It’s strange to imagine the Democratic party as the party of the draft. After all, the college radicals who took to the streets the last time we had conscription grew up to form the ideological bedrock of the party. But Democrats have a long history of promoting the draft, from the 1940 Selective Service Act under Roosevelt to Truman’s 1948 conscription renewal. When the draft finally ended, it was due to the efforts of Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater, and took place over the objections of liberal Democrats like Ted Kennedy.
Now along comes Representative Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), a Korean War vet and liberal Democrat in good standing who has been pushing the draft concept for years. His proposals had little chance of getting a hearing, much less a vote, when he was in the minority; though two years ago the Republicans brought one of his bills forward in a clever political maneuver resulting in a 402-2 defeat in which Rangel himself voted against the measure.
Now that Rangel is slated to be the next chair of the Ways and Means Committee, he will control his own agenda, and as far as he is concerned, the draft is an idea whose time has come. When he said as much to the press, the Democratic leadership quickly announced that conscription would not be part of their legislative agenda. This is smart politics. Polls show that the American people oppose a reconstituted draft by two-to-one or more.
It is odd to even be discussing the draft. The Army announced that it had exceeded its recruitment goals, and the other services are meeting their benchmarks as well. Retention in the armed forces is at historic high levels. Unemployment is down, in some states at record lows. So if the services don’t need the manpower, and there is no surplus labor force to draw from, why in the world have a draft?
According to Rangel and other draft proponents, the central issue is fairness. The people who sign up for military service are disproportionately from lower-income groups, those with nowhere else to turn; thus we have what Senator Kennedy described in 1971 as “poor people fighting rich men’s wars.” The volunteer is undereducated — perhaps not even understanding what it means to sign up, maybe not knowing there is a war on. This is inherently unfair because these people do not know any better. At least that seemed to be John Kerry’s point. In addition, some aver that the All Volunteer Force (AVF) creates racial inequities, that a disproportionate number of people of color are dying overseas. The draft will cure these ills by making military service an equal-opportunity burden, one shared by all income groups, all education levels, all races. In turn, so the argument goes, this will have a moderating effect on national-security policy. A president or Congress will be less likely to go to war with a military drawn from every neighborhood, every district.
Let’s set aside for a moment the set of objections based on notion of involuntary servitude — not because they are erroneous, which they surely are not. There is nothing fair about the government hijacking the lives of young people for its own purposes. It is antithetical to values and freedoms on which this country was founded.
In addition, we can take for granted that no one in the military establishment wants to return to the troubled days of the conscript military. No Defense Department study has singled out the draft as the answer to any problems the military might have. The all-volunteer force has shown itself to be robust, professional, and cohesive. And there have been enough volunteers to maintain the necessary force levels, even in wartime. A conscript force would have lower morale, lower retention, a greater training burden, and less combat power. We would pay a high price in security in the name of social experimentation.
As for the fanciful notion that a draft military will end warfare, try not to forget the Vietnam conflict.
So apart from the draft being immoral and unnecessary, conscription’s proponents are also working from demonstrably false premises. The poorest and least educated in our society are not driven into the ranks by necessity or error; in fact, they are drastically underrepresented in the armed forces. Today’s military requires mental skills and physical qualities that the poorest Americans simply do not have. Restrictions on recruiting people with criminal records or history of drug use also tend to exclude people from lower socio-economic groups. Thus, a comprehensive draft would in fact increase the service burden on the poor, not decrease it.
Nor are there any meaningful racial inequities in the armed forces. The latest DOD data show that most minority groups enlist at rates largely equivalent to their proportion of the 18-24 year old civilian population, except for Hispanics who are under-represented in the services by about five percent. Different retention rates create over-representation in some groups over time — for example, blacks make up 21 percent of Active Component enlisted members, compared to 13 percent of the 18-44 civilian workforce. But this does not translate directly into a disproportionate sacrifice on the battlefield. Ten percent of casualties in Iraq are black, while whites make up 73.5 percent of the dead. In Afghanistan the respective percentages are 7.5 and 80.5. Thus in the War on Terrorism it is not minority groups who are making a disproportionate sacrifice in terms of lives lost.
One is left thinking that the draft proposal is simply political theater, a means of generating debate based on misimpressions and social myths. There will never be enough votes to actually bring back conscription, that is not the point. This issue will be a rallying point for the antiwar wing of the party, and a nuisance to the equivocators. It will be an interesting leadership test for Speaker-elect Pelosi to keep a lid on this debate, but I think Congressman Rangel will be playing the draft card for some time.
– James S. Robbins is author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point, and is currently writing a book on the Tet Offensive.