Students Debate a New Draft

Uncle SamI vividly recall the day I walked into the kitchen at my parents' home and found my Selective Service registration card sitting on the table.

"What's this?" I asked my mom, who was sitting at the table paying bills. It was really a rhetorical question; I knew what it was. I just hadn't expected being confronted with it on that very occasion.

"It signs you up for the draft. All boys get one when they turn eighteen," Mom explained.

"What if I don't want to sign it, what happens then?" I asked defiantly.

"Nothing, really. Except you can't get any student loans from the government."

"What? The land of the free? Whoever told you that is your enemy," I mumbled.

"What did you say?" my dad growled, entering the room.

"It's just lyrics from that band," my mom said. She gave my dad a look, waved her hand dismissively, and returned to the bills. (I had made Rage Against the Machine well-known throughout the house, but especially to my mother.)

"Just why do you think you have any freedoms at all, Son?" my dad bristled, obviously angry.

Now, my dad is not the type of man one should anger intentionally. He is burly and quick to anger (at least he was back then). His voice alone, when he raised it, sounded as if it could beat you senseless. And he was raising it then.

My dad was seventeen years old when the war in Vietnam ended, meaning he missed the draft by a year. Many of his friends, however, were not so lucky. I knew that at the time, too: I had been with him once when he visited the Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C. He searched out many names, then just stood there with his hand on the wall, over his friends' names as if he were leaning on them for support.

Recalling that day, I decided this was one battle I would never win. I signed the card, and am now happily sitting on the other side of a bachelor's degree -- paid for with federal loans.

A New Draft?

The last draft was deactivated at the close of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1973. Draft registration was ceased altogether in 1975, but resumed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 as a response to the growing Soviet threat. Since then, however, signing those registration cards has largely been a symbolic act for America's young men. But a bill proposed in the House of Representatives last January could make that one signature a life or death choice for all of today's youth.

If passed, the Universal National Service Act of 2003, introduced by House Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), would require two years of military or civilian national service for all Americans between the ages of 18 and 26 -- both male and female. No exemptions are to be given, according to the bill, for college students.

Rep. Rangel says he drafted the bill to spark debate about the true costs of a preemptive strike against Iraq. "We're talking about war," Rangel said in an interview, "but we're really not discussing sacrifice." Rangel also says he wanted to ensure that the burdens of this conflict will be borne by all Americans regardless of their socioeconomic status, because this hasn't been the case when the U.S. has gone to war in the past.

A staunch opponent of war in Iraq, Rangel also feels that if U.S. legislators' children stand to be drafted and sent to the front lines, perhaps no war will happen in the first place. "I truly believe that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that's involved, the sacrifice that's involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility," he says.

The bill has virtually no chance of being passed -- President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld both quickly announced their opposition to a new draft. Rumsfeld is quoted in an Associated Press report as saying: "We're not going to re-implement a draft. There is no need for it at all. The disadvantages of using compulsion to bring into the armed forces men and women needed are notable."

But this won't mean the bill is a failure. As long as it sparks the debate it is intended to, and makes people consider more heavily the costs of war, it might yet be a success. Given that youth and students arguably have the most at stake should the draft be reinstated, theirs should be the loudest voices in the debate. With that in mind, I spoke with students, read campus newspapers from around the country, and found students' responses to this issue both impassioned and thoughtful.

The Debate Hits Campus

Adam Kirby, a senior at Marquette University and editor of the Marquette Tribune, doesn't believe in the principle of conscription, but says he thinks that it is sometimes necessary. Regrettably, he explains, "we live in a world where people like to kill each other."

A certain uneasiness seems to prevail among college students when the draft is brought up. Though mostly against the draft, many students don't seem inclined to dodge it, either.

When asked if he would go to war should he be drafted, Adam says, "I think I would try to get away with a civil deployment. I'm not necessarily a pacifist, but I do believe that you better have damn good reasons for going to war, and I don't think we have them right now." He cites the uncertainty of the situation with North Korea -- which has openly declared the resumption of its nuclear program -- as one reason he is opposed to a war in Iraq. But the lack of any clear and discernible threat from Iraq itself seems to weigh heavily with him as well.

"If even the highest military officials think the draft is a bad idea, why force people to register with the Selective Service in the first place?"
-- Sari Krosinski, The Daily Lobo

When asked what would justify going to war, he says, "I think if they could prove there's an attack on the way, or that [Iraq is] harboring al Qaeda people, or deploying nuclear weapons. But to me it seems there's something missing. It seems like [the Bush administration] is rushing into it, and I think there's something they're not telling the people. Until I'm convinced that everything's on the table, I really can't support a war."

But not all students are against the draft at all. A junior at Iowa State University told a reporter for Iowa State Daily that he would like to see the draft reinstated. A member of the Army ROTC, this student says that although the draft might make the military weaker in the short-term, he believes that over time it would actually strengthen our ability to wage war.

The Daily Princetonian quotes one student as saying he thinks national service "is one of the few ways that races, ethnic groups and classes can be mixed." The article also says the president from both the College Republican and the College Democrat organizations have "pledged to support the armed services and serve if called up in a draft."

Still, College Democrats president Owen Conroy is quoted as saying, "I don't enjoy the idea that I could be called on to fight in a war, especially one with questionable motives or goals."

A "glaring example of state-sanctioned sexual discrimination"

According to Maggie Koerth, a student at the University of Kansas, a draft that includes both men and women could help end another battle: the fight for women's equality. In an opinion piece for her school's newspaper, the University Daily Kansan, Maggie calls the draft as it stands now "one of the most glaring examples of state-sanctioned sexual discrimination in our country."

She goes on to write: "I am not asking women to believe the draft is a good thing. I am not asking them to want to fight and die. What I am telling women is that we cannot pick and choose what equalities we want." In an interview, Maggie acknowledges that the draft is a complex issue, but says that inclusion in it is also a necessary component of self-determination. "When a draft comes up, men have to make their own decisions about whether or not they will obey it. The same should be true for women," she says.

Rep. Rangel's proposed bill would guarantee women equal representation in the draft, so perhaps, should it be passed, the adjustments it makes to the draft system could help heal some of the inequities in the demography of the American military. But not everyone feels that the bill is a good idea, no matter what the intentions behind its creation were.

Maggie simply distrusts the notion that Senators' or Congressmens' children will ever be drafted. When asked about Rangel's bill, she says she doesn't believe it would deter lawmakers from allowing this war to happen because their kids would not be in harm's way. She seems certain that there are loopholes to be exploited, claiming, "The draft is not going to affect these people."

Writing in her school newspaper, The Daily Lobo, University of New Mexico senior Sari Krosinski says she objects to Rep. Rangel's bill precisely because it seeks to extend the reach of the draft. "I don't object to women being subject to the same expectations as men," she explains. "I object to anyone being forced to register with the Selective Service, period." Sari notes that Richard Meyers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has gone on record as saying that conscription is unnecessary because the military is more efficient and effective with an all-volunteer force. In fact, she points out that a bill has been referred to the House Committee on Armed Services calling for the repeal of the Military Selective Service Act, which created the draft. She asks, "If even the highest military officials think the draft is a bad idea, why force people to register with the Selective Service in the first place?"

Sari criticizes Rangel's bill because most of the details involved in the implementation of the draft will be left to the president's discretion (such as determining grounds for early termination of service, what to do with conscientious objectors, and how many people are called up for service). "Since the president could simply choose not to draft anyone even if the bill is passed, the whole point of the Act -- assuming Rangel is serious -- could be a moot point."

All in all, most students seem cautious but determined to do whatever is right. They understand that they are expected to do their part to uphold our way of life, and they are willing to do that, but they remain unconvinced that Iraq is a threat and are weary of being pawns in an unjust war.

Summing up her thoughts on the possibility of a new draft to support a war in Iraq, Sari writes, "If I were actually necessary to the defense of this country … I would make no objection to losing my privileged status as a woman and a college student. But even those who have volunteered for military service don't deserve to have their lives wasted in any war that is neither wise nor necessary."

Michael Gaworecki, 24, is a writer and guest editor at WireTap. He lives in San Francisco, and hopes to some day take a bike trip up the West Coast, perhaps as far as Canada.
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