Not since the early days of the Reagan administration in 1981 has the Defense Department made a push to fill all 10,350 draft board positions and 11,070 appeals board slots. Recognizing that even the mention of a draft in the months before an election might be politically explosive, the Pentagon last week was adamant that the drive to staff up the draft boards is not a portent of things to come. There is “no contingency plan” to ask Congress to reinstate the draft, John Winkler, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for reserve affairs, told Salon last week.
Increasingly, however, military experts and even some influential members of Congress are suggesting that if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s prediction of a “long, hard slog” in Iraq and Afghanistan proves accurate, the U.S. may have no choice but to consider a draft to fully staff the nation’s military in a time of global instability.
“The experts are all saying we’re going to have to beef up our presence in Iraq,” says U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat. “We’ve failed to convince our allies to send troops, we’ve extended deployments so morale is sinking, and the president is saying we can’t cut and run. So what’s left? The draft is a very sensitive subject, but at some point, we’re going to need more troops, and at that point the only way to get them will be a return to the draft.”
Rangel has provoked controversy in the past by insisting that a draft is the only way to fill the nation’s military needs without exploiting young men and women from lower-income families. And, some suggest, by proposing military service from middle- and upper-class men and women, Rangel may be trying to diminish the odds of actually using them in combat. But Rangel is hardly alone in suggesting that the draft might be needed.
The draft, ended by Congress in 1973 as the Indochina War was winding down, was long a target of antiwar activists, and remains highly controversial both in and out of the military. Most military officers understandably prefer an army of volunteers and career soldiers over an army of grudging conscripts; Rumsfeld, too, has long been a staunch advocate of an all-volunteer force.
According to some experts, basic math might compel the Pentagon to reconsider the draft: Of a total U.S. military force of 1.4 million people around the globe (many of them in non-combat support positions and in services like the Air Force and Navy), there are currently about 140,000 active-duty, reserve and National Guard soldiers currently deployed in Iraq – and though Rumsfeld has been an advocate of a lean, nimble military apparatus, history suggests he needs more muscle