In January Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY)—with the House support of John Conyers (D-Mich) and the Black Caucus—and Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) introduced legislation to reinstitute the military draft. The legislation would apply to all men and women between eighteen and twenty-six and require of them two years of military or alternative civilian service. Only those needing additional time to complete high school could receive a deferment—until age twenty.
In 30 December 2002 and 7 January 2003 press releases, Rangel described his purposes as demonstrating “opposition to a unilateral [US] preemptive attack against Iraq” and, in the case of war, ensuring that “all classes of Americans” make an “equitable sacrifice.” Claiming that the “poor and minorities” are disproportionately represented in the enlisted ranks of the armed forces, the New York congressman looked to the draft to guarantee “shared sacrifice” in the event of war and cause national “decision makers [to] more readily feel the pain” of a vote for war knowing that their sons and daughters might serve “on the front lines.”
When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld briefed the press on 7 January he expressed vigorous opposition to both the draft and the notion that anyone in the administration takes “lightly” a decision to go to war. The present all-volunteer force, added Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers, is “efficient” and “effective” and has “given the United States. . . a military that is second to none.” A conscript force, by contrast, would require rebuilding an expensive basic and specialty training base and, by the constant turnover of short service conscripts with little more than a year left to serve, reduce readiness for combat.
Nor did Rumsfeld accept Rangel’s implication that disproportionate numbers of blacks and other minorities might be killed in battle. Although it is a commonplace in the African-American community that blacks in Vietnam died at a rate many times higher than their proportion of the general population, the Washington Post’s Darryl Fears recently reported on Department of Defense studies indicating that blacks, just under eleven percent of the population in the Sixties, accounted for only a slightly disproportionate thirteen percent of Vietnam’s combat deaths.
Although African-Americans presently constitute twenty-one percent of the armed forces, versus twelve percent of the general population, they are, according to Pentagon reports, proportionately less likely than whites to serve in high-risk infantry, armor, or artillery units. Blacks are, instead, overrepresented in administration, combat support, supply, and medical and dental units, which reduces their risk of death. Even in regard to the Army, where blacks comprise thirty percent of enlistees, defense analyst Curtis Gilroy pointed out that they are proportionately “more likely to carry a clipboard than a rifle.” As a consequence, “the perception that African-Americans suffer more would be wrong.”
An older official study found that the services’ recruits come “primarily from families in the middle and lower middle socio-economic strata.” Although Rangel is correct that wealthier families supply few soldiers, he errs in asserting that most enlistees come from low-income backgrounds. That is not so because the armed forces now demand higher education and skill requirements than during the draft era. Challenging the relevance of a soldier’s socio-economic background, Secretary Rumsfeld observed that members of today’s armed forces have volunteered, “God bless them,” and serve not under the compulsion of conscription, but “because they want to be there and are ready and willing and, without any question, capable of doing whatever the president may ask.”
Rangel’s proposed Universal Service Act of 2003 also leaves many difficult questions unanswered. What need have the services’ for the approximately four million men and women who, according to census projections, will turn eighteen each year? With the only deferment an additional two years to complete high school and with each conscript serving two years, the proposed draft could therefore put an unneeded eight million young Americans under arms. Without some system of exemptions, Rangel’s bill would seemingly call upon the administration to place most of that number in some form of civilian service—perhaps a vastly expanded AmeriCorps. Nor has anyone yet attempted to assess the cost of such a program in dollars, or the resentment on the part of conscripts and disruption to their education and the nation’s economy.
According to the Post’s Fears, Rangel’s and Conyer’s staffers privately acknowledge that a draft has “little chance of passing.” Even if that were not so, it could hardly have any impact on a war likely to begin within a few weeks. So, what are the bill’s sponsors up to?
They have called attention to the armed services’ socio-economic profile, implying that it is a problem in need of a solution. Though objecting to the weighting of minorities and low-income groups, would they truly wish to deny to those individuals the opportunity that military service provides to earn both a good income and receive educational credits useful in preparing for a post-service civilian career? I hope not. The draft’s advocates also wish to restrain decision makers, but how many of them are likely to have a son or daughter—or a grandchild—under arms unless the services experience an unlikely huge, expensive, and unneeded expansion? Nor should anyone sincerely concerned about combat deaths take lightly the manner in which a conscript force would reduce military readiness.
Proposing a draft as means to express opposition to war in Iraq smacks of pure politics in my view and is a disservice to the armed forces and those who serve in them. If Rangel, Conyers, and Hollings are serious about increasing the numbers of middle- and upper-income whites in the armed forces, they might better promote high school Junior ROTC programs, make participation in college ROTC units more financially attractive, pay members of the armed forces salaries that exceed comparable civilian wages by an amount that substantially exceeds the disadvantages of military service, and consider how to change the antimilitary cultural legacy of the Sixties.
Such steps would cost the taxpayers, but undoubtedly far less than a return to the draft.
Col. (ret.) Abrahamson is a frequent contributor to this journal. Following graduation from West Point (1959), he began a 27-year career in the U.S. Army, during which time he earned a master’s degree from the University of Geneva (1964) and a Ph.D. from Stanford University (1977).