A Draft – One Way or the Other

Election '04

The U. S. House of Representatives voted 402-2 this week to defeat a bill to reinstate the military draft. The Republican Party insists that this vote ought to end any speculation that the president has any plans to start up the draft again.

"The reason we are doing this" – the "we" being the Republicans, the "this" being the bringing to the House floor a bill for the sole purpose of swatting it down – "is to expose the hoax of the year, which has been needlessly scaring young people," explained House Armed Services Committee chair Duncan Hunter. The "hoax" Mr. Hunter was referring to was the allegation by Democrats that Mr. Bush – if he is still president – has secret plans to bring back the draft once the November elections are over. "We will not have a draft so long as I'm the President of the United States" said Mr. Bush himself, on Monday, in Iowa.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld backed that assertion up in a radio interview by adding, "We do not need a draft. ... We are having no trouble at all attracting and retaining people that we need to serve in the armed forces."

Let us leave aside the question of Mr. Bush's believability on such assertions and concentrate, instead, on Mr. Rumsfeld's statement, applying some logic and common sense to what facts we have on hand.

Let us leave also aside the question of whether or not the U. S. military is having "no trouble at all" attracting new recruits. We could spend several days investigating troop strengths and military deployments and perceived global threats and recruitment quotas, but in the end, almost all of us would be hopelessly muddled under a blanket of indecipherable facts and statistics. Instead, let's just deal with the present facts in hand.

Since overextending itself and bogging down in Iraq, the U.S. military has been retaining its troop strength – to some degree – by what is called the "stop loss" policy. Soldiers sign up for a certain term – say, two years – and at the end of that term, they expect to receive honorable discharges to return to civilian life. But what we know is that in a large number of instances – who knows how large? – troops are being told that the military cannot honor the ending date of those signup contracts, and the soldiers are being retained in the military, against their will, past their discharge dates.

Further, there is an ongoing investigation of charges that U.S. military personnel stationed in certain stateside bases – and nearing the end of their tours of duty – are receiving official military forms on which they are asked to state their re-enlistment intentions. Some soldiers have complained that they were told by their military superiors that if they failed to agree to re-enlist, they would be shipped to Iraq immediately to serve out the rest of their terms, but if they re-enlisted, they would "probably" be able to serve the next two years away from the war zone. In other words, if the charges are true, the troops are being threatened to sign away their rights and freedom.

In this way, Mr. Rumsfeld may be entirely correct when he says that "we are having no trouble at all ... retaining people that we need to serve in the armed forces." This would be the same as a bank robber saying that he "had no trouble making a withdrawal from the Wells Fargo branch." True, but, put the pistol down, friend, and see if it still works out quite so easily.

I've never been in combat, and veterans may want to correct me if I'm in error, but from everything I've read and believe, morale is a significant factor in any war-making machine. All things being equal, a soldier who wants to fight – or believes that it's her or his duty to fight – will be a better soldier than one who is fairly pissed off about being on the battlefield. And so, in the long run, the military's "stop loss" policies could lead to some significant problems.

Let us now return to the beginning of Mr. Rumsfeld's statement, and advance a question: If we're having no trouble bringing enough needed new troops into the military – as the defense secretary says – why is the military forcing soldiers to stay in the military past their contracted terms, thus leaving us with a battlefield potentially sprinkled with demoralized and disgruntled fighters?

Which brings us back to a simple if/or/then equation.

If Iraqi security forces are able to replace U. S. soldiers in significant numbers within, say, the next six months to a year – or if hostilities in Iraq significantly diminish in that same period – then the nation's present one-and-a-half-million member active duty military force may be enough to meet the nation's existing defense and international policy needs.

But if the war goes on at its present pace-or escalates – or spreads to other areas of the region – and Iraqi security forces aren't up to the task to fill in the gaps – then that leaves the next presidential administration – either Bush or Kerry – with some difficult choices, among which are:

1. Bombing Iraq back into the stone age, thus eliminating most existing enemies (along with a good many friends); or

2. Unilateral U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq; or

3. Leaving U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq, as is, while cutting back the United States' military readiness throughout the world, including on the American homeland; or

4. Supplementing our military ranks with soldiers from our European allies; or

5. Supplementing our military ranks with paid mercenaries from other countries; or

6. A resumption of the military draft.

You can have fun around the dinner table or at work discussing these options at length with family, friends, and co-workers, but given the present realities, and considering the prevailing options, the resumption of the draft does not appear to be such a wild, far-fetched idea or a "hoax to scare our young people" as our good Republican friends might have us believe. It looks like a real possibility.

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