The Draft — for Democracy

Opening the 108th Congress dramatically this month, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) introduced a bill to bring back the military draft. Not your father’s draft, but a truly universal draft — without college exemptions and, yes, with a provision for drafting young women as well as men. Rangel’s proposal has inspired heated discussions that recall the dissension over Vietnam-era draft, which all would agree fell short as a national policy.

The draft system of the 1960s and 1970s failed because it was not universal. Women, of course, were exempted. For men, there were college deferments. College or Vietnam? Young men who could afford to do so continued their education, while their compatriots with lesser means often found themselves slogging through an Asian jungle under fire. Young men with political connections, such as George W. Bush, snatched up scarce National Guard commissions that enabled them to avoid the draft by getting part-time training at home.

Almost lost in the clamor following Rangel’s proposal was a simple truth: a truly universal draft would strengthen our country, our armed forces and our democracy.

Fairness, or the lack of it, was one of the principal reasons for political failure of the Vietnam-era draft. By the late 1960s, popular perception had it that the disadvantaged were fighting a war that was promoted by privileged politicians and rewarded wealthy industrialists. Whatever the truth, this belief was fed by the inequities of the draft.

Military service is a responsibility that should fall on everyone’s shoulders — rich and poor, black and white. And this includes women. If we women want to claim our rights as American citizens, we must also shoulder our responsibility to protect those rights. It would be disingenuous to argue otherwise.

In the United States, minority and ethnic groups have long understood the positive relationship between military service and political rights. This is why we have seen high service rates by African Americans, from the Buffalo Soldiers of the nineteenth century through World War II, despite segregation. And Irish Americans served in the Union army in high numbers during theÝ Civil War, even though they came to a country where businesses greeted them with “No Irish” signs in the windows. The armed forces were often ahead of civil society, most notably when the Truman administration desegregated the U.S. armed forces beginning in 1948, fifteen years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Universal conscription is generally thought of as a way to ensure a steady supply of manpower. The most famous draft in history was the levee en masse of 1793 that provided revolutionary France with manpower to resist the smaller professional armies of Europe. Current U.S. military doctrine does not rely on large supplies of manpower as it did in earlier conflicts, but the U.S. Army has had difficulty reaching even reduced recruitment goals in recent years and is currently stretched close to the breaking point.

There now may not be enough soldiers to fulfill all the assigned missions. If the Bush administration is serious about fighting a war against Iraq while maintaining forces in Afghanistan and on peacekeeping missions elsewhere while facing problems on the Korean peninsula, the United States could rapidly find itself short-handed. We need to be prepared for that possibility. Simply calling up already over-utilized reserve and National Guard units is not enough. We need to reinstitute the draft.

Perhaps if we had a universal draft, the administration would be more circumspect about taking on so many military commitments. Conscription forces the government to be more responsive to the public. The possibility that we, or our sons and daughters, could be called upon to fight might make us, as citizens, shake off our apathy and pay closer attention to the rest of the world. We’re likely to ask: is this worth dying for? We’re more likely to give this question the consideration it deserves when we may pay the price.

A final argument for universal conscription is that it would foster healthier relations between civilians and the military, which is a vital consideration for any democracy. For the past generation we have had, for all intents and purposes, a volunteer force structure. A declining number of Americans have any experience in our military, a trend that is especially pronounced in our elected or appointed representatives. Few of our leaders have served in the armed forces. They do not know what our military can and cannot do.

This knowledge gap makes it possible for the Pentagon to shape the defense and foreign policy debate by controlling information. Contrast this with the 1950s when a substantial number of citizens — from President Eisenhower to Jimmy Stewart to your neighbor — had a working knowledge of the military from service in World War II. Not only have we lost contact with our military capabilities, but we have lost touch with our soldiers, seamen and airmen as well. How many of us know anyone who might be called upon to fight in Iraq?

The argument against conscription, at least from the military, is that volunteers have higher morale and less turnover. On the surface, these are good arguments. The problem lies in the original motivation of the volunteers. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, patriotism and a willingness to fight were not the main recruiting tools used to fill the military ranks. Rather, pay, benefits, training, scholarships and “a chance to see the world” were the carrots dangled by recruiters. How good is the morale of soldiers who didn’t sign up to fight and die in the desert, but instead wanted to be trained as a mechanic or to pay for college?

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, didn’t our soldiers feel the pull of patriotism regardless of why they signed up? Yes, most of them did. But morale has more to do with the cause we are fighting for than whether we volunteered or were drafted. Universal conscription ensures responsibility. The government must listen to citizens, and citizens must actively participate in government and our military. To put it another way, if we want to be heard, we must serve.

Stacy Bergstrom Haldi teaches international relations at Gettysburg College. She is the author of "Why Wars Widen: A Theory of Predation and Balancing" (2003) and is a writer for History News Service.