CRANK UP CONSCRIPTION? Of course. On second thought, of course not.
As American troops continue in combat in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq is between probable and possible, the draft has been resurrected in debate. But the debate, such as it is, essentially is demagogic.
The most recent call to arms came from two black Democrats, Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan. Their thesis, intended as a partisan shot across President Bush's bow, is that minorities and the less affluent are disproportionately likely to become casualties. "For those who say the poor fight better, I say give the rich a chance," emoted Rangel.
The Defense Department speedily released a report showing that "the enlisted force is quite representative of the civilian population." Blacks, for instance, who make up 12.7 percent of the U.S. population, comprise 21 percent of total enlisted personnel, but only 15 percent of those serving in the combat arms--infantry, armored, and artillery.
A reasonable argument can be made for reinstituting selective service. The traditional justification that all those eligible should share the burdens of defense through conscription is not without force. The cross-pollinization of individuals from different backgrounds can be an agent of civic cohesion. Any revival of course would have to minimize the inequitable pattern of exemptions that so discredited the draft in Vietnam.
Enlistments haven't risen geometrically since September 11, and the administration is relying on calling reservists and National Guard troops to meet U.S. commitments. Note, too, that the Marine Corps has ordered that most of its troopers due for discharge or retirement must remain on active duty for 12 more months.
The dilemma of the all-volunteer military is that, good as these soldiers, sailors, and Marines are said to be, there may not be enough of them to tote the bales of a global war against terror and the other challenges of the decades ahead.
Against the traditionalist view, though, is a weightier argument. The lower-end strength of the U.S. armed forces in this era (with the phenomenal growth in advanced military technology) may have to increase as the challenges of a new century grow. But even that would mean that only a fraction of those registered would ever be called--which even with a lottery could heighten the sense of inequity.
Think, then, of the Herculean chore of gearing up the Selective Service System with the longer, and possibly perilous, lead time required to transform draftees into soldiers. There is unlikely to be the grace period, so to speak, by which in World War II the nation could get itself together.
There is another deficiency to a new draft, and that is political. In a nation crazed by the politics of feminism and the taxonomy of sex, can anyone conceive that a renewed draft would exclude women? When President Carter reinstituted registration of U.S. males in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there was fuss and foment that females should be included (Congress balked and the Supreme Court upheld the male-only criterion). Now, with women making up a sizable portion of the U.S. military, the pressure to make conscription "inclusive" would be irresistible. That could complicate the bureaucratic slicing and dicing immeasurably.
There is also influential advocacy for a national service system in which the military would be one option among many. Report to the induction center, my lad (and lass), and see what items on the menu attract you--AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, or conscientious objection on religious or philosophical grounds? And, oh yes, how about Army green? Is there much question of where the middle- and upper-middle-class draftees would opt to serve? That segment of the population is conspicuously absent from the barracks today: There would likely have to be a second lottery by which needed numbers of military draftees were decided upon.
Does that massive and intricate drill suggest the dimensions of the bureaucratic chore? And there would need to be an appellate level for the draftees called who would shout, "Hell no, we won't go."
So forget a revived draft unless the world changes beyond the substantial threatening dimensions already evident. An organic link that has been ruptured is not easily reestablished--and the draft was an organic component of American life from 1940 to 1973. But that's history.
Where does that leave us? Right where we are now, evidently and not very impressively. If the international mud gets drastically deeper, however, Americans doubtless will respond with the spirit and tenacity they have shown throughout our history--though that might be a more fractious exercise in a society where deference to institutions is in the basement, or halfway down the stairs.
Woody West is associate editor of the Washington Times.