Articles Mast

From Draft NOtices, November - December, 2003


Will a Draft Be on the Government's Agenda in 2004?

—Rick Jahnkow

Ever since the last draft ended in 1973, proposals to bring back conscription have lacked the support needed to win passage. However, several factors are developing that are adding momentum in Congress for the idea of forcing young people into the military, and the Bush administration may wind up revising its previously stated opposition to reactivating the draft.

A recent news report in the Washington, D.C. newspaper The Hill says that key Democrats in Congress are about to make another push for a military draft "as part of a critical barrage they are preparing to launch against President Bush over the length of troop deployments and the heavy reliance on reservists in Iraq."

One of the key Democrats is Rep. Charles Rangel (NY), who along with Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) introduced a bill in January that would require that all males and females between the ages of 18 and 26 perform two years of "service." Under the Rangel/Hollings proposal, any draftees that were not needed by the military would be assigned to a civilian job that, "as determined by the President, promotes the national defense, including national or community service and homeland security."

Until now, such proposals have had little chance of receiving a hearing in Congress, let alone being approved and signed into law. The legal requirement for young men to register with the Selective Service System — the agency that would administer any future draft — was reinstated in 1980 after it had been allowed to lapse several years earlier. Since then, various laws have been passed that use economic coercion to force more young people to comply with draft registration, but attempts to reactivate the draft itself have not been viable because Congress has been afraid of the public hostility toward the draft that still lingers since Vietnam. In 1999, the House even voted to do away with the Selective Service System, but the Senate did not concur, so Selective Service has continued to register young men and prepare for a possible draft. The Pentagon, meanwhile, realizing that a draft would be a public relations nightmare for the armed forces, has asserted that it is satisfied with the current reliance on aggressive recruiting to fill the ranks of a military that has shrunk by almost 40% since the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam.

Several coinciding conditions could change all of this. One is the economy, which has always been a significant factor in the success rate of military recruiters. Until about three years ago, when the economy was better and young people perceived more civilian opportunities for employment, recruiters had a difficult time and several of the branches of the armed forces failed to meet their enlistment quotas. This allowed recruiters to stampede Congress into budgeting more money for recruiting, enlistment bonuses and military pay raises, and during the last three years, while unemployment has risen and the economy has taken a dive, all branches of the military have met their enlistment quotas. Now it seems that the economic downturn has leveled off, and if a slight improvement is soon perceived by the public, that could begin to make it difficult again for recruiters to meet their quotas, especially for first-time enlistments.

The negative news about developments in Iraq, including information about casualties and dissatisfaction among the troops, will increase the reluctance of young people to enlist. But even more important are the effects that war and the deployments to Iraq are having on members of the military who would normally be counted upon to reenlist. Stars and Stripes, a newspaper funded by the Pentagon, conducted an informal survey in August 2003 that drew responses from 1,935 military members throughout Iraq. Half said their unit's morale was low and that they do not plan to reenlist. The article on the survey that appeared in Stars and Stripes stated, "In the past, enlistment rates tended to drop after conflicts, but many defense experts and noncommissioned officers have warned of the potential for a historically high exodus, particularly of reservists."

The head of the 205,000-member Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, told USA Today, "Retention is what I am most worried about. It is my No. 1 concern." The Army National Guard, which has a significant number of troops on active duty, was expected to fall about 15% short of its recruiting goal of 62,000 soldiers for fiscal year 2003. The other military branches met their goals for 2003, but that is in part because some military members had the end of their enlistment terms involuntarily extended under a special "stop loss" order from the Pentagon. Based on the reported comments from troops who are still in Iraq or have just returned, the exodus is going to create some serious extra pressure on recruiters to find new enlistees during the coming fiscal year.

The remaining factor that is looming over everything else is the possibility of additional large deployments of U.S. soldiers to intervene in countries besides Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration has asserted the right to use preemptive force in any part of the world that it believes is a source of terrorism or other threat to the U.S., regardless of whether or not the rest of the world agrees. And it's now becoming clear that, as many of us suspected, claims of threats based on evidence that doesn't really exist could be used as a pretext for military action. Countries currently high on the possible target list include Syria, Iran and North Korea, and others like Colombia, the Philippines and Pakistan are not far below.

On top of the probable long-term presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will not be possible to pursue such a doctrine with the current size of the military. If the Bush administration is serious in its rhetoric, it is going to need a larger military force, and a draft may be the only way to get it.

According to the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, D.C., Rep. Rangel has been working to line up Republicans who would support a conscription bill. The indication is that a number of them have agreed but will only sign onto the legislation if and when Bush gives them the nod. Rangel, a liberal, says he is proposing a draft because he thinks it will generate broader concern about Bush's use of the military and motivate opposition that would put a brake on it. However, if a draft comes about because Bush determines he needs it to prosecute more wars and thus gives Republican legislators the nod, the illogic in Rangel's strategy will become fatally apparent: as a consequence of his efforts, more young people will die, especially those with limited resources for avoiding the draft or staying out of combat jobs, and a much larger portion of the civilian population will be exposed to indoctrination and conditioning that will only further militarize society.

Some organizations have tried to argue these points with Rangel but have not succeeded. Given his unwillingness to reconsider his strategy, plus the factors mentioned above that could lead Bush and the Pentagon to reverse themselves on the issue, it looks like anti-draft organizing could once again become an important necessity — possibly as early as 2004.

Information sources: USA Today, September 30, 2003; The Hill, October 7, 2003; Washington Post, October 16, 2003.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


About Us - Articles - Draft NOtices - Youth - Militarism - Publications - Products - Links - Contact - Home