Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Debating the Draft

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 13, 2004 --  

Unrelenting pressure on U.S. forces in Iraq has brought the once unthinkable subject of the draft back into the mainstream of American public policy. Plans to reduce troop levels from 135,000 to 150,000 in June1 become more unlikely with every soldier that falls in battles against resurgent Sunni and Shiite militias. Democrats, Republicans, and the Pentagon have now reached consensus that more troops must be added to the armed forces. The only question is how.

Given the current state of the military, conscription is increasingly likely. Just to maintain existing deployment levels, the military has had to rely on multiple year-long tours of service by National Guard and Reserve troops, who in peacetime serve for only one weekend a month, and one month per year.2 The immense unpopularity of these long tours will undoubtedly reduce reenlistments, putting downward pressure on the size of available U.S. forces.

In this light, the Pentagon has already been forced to go to another extreme measure to maintain troop levels. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced last week that he may bolster forces by canceling plans to replace war-weary veterans in Iraq with fresh troops.3 Instead, the new troops would serve alongside veterans with cancelled trips home.

Such self-cannibalization will only serve to exacerbate a coming crisis in recruitment, making a draft inevitable if current trends continue. If the president were to make a move in an election year, it would be political suicide. But come mid-November, if the level of violence in Iraq persists or has grown, what was once politically unspeakable will become an ugly reality.

Unfortunately, Americans are threatened by the draft regardless of which major party wins in November. The Bush administration insists it has no plans for a draft, but refuses to rule it out, should it become necessary for national security. The Democrats, led by pro-war presidential candidate John Kerry, are even shakier on the issue. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC), actually introduced a bill last December to reinstate the draft, although it has thus far gone nowhere in Congress.4

This legislation, along with last fall's Pentagon move to fully staff its Selective Service Boards5, has fueled speculation among anti-draft activists that the a critical mass of government officials are building the momentum needed to make future conscription a real possibility. Long-shot presidential candidates Ralf Nader, Rep Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), and Libertarian Aaron Russo have all raised the specter of the draft as an issue when attacking the Bush and Kerry campaigns.6,7

Civil Libertarians rightly abhor the draft -- it is a form of involuntary servitude as incompatible with a free society as was slavery. Before America ended the draft in 1973, it was so despised that it had sent about 100,000 Americans fleeing the country during the Vietnam era.8 But given America's relatively recent experience with the draft, as well as conscription's prevalence in many other Western countries, it is unlikely that enough leaders in government have been convinced of its moral faults to keep it from returning. That conscription has gained a legislative beachhead in Congress at the very time that the Pentagon is under immense pressure to increase troop levels in Iraq is troubling to say the least.

With this in mind, it is quite useful that Nader has decided to enter the presidential race. Though he is despised by many Democrats for tipping the electoral balance to Bush during the 2000 election, Nader gives this year's election a prominent anti-draft voice that the main candidates are unwilling to provide.

Before Americans are subjected to the tyranny of conscription, the subject deserves an open national debate. For creating this debate, if for no other reason, Nader's presence in the race is more than welcome.


1. Washington Post, Rotation Reassessed as Toll Spikes, April 8, 2003

2. USA Today, Army Reserve Troops Ordered Back Overseas, December 1, 2003

3. Washington Post, Ibid.

4. Washington Post, Draft Bill Stirs Debate Over the Military, Race and Equity, February 4, 2004

5. The Guardian, Appeal For Draft Board Volunteers Revives Memories of Vietnam Era, November 5, 2003

6. The Des Moines Register, Kucinich Suspects Military Draft Planned, December 12, 2003

7. The Washington Times, Nader Tells Youth to Brace for the Draft, April 13, 2004

8. Stars and Stripes, DOD: Amnesty not likely for GI in North Korea, October 27, 2002