription."

Meanwhile, support for the invasion is dwindling. Just less than half of the country thinks it was worth it, and increasing numbers - 43 percent in a February Gallup poll - believe the Bush administration deliberately misled them. In the face of avalanching evidence, led by the public airing of doubts by David Kay, Bush's own weapons-hunter, more people now reject the administration's pretexts for war. Nevertheless, the same poll reports nearly a third of respondents still believe Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda, even though no proof has surfaced.

If history is a guide, the war's growing unpopularity will hardly move this administration. The consent of the governed never sat high on Bush's priority list. He dismissed the unprecedented protests of his invasion plans by hundreds of thousands in the United States-and millions abroad-by comparing this expression of peaceable assembly and petition for redress of grievances to a focus group.

"Like LBJ, Bush already has a widening credibility gap that seems to be moving public opinion against him," Foley says. "Once the antiwar movement can claim returning GIs and their families as allies-as happened in 1970-73-the administration is in serious trouble because it cannot question the moral authority of veterans of this war."

Draft Has Supporters

Denise Dixon is distracted as she waits for word that her daughter's Army Reserve unit, Illinois' 379th Chemical Company, has left for Iraq. Her daughter, Joi Cornelious, calls while we are talking, and Dixon's voice changes immediately, filling with concern and pain as she realizes Joi has been ordered to her Wisconsin base, where she must stay until she is transferred to Iraq.

"It's nerve-wracking," Dixon says after she hangs up. "For the next 18 months, your stomach's going to hurt."

Despite lingering revulsion with Vietnam-era conscription, not everyone dismisses a draft. Dixon, who lives in West Englewood, favors a new draft, as long as it impacts everyone.

Madeline Talbott, head organizer of the low-income advocacy group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now in Illinois, is confident many of her organization's members want to see the draft return. The way the military recruits now, she says, means parents she works with already see their children caught up in the military, not exactly by choice.

"They would rather have it be something spread around rather than something done out of economic necessity," she says. "Sure, bring it [the draft] back-not as a strategy to advance the war-but as a strategy to end it."

Cornelious enlisted to earn money for college, and although no decision before or since caused their family so much grief, Dixon says, she came to understand it.

"It was the only thing we could do so she wouldn't have to pay off loans until she's 80," says Dixon, whose family is supported by strings of minimum-wage work and her husband's bus-driver job. "But if my child has to go, everybody's child ought to go."

Like many reservists, her daughter had two days to withdraw from school, quit her job, and report to her base. "This semester is shot," Dixon says. "They don't give you the money back and they don't give you credit. It was a crapshoot, and she lost."

A Job is a Job

If there is one thing you can say about this administration's economy, it is that it has left an awful lot of young people, especially in urban centers like Chicago, without anything much to do.

Perversely, a draft could be the administration's biggest job-creation program.

And Dean Morris, executive director of the West Humboldt Park group Nobel Neighbors, thinks that could be a good thing. Military service could be a boon for his community's unemployed young men-and could be seen as an "economic opportunity, rather than a way to serve the government," he says.

Like many reservists, her daughter had two days to withdraw from school, quit her job, and report to her base. "This semester is shot," Dixon says. "They don't give you the money back and they don't give you credit. It was a crapshoot, and she lost."

The "poverty draft," as critics term the 30-year-old volunteer army, currently attracts recruits who are more commonly working class, drawn heavily from the South and West, with minorities over-represented. Blacks make up about 22 percent of the enlisted force, according to Pentagon figures, but less than 13 percent of the nation. About 35 percent of all women in the armed forces are black.

The economic implications of armed service are especially apparent in the Reserves, an army-in-waiting whose principal tasks in recent years were civil operations like tossing sandbags at rising water, while picking up specialized training or cash for college. Many part-timers are middle-aged, already settled into marriage, jobs and children. Eighteen-month war-zone deployments were not part of the plan.

But now, they do an increasing amount of heavy lifting overseas. Reserve and Guard units still patrol the Balkans, and at least 29,000 part-time soldiers are sweating it out in Iraq. Current military strategy employs something called "Total Force structure," which makes any wide-scale deployment impossible without a significant Guard and Reserve force.

The brutal upshot of the strategy is that part-time soldiers face the same risks as full-timers. Reserve and Guard troops already account for about 30 percent of the Iraq war's casualties, according to military columnist David Hackworth.

The Pentagon is expanding the use of reservists as standby brigades. Together with National Guard soldiers, they will comprise 40 percent of the force rotating into Iraq in the coming months, prompting fears of a mass exodus when their term ends.

The Numbers Problem

To solve the numbers problems, either the military's reach must shrink-hence Democrats' calls for international stewardship or the Bush administration's Afghanistan-style pullback of U.S. forces - or the hole will have to be plugged by drafting young people.

Jennifer De Leon, youth and immigration organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association on Chicago's Northwest side, shakes her head at the thought of welcoming back a draft. "Money always finds a way to get out of it," De Leon says. "The draft will just make sure that those we don't want going will have no choice. Our community is already so attacked anyway-they're already investing a lot of time recruiting and enticing them."

Guffa, the Air Force recruiter, only started recruiting a few months ago, 13 years after he was recruited from Glenbard South High School in suburban Glen Ellyn to build bombs for the Air Force. He pauses a few moments before saying he doubts the military targets specific high schools. But he is not certain.

"If it's something that's happening, it's happening on a small, local level," he says. "Anywhere you're catching some of that, it could be from the different services - I don't know their methods."

Even as experts disagree on the odds of a new draft, the question is why would some anti-poverty advocates and Sen. Hollings and Rep. Rangel support a bill for a draft? No doubt it may have been to put the spotlight on those who bear a heavier weight for executing this administration's war.

With a draft, "Bush and his cronies will have to think about what they're doing," Dixon says. "Right now they don't have to think about it. They just keep crating them up and sending them off." o

Published: April 01, 2004