WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's commitment to stay the course in Iraq no matter how long it takes, a drastic slowdown in military recruitment and Pentagon efforts to compile a database of high-school and college-age Americans have heightened parental concerns about the possibility of reinstatement of some form of national service.
Should they be worried? The Defense Department and the White House both say absolutely not, emphasizing that there is little need or public support for such a move. But the heads of organizations like Mothers Against the Draft don't believe the denials. MAD national chair Janine Hansen puts it this way:
"The military manpower problem is real and significant. When there aren't enough volunteers, Congress is left with few choices. They can significantly raise taxes to support a mercenary force, change our foreign policy and reduce our overseas military commitments or resort to the draft or some other form of compulsory service to fill the gap."
Rather than a Cold War-style Selective Service system, Hansen and other MAD executives anticipate legislation mandating two years of national service for all young men and women, perhaps coupled with a skills draft of older Americans who are doctors, nurses, linguists and others who possess special talents sorely needed by the military.
Private marketing firm
Particularly alarming to anti-draft groups has been the revelation that the Pentagon has hired a private marketing firm to establish a profile of 30 million youngsters, including their Social Security numbers, ethnicity, grade point average, areas of study, height, weight and how to contact them.
In many respects, some form of required national service is not such a bad idea. And keeping pertinent information about your potential work force is just good business. In the old days, we didn't find it particularly scary that they knew where to find us. We just took it for granted. Most of us who were eligible for military service from the end of the Korean War until Vietnam were able to learn a great deal from the experience. Those who got caught in the Vietnam maelstrom feel a whole lot differently about it, and with good reason.
On the positive side, the service commitment is a great leveler, the only such experience many young Americans will ever have. It also teaches a discipline sorely lacking in much of today's youth culture.
From an economic standpoint, the service requirement feeds young men and women into the work force at a measured pace after high school and college. They generally come out of service more mature and ready for a productive civilian life. If the public-service requirement is not strictly limited to the military, it could imbue those who undergo it with a lasting sense of community service.
The negative side of a military draft, of course, is the danger that it will encourage adventurism, as it did in Vietnam. There is little question that the nation committed more than 500,000 troops to Southeast Asia because it had them available. Furthermore, the huge standing armies of that era were enormously expensive and, in many ways, inefficient. In today's highly technical military, the numbers need not be anywhere near as large. In fact, except for peacekeeping and security assignments, the smaller cut-and-slash force is far more effective. The quick-striking mobile force that destroyed the organized Iraqi army is an example. The misjudgment of postwar needs, including a far larger force, is another story.
In reality, despite the concerns of groups like MAD, there is little or no political advocacy for a reinstatement of the draft. One would be hard put to find a lawmaker willing to stick his neck out in support of it, barring any sort of conflagration on the scale of a world war. There is some backing for a system that assigns young men and women a period of reserve exposure after some basic training and a yearly refresher course, a plan modeled after nations like Switzerland and Israel.
Actually, the best idea at the moment is to do nothing. We are a long way from needing the kind of manpower an all-out draft would bring. There is a sizeable reserve force now, and the prospect of moving troops from Korea or Europe to wherever they are needed is always on the table. So while we should not close the door to some kind of service requirement, a strictly military draft is not a wise course.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard.