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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette May 24, 2004

Rumor aside, draft's return most unlikely

By Jack Kelly

The Selective Service System quietly has been filling vacancies on local draft boards, as U.S. troops are pulled from Korea to help out in Iraq and members of Congress question whether the armed services are overextended.

This collection of circumstances has prompted a flurry of speculation, fueled by e-mail-forwarding and nurtured by left-wing Web sites, that the U.S. government is poised to reinstate the military draft, or that President Bush has secret plans to do so if re-elected in November.

But the Pentagon opposes a general manpower draft, and even those few members of Congress who support one think the chances of a draft being reinstituted are next-to-none. Yet the rumors fly.

"Pending legislation in the House and Senate would time the program so the draft could begin as early as spring 2005 -- conveniently just after the 2004 presidential election!" Adam Stutz recently wrote on the Vancouver Indymedia Web site.

The Armed Forces are not now having difficulty recruiting and retaining enough volunteers to maintain current strength, either in active or reserve components. But many fear that if the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, this will be harder to do.

Recruiting historically has been more difficult when the economy is growing rapidly, as it is now. And many in Congress believe it is necessary to increase the size of the Army by the equivalent of two divisions, along with their supporting elements.

The upsurge in violence in Iraq has forced the Army to postpone plans to scale down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, currently about 135,000.

Major elements of all 10 of the Army's active duty divisions are in Iraq or Afghanistan, have just returned, or are slated to deploy there.

This has sent the Army scrambling for troops.

Despite nuclear saber rattling by the North Koreans, one of the two mechanized infantry brigades stationed in South Korea is due to deploy to Iraq this summer. The Army is also considering a plan to close the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., so that the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which acts as the opposition force in exercises there, could be freed up for deployment.

"[Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter] Schoomaker doesn't want to go there [to a draft], but he's afraid he might have to," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.Org, a think tank in Washington. "They're really moving the heavy furniture around to find more combat troops."

But there is no need for a draft now, Pike said, adding that "it's easier to see the problems [a draft] creates than the problems it solves."

Despite the potential need for more soldiers, both experts who support and those who oppose the reinstatement of military conscription say there is little likelihood that any American ever again will be drafted -- except maybe for specialized positions, such as health care professionals, linguists and computer programmers.

"You're talking about an undertaking that nobody has the stomach for," said Andrew Krepinovich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is director of the Center for Strategic and Budget Alternatives in Washington.

Professor Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, considered America's pre-eminent military sociologist, has been arguing for a draft for years, but thinks the odds it will be reinstated are "very low."

"Conservatives don't like [the draft] because they say it's a restriction on their freedom. Liberals don't like it because they don't want to serve in the military," Moskos said.

While many in the military support conscription on the grounds of social equity or national service, nearly all professional soldiers think that bringing back the draft now would reduce the quality of the military, while driving up its cost.

"The draft would be the Army's worst nightmare," said retired Lt. Col. Leonard Wong, now a research professor at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. "We have a high quality Army because we have people who want to be in it. Our volunteer force is really a professional force. You can't draft people into a profession."

A fundamental problem with a draft today, experts say, is that the historic two-year period of conscription isn't enough time to get a return on the investment in training that modern soldiers require. "There's just too much equipment [draftees] could break," Pike said.

A related problem: the cost of feeding, clothing, training and paying a large influx of unskilled personnel would gobble up funds the military needs for other purposes.

"We're a personnel-based institution," Wong said. "If we have a lot more people walking in the door, it would suck up all of our resources."

And even if the draft were reinstated tomorrow, it would take at least two years before it could produce additional soldiers for Iraq and Afghanistan, the experts say.

"It will take 193 days from the time that we get started until the first person is presented to the Department of Defense," said Alyce Burton, a spokeswoman for the Selective Service. It would then take a year and a half to two years to train the draftees and form them into new combat units, Krepinovich said.

If more combat troops were needed within the next year or so, the National Guard could supply them.

There are 38 combat brigades (a brigade is roughly a third of a division) in the Army National Guard. Of these, three have been called to active service. Four more are mobilizing. That leaves 31 that still could be called upon. In addition, most of the 4th Marine Division has not been called to active service.

The Army is experiencing serious shortfalls of certain kinds of troops -- military policemen, linguists, interrogators, civil affairs specialists and medics, for instance -- so it is combing the Individual Ready Reserve to find veterans who have these skills. As many as 6,500 could be recalled to active duty.

The IRR consists of veterans who have completed their enlistment contract but who still have time remaining on the 8-year obligation they incurred when they joined up.

At the request of the Defense Department, the Selective Service has been developing standby plans for drafting doctors, nurses and medical technicians, should the need arise, Burton said. And on its own, the Selective Service has been studying how a draft for other types of specialists -- in particular linguists and computer programers -- might work, she said.

But Burton added: "We've been told that a draft of untrained manpower would not be necessary in the future."

When he was a congressman from Illinois, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld introduced one of the first bills in Congress to abolish the draft. His attitude about the draft hasn't softened since.

So why is the Selective Service (which is no longer part of the Defense Department) filling vacancies on local draft boards? The reason is simple, Burton said. There are a lot of vacancies.

"The longest anyone can serve on a local draft board is 20 years," she said. "Most of the members were appointed in 1980 [when President Jimmy Carter reinstated registration for the draft], or shortly thereafter. They have to be replaced."

Whether it would be to fill general manpower needs or to acquire specific skills, Congress would have to vote to reimpose the draft before the draft machinery could be set in motion, something Congress historically has been loath to do.

The draft was first imposed in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, and sparked riots in New York City and elsewhere. The draft was reimposed for World War I, and ended soon after Armistice Day. The first peacetime draft was voted in 1940, by only a single vote, and then only because France had just fallen to the Nazis.

Ended after World War II, the draft was reinstated in 1948, at the start of the Cold War, and became increasingly controversial during the Vietnam War. With the consent of Congress, President Richard Nixon ended the draft in 1973.

The requirement to register for the draft, suspended in 1975, was reinstated in 1980, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Currently, all male citizens (and some resident aliens) are supposed to register with the Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday.

Even most of those who favor conscription acknowledge the All Volunteer Force has been a success. The education levels of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are the highest in history and disciplinary problems are few compared to those of the draft-era military. The performance of U.S. armed forces in the Iraq war, as they toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in a month, awed leaders of foreign militaries.

Moskos, who served two years in the Army after graduating from Princeton in 1956, favors a draft because he thinks it's the only way to get the children of elites to serve.

"Of 535 congressmen and senators, only seven have children in the military," Moskos said. "In my graduating class at Princeton, more than 400 out of 750 males served. In last year's graduating class of more than 1,100, only seven served."

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., author of one of the two bills pending in Congress to reinstate the draft, also favors conscription primarily for sociological reasons. Rangel credits his involuntary service in the Army during the Korean War with "straightening him out" as a young man, and thinks inner-city youth headed down the wrong path could also benefit from the experience.

A persistent myth about the All Volunteer Force is that it is made up largely of the poor and the uneducated. In fact, Wong said, the volunteer Army is more middle class than its predecessor.

"We don't have the fringes any more -- the extremely rich or the extremely poor," Wong said. "We look like Middle America."

A fundamental problem for his argument to reinstate the draft on the basis of social equity, Moskos noted, is that the services of only a small proportion of those who turn 18 each year would be required, even if the military were expanded substantially.

About 2 million males will turn 18 this year. The 2004 recruiting goals for all the Armed Forces is just 187,437. Even if that number were tripled, and there were no volunteers at all, draft calls would go to less than 30 percent of available males, and less than 15 percent of available personnel if women were drafted, too. Volunteers can be older than 18, as well.

"In the 1950s [when the Armed Forces were much larger and the youth population much smaller] you had to be lucky not to be drafted. When even Elvis was called, we felt like we were all in this together," Pike said.

"Today, you'd have to awfully unlucky to be drafted. How could anyone think that's fair?"

(Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.)

Copyright 2004, PG Publishing Co., Inc.