On November 19th, Congressman Charles Rangel announced that he planned to once again introduce legislation to reinstate the draft, something he has done with previous bills in 2003, 2005 and earlier this year, without success. The proposed legislation would cover all men and women between the ages of 18 and 26, making military service compulsory for a subset of those individuals to be determined by the President based on need, with alternative national civilian service mandatory for the remainder. Active duty would last for 15 months, and there would be no deferments for education beyond the completion of high school (up to age 20), and for reasons of health or conscience.
Judging from statements by Mr. Rangel, there are three main justifications for this legislation:
- Insufficient numbers of American troops were deployed for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Troops can only be kept in the field by extending deployments, calling back veterans who have previously served in combat, and placing additional burdens on reserve forces. These tactics are unsustainable, and are degrading our force structure.
- As the Iraq War drags on, an all-volunteer military is becoming increasingly unattractive to potential recruits with other career options. Accordingly, the most disadvantaged young people from areas of high unemployment will be increasingly likely to carry a greater share of the military burden.
- With the strain of deployment in Iraq, the United States does not have enough manpower to address other threats.
The President said in his State of the Union address that war was an option that remained on the table in dealing with these countries [Iran, Syria and North Korea]. In my view, the war option would not be on the table if the people being placed in harm's way were children of White House officials, members of Congress or CEOs in the boardrooms. As other people's children endure a grinding war, they have been given huge tax cuts, while our veterans have gotten cuts in health benefits.Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has stated that she will not support restoration of the draft, but while this might defuse any political fallout from such legislation, it does nothing to address the very real issues of force degradation and the dearth of capacity to deal with additional threats. Further, criticisms of past draft-related legislation from Congressman Rangel - which any new bill will use as a template - that point to the hundreds of billions of dollars in additional costs that would be associated with a compulsory national service program, are justified.
If Mr. Rangel - or anyone else for that matter - is truly serious about addressing the fact that the Army has virtually no non-deployed, combat-ready brigades, the focus of legislation to address that problem must be tightly focused and as free of baggage as possible. National service is a laudable concept - issues of funding aside - but it is not a priority when the very ability of the United States to defend itself and its interests abroad has been hamstrung by the Bush Administration's irresponsible method for fighting the Iraq War.
Ike Skelton, the new Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has pledged to exercise oversight and to end the corruption and misplaced priorities that have so adversely affected those who currently serve in the armed forces. That is unquestionably the right thing to do, but it is not sufficient when the very soundness of the national defense is in question. The military has already lowered its personnel standards, increased financial incentives and raised the maximum age for enlistment in order to reach its recruitment goals and have a credible chance of doing so in the future. While there is probably some room to continue down the path of looser requirements and better pay, we are clearly running out of options that will allow the United States to field forces sufficient to meet current obligations - let alone potential future needs - without critically undermining the soundness of our force structure.
Undoubtedly, there are those who would see reinstatement of the draft as carte blanche for President Bush to pursue further adventurism, most particularly in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Mr. Bush cannot pursue military engagement with those (or other) countries unless the ranks of the armed forces grow, but reinstating the draft nonetheless remains the responsible thing to do. The American military cannot continue to operate under current conditions, and conscription would simultaneously help reduce public apathy about our luxury war in Iraq, while placing political constraints on pursuing additional armed conflict.
While it may be ironic that George W. Bush campaigned on the notion that the Clinton Administration had somehow over-used and underfunded our armed forces, and it is tempting and wholly justified to mock those who backed the Iraq War but refuse to serve in it, the reality is that the country is facing imminent crisis in both the near and long terms. The time to address the looming problem of force readiness is now, not when nascent threats have grown into full-blown peril.
The mechanism for addressing this crisis however, should not be Congressman Rangel's bloated national service legislation. Instead, it should be a tightly targeted reinvigoration of the current Selective Service mechanism with minimal deferrments. While there is little political will to pursue a new draft and it is unlikely to be reinstated anytime soon, without some form of conscription, war will remain a convenience that leaves most of the populace unaffected and which can be pursued with little resistance from voters - but only until the readiness of our armed forces is degraded to the point of failure.