Military draft is no simple bargaining chip

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

It's hard to make a popular case for sending young men and women off to war. But the men and women who voluntarily serve in the U.S. military understand that the possibility of combat is always with us. Our nation's military preparedness is as much a deterrent to conflict and invasion as diplomacy.

Now some Americans suggest that if universal military conscription were reinstated, there would be less support for going to war with Iraq. This is the argument offered by Rep. Charles Rangel of New York. Rangel is a Korean War veteran who opposes a military solution in Iraq. He believes members of Congress would be less likely to support war against Saddam Hussein if their children were the ones to be put in harm's way. Rangel further believes minorities make up a disproportionate number of military enlistees.

The United States hasn't had a military draft for nearly 30 years, although young men are still required to register with the Selective Service System when they turn 18 years old. Since the draft was ended after the Vietnam War, the military has relied on recruitment to attract men and women to the armed forces.

According to the Pentagon, recruiting efforts and voluntary enlistments have made our armed forces more professional and efficient, mainly because the people who serve are in the military by choice.

Millions of Americans are old enough to have participated in the Vietnam War or the anti-war protests of that era. Men who are in the 50s and 60s now remember the draft lotteries and how they affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of families.

But even with the draft supplying thousands of new soldiers for the war in Vietnam, there were numerous and violent protests. Having the draft in place during the Vietnam War era was a major factor in determining how young men of draft age felt about being sent off to combat. But the draft had little to do with Congress' decisions on the war in Vietnam, as Rangel suggests it would regarding war in Iraq.

Moreover, the Pentagon says Rangel is wrong when he claims U.S. soldiers are disproportionately minorities. Blacks make up 20 percent of enlistees but only 15 percent of the combat force, which mirrors the percentage of blacks currently in the recruit-age population.

Perhaps the weakest point of Rangel's argument regarding the draft is the notion that members of Congress are unfamiliar with military service.

Like Rangel, many other representatives and senators have served their nation through military service, many of them in combat and some of them as prisoners of war. They certainly know what they're talking about when they debate and vote on issues relating to the situation in Iraq. More than that, many members of Congress have sons and daughters who have volunteered for military duty and serve their nation proudly, even in the face of a war in Iraq.

There may come a time when a military draft must be reinstated. That time isn't now. And the idea that having a draft would change this nation's foreign policy is a weak argument that has little merit at a time when troops are being poised for action in the Mideast.

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