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Sensing A Draft: Is Conscription in the Wind? 

An unidentified draft resister burning his draft card, April 9, 1968.
The war against Iraq was pronounced over on May 2, 2003, the day after President Bush copiloted a Viking fighter jet onto the USS Abraham Lincoln docked off the California coast. Bush addressed the crowd of troops returning home from Iraq while standing on the flight deck under a banner bearing the words "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED." Wearing a flying suit and holding his helmet in one hand, Bush declared an "end to major military combat" in Iraq. "The Battle of Iraq is one victory in the war on terror that began on September 11, 2001, and still goes on."

More than a year after major fighting ended in Iraq, approximately 138,000 troops of the all-volunteer US Army remain there. American casualties climbed past 1,000 by the end of last month-and some sources claim this figure does not include casualties among non-US nationals who sign up to serve in the American armed forces in order to get a "green card." Missions are being extended for 20,000 troops stationed in Iraq, and combat troops are being moved there from Korea and Germany. Last month, an estimated 5,674 Army veterans still in active reserve were given 30 days to report for duty in Iraq for at least 18 more months-a recall that House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) called "a pseudodraft." Officials and experts claim that US forces are being stretched too thin, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that the US is in for a "long, hard slog" in Iraq. Members of the National Guard and Reserve are increasingly being relied upon to fill the gap-a situation that many call a "backdoor draft."

In April 2004 Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), told the Senate Foreign Relations and the "Today Show" that the US is engaged in a long-term war against terrorism, already 40 percent of the ground troops in Iraq are from the National Guard and Reserves, and the US is "making commitments for future years that we cannot fulfill" with current troop levels. Hagel, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appeared on the "Today Show" with Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), who also would not rule out a draft, but said he did not consider it necessary now. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan responded by stating that reinstatement of the draft is not under consideration. Last month Rumsfeld said he "just can't imagine" a draft. In a July 19 interview on NPR, he said "We do not need a draft," adding that the all-volunteer force "has worked brilliantly for our country." Although Rumsfeld would not rule out a draft reinstatement, he pointed out that in the 1960s he was one of the first advocates of an all-volunteer military.

A HISTORICAL CONTROVERSY
Throughout US history, the draft has been a contentious issue. When conscription was established in 1863, release from service was available for a $300 "commutation fee," or, later on, furnishing a substitute. Anti-draft riots occurred in several northern cities, worst of all in New York City where 50,000 people, mostly Irish immigrants who resented competing with blacks for low-wage jobs, stormed the city hours just after newspapers published the draftees' names. For three days the mob terrorized the East Side, looting stores, lynching blacks, beating anti-slavery activists, and burning down a black church and orphanage. The damage totaled $1.5 million; casualty estimates range from two dozen to nearly 1,000. The riots ended when President Lincoln deployed combat troops from the Federal Army of the Potomac. Ultimately, the draft raised only 150,000 troops for the Union-about 75 percent which were substitutes-comprising only one-fifth of the total force.

The Selective Service Act of 1917 required registration of all men aged 21 to 30-later extended to 18 to 45-and offered exemptions for men with dependent families, indispensable home duties, or physical disabilities. Conscientious objector (CO) status was granted only to members of pacifist religious organizations, who performed alternative service. Other objectors were imprisoned. More than 280,000 men were inducted during World War I in the US.

Peacetime conscription came with the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which provided that no more than 900,000 men were to be in training at one time. Service was limited to 12 months, but extended to 18 months in 1941. This act formally established the Selective Service System as an independent Federal agency. Once the US entered World War II a new Selective Service made all men between 18 and 45 eligible, and required all men 18 to 65 to register for service set to last until six months after the war ended. Over 10 million men were inducted.

Speaking of...

  • Susan Piperato explores draft reinstatement rumors.

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