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Oh Baby, It's Drafty Out There

Some counter-recruitment activists and military observers think a perfect storm of conditions is brewing a return to the draft.
 
 
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"Feeling a draft?" asks the Village Voice .

"Talk of a draft is chilling," intones The New York Times .

Even fashion magazines weigh in: "Could Cosmo girl get drafted?"

In city streets, town squares and rural strip malls, military recruiters are beleaguered. The Army is unable to meet recruiting targets even after lowering quotas and standards. At the same time, recruiters are overwhelmed by scandal and scrutiny, and uncomfortable in the face of growing anti-war sentiment.

Though half a world away, the war in Iraq feels close. Mounting U.S. casualties, exhausted soldiers and an intractable civil conflict in which the only thing different factions agree on is that U.S. soldiers are the problem, make military service increasingly unattractive to even the most gung-ho patriot. Meanwhile, Washington is determined to "stay the course" right over the brink.

J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, is preparing for the worst. She sees a "perfect storm" of conditions brewing a return to the draft. So far, more than one million U.S. military personnel have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. An estimated 341,000 soldiers have done double deployments (and many are now entering their third deployment). And they are not just serving, they are dying. More than 1,700 have been killed, and an average of two more soldiers die each day.

Recruiting Nightmares

For more and more young people, joining the military doesn't mean "Be all you can be," it means going to war. And the Army is feeling the chill.

Major General Michael Rochelle, Army Recruiting Commander, worries that the war and other military commitments present the "toughest challenge to the all-volunteer army" since its inception in 1973. Staff Sergeant Spurgeon M. Shelly, a recruiter, complains how tough recruiting is. "I will hear 'No' more times in one day than a child would hear in their entire childhood. If I had hair, I would pull it out."

He signed up four recruits in six months, putting him way below his quota of two recruits per month.

Recruiters are hiding police records, mental illness and physical ailments to make their quotas. An Army investigation into recruitment improprieties found 1,118 incidents involving one in five recruiters. The Army substantiated 320 of these cases in 2004, up from 213 in 2002 and 199 in 1999. Recruiters and some senior army officers admit that for every documented impropriety, there are at least two more that are never discovered. "We have to play fast and loose with the rules just to get by," one recruiter told The New York Times .

Another recruiter laments, "The only people who want to join the Army now have issues; they're troubled, with health, police or drug problems."

After a dismal record of missed quotas each month throughout the spring, the Army stalled on releasing enlistment data for May. Finally in mid-June, the Army reported achieving 75 percent of its monthly recruiting goal of 6,700. But the Army did not attract more recruits; it moved the goal posts, lowering its May target from 8,050 new recruits, asserting it would make up the difference this summer.

Furthest From Our Thoughts?

The Pentagon and the President promise that the draft is a thing of the past. "The D-word is the farthest thing from my thoughts," Francis J. Harvey, Secretary of the Army, told a Washington Post reporter in March, laughing.

The Pentagon's position is that a professional all-volunteer army performs better, has higher morale and is less costly to train. Last October, President Bush was adamant on the question, saying, "I want every American to understand that, as long as I am President, there will be no draft."

The Nixon administration retired the military draft in 1973, but mandatory registration of men at the age of 18 was reinstituted in 1980 under President Carter, and today the Selective Service System has 13.5 million men ages 18-25 registered.

McNeil's perspective that the draft is creeping back is strengthened by recent announcements by Selective Service that it can now register and draft healthcare workers, computer specialists, linguists and other personnel if necessary. In March, the SSS issued a report notifying the President that "it would be ready to implement a draft within 75 days" following Congressional authorization. While spokesman Richard Flahavan says the steps are "strictly in the planning stages," and the report was part of the SSS' annual budget request, these moves agitate fears of a returning draft.

Military expert David Segal believes that a new military conscription policy would galvanize an anti-draft movement that would dwarf that of the 1960s. The expectation that the draft would rouse a complacent populace into a powerful and mainstream anti-war movement fuels the draft-watch fixation of websites like Nodraftnoway.org, Stopthedraft.com and Draftfreedom.org.

The Wrong Question

But, for many in the counter-recruitment movement, "Is the draft coming back?" is the wrong question.

Marti Hiken, co-chair of the Military Law Taskforce, does not see the draft on the far-off horizon; she sees it as existing reality for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

There is the "poverty draft" of young people who are told the military is their only path to a career; the "backdoor draft" of the Stop-Loss program which mandates soldiers stay in active duty for up to 24 months after their contracts have expired; "the senior draft" in which reservists (who make up 40 percent of the fighting force in Iraq) are compelled back into active military service; and finally, there is the "secret draft" of mercenaries and private military contractors.

For Hiken, worrying about the draft is an abstraction compared to the havoc wreaked by these real but covert forms of compulsory service.

For every covert draft, Hiken sees grassroots groups countering and gaining traction. A lot of the energy is focused on the outrages of Stop-Loss, which has been legally challenged eight times so far. One suit, brought by Emiliano Santiago in Oregon, climbed to the Supreme Court before it was rejected and Santiago was shipped off to Afghanistan to re-join his unit. Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA) championed Santiago's case, saying on the floor of the House, "Santiago's plight should be known and feared by every high school junior and senior across the country. The ugly little secret in the Pentagon is that Emiliano Santiago's voluntary service is involuntary."

Hiken says that even though Santiago lost his case, the ruling "fanned the fires of counter-recruitment work," and made people "think twice before signing up for the military," playing a "critical role in lowering enlistment levels."

Another case, on behalf of soldier David W. Qualls and seven John Does, was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C in December and is still in the motions phase. Overall, Hiken says, "I have not seen a grassroots movement like the one we have now. In every community people are fighting."

Military Unwelcome

Rick Jahnkow, an organizer with the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft, thinks more people should be joining those fights rather than wringing their hands about a possible draft.

The longtime counter-recruitment activist says it's not "a total waste of time to talk about the draft," but he is quick to add that it is not enough.

"We have to reverse the militarization of school, campus and society," says Jahnkow, listing "military recruitment, the poverty draft, the militarization of curriculum through Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (J-ROTC)" as important targets. He worries that young people's acculturation to the military will make a future draft easier. "We need to undermine and delegitimize those programs, make them unwelcome," he says.

That is exactly what people are doing in communities around the country.

Kevin Ramirez, an organizer with Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, catalogues recent actions making the military very unwelcome in schools and on campuses.

At Seattle Central Community College in January, "students literally chased Army recruiters off campus." The following month, college students in New Haven tabling with counter-recruitment materials "received so much positive attention from other students" that the military recruiters packed up their tables and left. In Bloomington, Minnesota, Ramirez continues, a high school group fought their administration and the American Legion to allow "counter-recruitment tables and information" equal access to their school and they won.

The movement against Stop-Loss, counter-recruitment actions, young people organizing to get the military out of their schools, and the ongoing work to end the war and bring the troops home resonates today and tomorrow, whether or not President Bush asks Congress to vote to reinstate the draft. These movements sustain hope and save lives, while hinting at what a de-militarized United States would look like. These movements prove that we don't have to wait for a draft to have an impact.

Frida Berrigan serves on the National Committee of the War Resisters League .