In 1973, forced conscription ended in favor of an all-volunteer military. As the gap between the capacity of America's armed forces and the demands of current deployment widens, the likelihood of a reinstated draft grows.
Reports were recently circulated that a "special skills" draft was on the table specifically for people skilled in computers and foreign languages. The Selective Service countered the allegations with a statement on their website, stating that the Selective Service is merely fulfilling its role and hasn't ramped up in anticipation of a coming draft: "Selective Service is not getting ready to conduct a draft for the U.S. Armed Forces -- either with a special skills or regular draft. Rather, the Agency remains prepared to manage a draft if and when the President and the Congress so direct. This responsibility has been ongoing since 1980 and is nothing new."
However, the Bush Administration's military goals cannot be met without forced conscription. Consider these facts:
Twenty-one of the US Army's 33 regular combat brigades are now on active duty in the "hot" zones of Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea, and the Balkans. That's 63 percent of the Army's fighting force ... all without factoring in additional troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Britain, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere around the globe.
This is a huge overextension. History has proven that long-term military operations can only be sustained if you have twice as many soldiers waiting in the pipeline as are stationed out in the field. By that rule of thumb, the regular military is now 125,000 soldiers short -- a gap the Bush administration has temporarily plugged by calling more than 150,000 Army Reserve and National Guard troops into active service..
There are 135,000 troops stationed in Iraq, just under half of them guardsmen and reservists. But to maintain that number another 22,000 have already been sent there and brought home dead, wounded, or medically unfit for service. Since the invasion of Iraq there have been more military casualties than in all the years since the end of the Viet Nam war combined.
The human well is drying up. Enlistment rates in the regular armed forces and the National Guard have dropped precipitously, and according to a poll conducted by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, a whopping 49 percent of soldiers stationed in Iraq say they don't intend to reenlist -- even with the Army offering a $10,000 bonus.
In January 2004, Vice-President Dick Cheney gave a speech in San Francisco outlining a further expansion of the military. In no uncertain terms he announced that our armed forces would be set up in more overseas bases, so the United States could wage war quickly around the globe. "One of the legacies of this administration," he said, "will be some of the most sweeping changes in our military, and our national security strategy as it relates to the military and force structure, and how we're based, and how we used it in the last 50 or 60 years, probably since World War II. I think the changes are that dramatic."
Despite statements to the contrary, quiet preparations for the return of the draft have been under way for some time. The Selective Service System's Annual Performance Plan for Fiscal Year 2004 -- despite a ton of obfuscatory jargon, acronyms, and bureaucrat-speak -- can't quite manage to bury all of its bombshells.
Strategic Objective 1.2 of the 2004 plan commits the Selective Service System to being fully operational within 75 days of "an authorized return to conscription." Strategic Objective 1.3 then commits them to "be operationally ready to furnish untrained manpower within DOD timelines." By next year the government intends to turn the ignition key on a mobilization infrastructure of 56 State Headquarters, 442 Area Offices, and 1,980 Local Boards. There's even a big chunk of funding this year to run what's called an "Area Office Prototype Exercise" which will "test the activation process from SSS Lottery input to the issuance of First Armed Forces Examination Orders."
Strategic Objective 2.2 is all about bumping up the Selective Service System's High School Registrar Program. What's that? It's a plan to put volunteer Registrars in at least 85% of the nation's high schools, up from 65% in 1998. Consider these the SSS's "troops on the ground," making sure that the smallest possible number of eligible draftees manages to slip through the net. (In the school arena, by the way, the Bush administration has already pulled a fast one. Buried deep in the 670 pages of the No Child Left Behind Act there is a provision which requires that public high schools give military recruiters access to facilities and also contact information for every student -- or else face a cutoff of federal aid.)
The 2004 plan commits the SSS to report to the president on March 31st, 2005, that the system is ready for activation with 75 days. If they manage the task, then the first lottery could happen as early as June 15th, 2005.
The job of approving a draft officially belongs to both the President and Congress, working together to pass new legislation, and officially it can only happen if the country is at war. But given the examples of the last three years, these safeguards are hard to call firm and reassuring.
First, as far as the Bush administration is concerned we are at war in every respect. On the basis of this position the President has skated around the strict language of the Constitution and launched the invasion of two different countries, despite the fact that only Congress is supposed to have the power to declare war. Second, the White House is supported by Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. While it is certain that any Presidential decision to reactivate the draft would be hotly debated in Congress, and resisted by a majority of the public, it is by no means clear that it could be effectively blocked -- especially with prominent Democrats such as Representative Charlie Rangel and Senator Hillary Clinton on record as supporting the possibility of some kind of conscription.
Of course, the Selective Service System doesn't call it a "draft." In their lexicon of acronyms it's a "Registrant Integrated Processing System": RIPS, for short. The acronym's horrible irony -- Rest In Peace, anyone? -- seems to have been lost on the bureaucrats.
Connor Freff Cochran is a film producer and former magazine/television journalist. He spent four years as an American on-air correspondent for the BBC.
Connor Freff Cochran