Feel A Draft?

In late 2001, when Boston-based peace activist Barry Zellen first registered the domain name Stopthedraft.com, traffic on his site was slow. After all, what was there to stop? As U.S. soldiers bobbed and weaved through the Afghanistan countryside, it was even more apparent (lest anyone forget) that America has the largest, most well-funded, kick-ass military in the world. A draft seemed simply unnecessary. But two years – and another war – later, the number of visitors to Zellen’s site has increased ten-fold.

“The number of hits went up to about 10,000 per month,” Zellen says. While a lot of the people posting comments on the site were hardened anti-draft activists from the ‘60s, Zellen says many were simply worried citizens. “There are a lot of letters from moms and sisters of kids who are potentially draft age who are just scared.”

Last fall, a small notice was posted – and later removed – from a Department of Defense website, seeking applicants to fill positions on 2,000 local draft boards nationwide. About this time, $28 million was added to the 2004 Selective Service System’s budget. Fueled by the twin bills lingering in the House and Senate that require military service for both men and women, rumors began to circulate about a government plan to restart the draft in 2005.

In recent weeks, several government offices and news agencies also reported a dramatic rise in the number of e-mails and calls concerning the draft. Most were in reaction to the Army’s June 2nd announcement that it was issuing “stop-loss orders” on all units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. National Guard and Reserve members make up roughly 40 percent of the forces in the two countries. And with enlistment numbers down, the order retains already stretched troop levels by preventing volunteer soldiers from retiring or leaving the service – something that presidential hopeful John Kerry and others have criticized as a “back-door draft.” While it agitated the ranks and their families, the program was “a finger in the dike,” one Army official told the L.A. Times, adding that a possible backlash and future exodus from the military was a gamble necessary to meet current commitments.

Speculation about the possibility of a draft would probably never have surfaced from the press and the dark dwellings of the Internet, were it not for the very real spectacle of the American military taking hits from an unexpected Iraqi insurgency. A frustrated Congress voted overwhelmingly on June 17 to add 20,000 troops to the Army. Public anxiety about over-extended Army troops and angry Reservists languishing in indefinite deployment seemed to legitimize the conspiracy theories just enough for the mainstream media – including The New York Times – to take notice in recent months, with the gist of most news reports being: A new draft? No. But despite vehement denials from Senators and even ol’ Rummy himself, skeptics and proponents remain.

As the U.S. military faces a growing and increasingly amorphous list of adversaries, conflicting agendas on how such wars should be fought often come down to a battle of the numbers. According to the Defense Department, there are about 548,000 soldiers on active duty in the Army and Marines, and 20,000 Air Force members deployed in spots around the globe, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Only about one-third of the Army’s divisions should be deployed at any one time, advises the Council on Foreign Relations, “to give the forces time to retrain and prepare for the next mission.” Currently, 138,000 troops – roughly one-third of the Army’s total number – are stationed just in Iraq, with the possibility of more to come.

Back in the heady days of February 2003, when the Army’s chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, told Congress it would take “several hundred thousand” troops to stabilize Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other neocon policy wonks could be heard scoffing all the way from the Pentagon. But now it seems that their lower estimate of 100,000 troops to do the whole job was a wildly irresponsible guess or, if you were so inclined to believe, a prudent calculation based on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of a slim “surgical” military operation.

And yet, some voices around Washington are still advocating a reinstatement of the draft. Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy said in a CNN interview recently that a new draft is the only way the United States can prosecute the war on terror. “The sheer magnitude of that problem on literally a global scale, I think, will overwhelm the current capacities of our military.”

Gaffney also points out, however, that the draft is not a popular idea among politicians, especially in an election year. A CNN poll found that 70 percent of Americans were not in favor of a draft. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) found himself a lone voice in his party when he suggested in April that compulsory military service might be necessary "in a generational war here against terrorism."

But it seems that many officials in the Armed Forces do not agree either. Former Air Force Colonel P.J. Crawley, the Director of National Defense at the Center for American Progress, says most senior leaders in the military vividly remember the problems the draft created during their service in Vietnam, and do not support a reinstatement of the draft.

“That was a force that had terrible morale. They didn’t want to be in uniform; they didn’t believe in the Vietnam conflict,” Crawley says. “We broke our military during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it took us 10 years to fix it. And so I don’t see that there is any great desire among senior leaders to go back to that experience.”

He also says many of the current problems could have been avoided. “We have to recognize that some of the stresses and strains that we are experiencing today are self-inflicted,” Crawley adds. “We had a genuine coalition in the aftermath of 9/11 with respect to Afghanistan. And we blew that international consensus when we rushed in to Iraq.”

Ironically, while some think the draft could be one result of the Iraqi war, it was last year’s bill introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) that sought to reinstate mandatory military service as a way to prevent a preemptive attack on Iraq. As President Bush cobbled together his case for war in January 2003, Rep. Rangel pulled together 13 of the House’s most liberal representatives to sign on to a bill that required
“all young persons in the United States, including women, perform a period of military service or a period of civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security.”

Rangel argued that the paid-volunteer service had created a military mostly of minorities and the poor. His bill was based on the premise that supporters of the war would act with more caution if they thought their children might end up on the front lines. The bill didn’t even have a chance of making it out of committee.

Nevertheless, lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to raise questions about the capacity of the military to face armed conflict in the future, particularly if the U.S. faces another confrontation in, say, Iran or North Korea.

“Is the all-volunteer army a competitive defensive force? Up until now, it has been,” says Crawley, adding that the United States is currently drawing on only 40 percent of its reserve force. “If we came to a third front, we would engage in a general mobilization drawing on all of our reserves.”

Despite the additional reserve capacity, the Selective Service System is still keeping its gears oiled as it has for the past 30 years, maintaining its databases of young people, ready for a congressional go-ahead or a presidential Bring ‘em on.

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