Commentary: The Draft: An Idea Whose Time Has Come Again

By Paul Magnusson

At the height of the Vietnam War, I paid my grad-school tuition by serving as a resident adviser in an undergrad dorm. I was besieged by anxious young men with questions about the military draft, so I read the regulations and became a volunteer draft counselor. It was a discouraging experience.

I offered students help in writing the essay required for conscientious objectors. I discussed such alternatives as the National Guard, working in hospitals, or enlisting in a noncombat specialty. But most college students wanted an easier out. One popular method: stay up all night on amphetamines, run up and down stairs, and appear at the required physical with dangerously high blood pressure. Faked drug addiction, feigned mental illness, and starvation diets were also popular.

In three years of counseling students and walk-ins from the surrounding working-class neighborhood, I noticed a disturbing pattern: The well-off students at Syracuse, a private university with high tuition, assumed they were entitled to a life of civilian pursuits. Local youths, however, harbored no such presumptions. Although reluctant to leave friends and family for a war they didn't understand, they went because they had fewer alternatives.

I thought of this when Democratic Representatives Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) and John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) claimed that the poor and African Americans are more likely to come home from war in body bags. Their idea: two years of military or public service by all men and women age 18 to 26, with no college deferments.

Rangel, a Korean War vet who was wounded in combat, notes that just four members of Congress have children in the military and that only one is in the enlisted ranks. He says lawmakers overwhelmingly back President George W. Bush's saber-rattling because their family members are unlikely to perish in Iraq. Conyers, who was an Army officer in Korea, agrees, insisting that "to contain a conquered people [in Iraq]...we'll eventually have to restore a fair Selective Service System."

Casualty figures don't make much of a case for bringing back conscription for racial-equality reasons. Pentagon officials concede that African Americans enlist at "modestly" higher rates and stay longer than whites, raising blacks' overall participation in the military to 21% (table). When it comes to combat deaths, however, blacks are represented roughly in proportion to their numbers in the overall U.S. population--about 12%. Some 12% of Americans killed in Vietnam were black, as were 15% of those killed in all later conflicts, according to Charles B. Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University.

But Rangel and Conyers have a point when it comes to class fairness. The richest 20% of families don't send their kids to boot camp, Pentagon figures show. "Actually, it's mostly the white working class that is going to die in Iraq," says Moskos, a 1956 draftee who wants to return to a reformed draft. One reason for higher black participation but lower combat deaths: Greater percentages of blacks enter medicine and other noncombat specialties to train for civilian careers.

The Pentagon opposes restarting the draft, citing the inefficiency and unfairness of the Vietnam era when students were exempted. "What was left was sucked into the intake, trained for a period of months, and then went out, adding no advantage over any period of time," says Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

In reality, Rumsfeld and Rangel-Conyers are not far apart. Among the 4 million Americans who turn 18 every year, some would enlist; others would choose national service. The military would effectively remain a volunteer corps. Best of all might be the effect on the country of the shared sacrifice of its citizens. That's a concept that the White House, anxious to cut taxes of the most affluent while requiring sacrifice of working-class soldiers, ought to consider.

Magnusson covers homeland security from Washington.

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