Sensing A Draft: Is Conscription in the Wind? | General News & Politics | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Sensing A Draft: Is Conscription in the Wind? 

Last Updated: 06/06/2013 6:47 pm

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.

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.

In 1948 a new Selective Service act made all men 19 to 26 liable for 21 months service followed by five years Reserve duty. However, with the Korean War came the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1951, extending service to 24 months, with a minimum age requirement of 18.5.

The Reserve Forces Act of 1955, designed to strengthen the Reserve and the National Guard, required six years total of Reserve and active duty. (The Reserve is a pool of troops who enlist for eight years of combined active and Reserve duty and can be called up in times of national crisis. The National Guard provides trained forces for domestic-and if necessary, national-emergencies or as otherwise required by state law. The National Guard can also be mobilized for war.)

The Military Selective Service Act of 1967 required all men 18 to 26 to register for duty in Vietnam. The draft was a hand-drawing of 366 blue-plastic capsules containing birthdates placed in a large glass jar. Draft resisters in the thousands fled the country or went to prison until 1973, when the draft ended and the US converted to an all-volunteer military. In 1974, President Ford granted clemency to draft resisters. Registration was resumed again in 1980 by President Carter following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

New draft legislation surfaced on January 7, 2003-in the final weeks before the US invasion of Iraq-when identically worded bills calling for the Universal National Service Act of 2003 were simultaneously proposed to the Senate and Congress. In the Senate, Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-SC) introduced S 89, without cosponsors. He said, "One way to avoid a lot more wars is to institute the draft." Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) and five cosponsors introduced HR 163 to the House of Representatives; as of April 2004, Rangel's cosponsors had reached 13. What has become known as the Rangel-Conyers Bill was referred to the Committee on Armed Services, where it is pending. Hollings' spokeswoman, Ilene Zeldin, has admitted the bill is "collecting dust," but Rangel's spokesman, Emile Milne, told Bengal News Online, "Mr. Rangel has had many members [of Congress] support the idea, but it's not something they're prepared to lend their name to politically at this time."

Aside from Hagel, most Republicans view the Rangels-Conyers Bill as a "political stunt," Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-PA) told his local newspaper, the Doylestown Patriot last month. Calling the bill "the tool of liberals to try and frighten people into thinking their children will be pulled into the war on Iraq," Greenwood said "the likelihood, the chance, of a draft being reinstated are a million to one. It's zero. It's not going to happen."

Sen. John Warner (R-VA), who served as President Nixon's Secretary of the Navy during the Vietnam War, agrees. On July 4, he told NBC's "Meet the Press," "I can tell you the all-volunteer forces worked."

Yet Rangel's press secretary Milne says the Rangel-Conyers bill is "something that's captured the attention of many Americans, and continues to do so." This point is underscored by the recent proliferation of media attention to draft speculation-from media stories including a March 13 San Francisco Chronicle article alleging that the Selective Service is secretly creating procedures and policies to conduct a targeted draft of people with skills in computers and foreign languages in case Congress authorizes it, to Web sites like After being deluged with phone calls and e-mails from a worried public, even the Selective Service has joined the fray, having posted the following notice on its homepage:

"Notwithstanding recent stories in the news media or on the Internet, Selective Service is not getting ready to conduct a draft for the US Armed Forces. Rather, the agency remains prepared to manage a draft if and when the President and Congress so direct. oth have stated there is no need for a draft."

Relatives of World War I draftees line up in protest in Chicago, 1917.

The stated purpose of the Universal National Service Act, aimed at 18- to 26-year-olds, is more idealistic and specific than its predecessor, the Military Selective Service Act of 1967, whose purpose was "to provide for the common defense by increasing the strength of the Armed Forces of the United States, including the reserve components thereof, and for other purposes." The Universal National Service Act's mission is: "To provide for the common defense by requiring that all young persons in the United States, including women, perform a period of military service or a period of civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, and for other purposes." (Full text is available at

According to written statements issued by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary, Dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, and an original cosponsor of The Rangel-Conyers Bill, the "military draft bill" was offered "so that we could institute a system whereby all segments of the population share the burden and sacrifice of war." However, he adds, "Secretary Rumsfeld shot our idea down, allegedly because of his concern that in the past, draftees were 'sucked into the intake, trained for a period of months, and then went out, adding no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time.'"

The bill states that the education deferment would be in effect up to age 20 or until high school graduation-whichever comes first. College students would only be able to defer induction until the end of their current semester. Exemptions would be granted only for "extreme hardship" and disability. COs, defined and directed by the Military Selective Service Act who could substantiate their claims would "participate in military service that does not include any combatant training component."

At present, all American males are required to register with the Selective Service within six months of their 18th birthday. There is no such requirement for young women. Both genders may volunteer to enlist before age 18 through the "delayed enlistment" program, which postpones reporting for training for up to 12 months following a recruit's 18th birthday. The Rangel-Conyers Bill calls for both young men and young women to register immediately upon reaching age 18, and give the president authority to establish the number to be drafted, and the selection method. Anyone not selected for (or exempted from) military service would perform national service for at least two years in a civilian capacity, including working in conservation, health care, education, and child care or geriatrics.

If the Rangels-Conyers Bill became law, the US would become the 51st nation with compulsory military service. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, compulsory service currently in 50 countries ranges from six months to three years for men aged as 16 to 54, with deferments or exemptions for education, marriage, and parenthood. Six countries-Chile, Israel, Paraguay, Somalia, Angola, and Libya-draft women. Aside from Israel, these countries draft women only in times of international emergency, for shorter periods than men, in non-combatant positions, or only if they have special qualifications.

Rangel remains the chief proponent of the draft. A twice-decorated, African-American veteran of the Korean War who was educated on the GI Bill, he is the top Democrat on the House's Ways and Means Committee. Rangel is serving his 17th term representing New York's 15th Congressional district, which includes portions of Harlem, the Bronx, Inwood, Washington Heights, and the Upper East and West Sides. His constituency is predominated by lower-socio-economic groups-46 percent Hispanic and 37 percent African American. Although Rangel voted against giving the President the authority to invade Iraq, he told Congress he was introducing HR 163 out of a concern that the US military mirrors America's working class and minorities. Without a universal draft, he claims, this burden weighs disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor, the disadvantaged, and minorities.

"We shouldn't have to legislate a draft," Rangel told the National Press Club (NPC) on April 15. "It should be the moral thing to say that if putting people in harm's way is a part of our national policy to safeguard our national security, then only a small section of those from low-income groups-they're not the only ones that should have to make the sacrifice."

Rangel claims his bill is concerned with instilling national pride as well as ensuring that all the nation's races and socioeconomic groups share the burden of war. "I would hope that people understand that my support of a draft doesn't mean that I want to disrupt the lives of our young people," he told the NPC. "With the over 30 million youngsters that would be eligible-men and women between 18 and 26-only one million of them could possibly be selected for the military. But how proud all of them should be during a time of national emergency that they would be able to serve our great country-in our seaports, our airports, and our schools and hospitals-and able to say for two years that they've served this country."

According to Rangel, 46 percent of current enlistments come from rural areas, towns and counties that have less than 20,000 people in population, while 26 percent of those being killed in action are either African Americans or Hispanics. He told the NPC the Iraq War is claiming the lives of disenfranchised Americans who enlist simply to improve their economic status and gain a college education.

Statistics seem to bear out Rangel's claims. According to Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon-funded newspaper for US servicepersons, 20 percent of the 1.4 million active-duty members of today's military are African Americans, though African Americans only account for 13 percent of the US population. African Americans hold 36 percent of all supportive and administrative jobs in the military, and comprise 27 percent of medical and dental personnel. The New York Times reported that while three out of five soldiers are white, black women now outnumber white women in the Army and the military is predominantly comprised of working class, non-college educated people. Generally absent from the military are college graduates, the offspring of the well-to-do, and residents of the Northeast.

Like Rangel, other Congressmen who support The Rangel-Conyers Bill also opposed the Iraq invasion. Cosponsor Pete Stark (D-CA) told Congress the day after the draft bills were introduced, "I ardently oppose war with Iraq. Yet, war is on the horizon. The President is intent on invading Iraq whatever the cost. Thanks to the President's brand of hotheaded bully diplomacy, war with North Korea may also be imminent. The only real question that remains is whether or not Americans are ready and willing to bear the cost?"

World War I draft dodgers under guard in Chicago's Grant Park, 1917.

Third Infantry Division Army specialist Ivan Medina of Middletown served 11 months in Kuwait and Iraq in the Army, and agrees that the military is predominantly made up of economically disadvantaged people. "College money" and "the pretty picture painted by the recruiters-that I would never see the frontlines" convinced him, along with his late twin brother Irving and their sister, to sign up. Medina returned home last January after being granted the "surviving son or brother provision" when his brother Irving was killed in Iraq. Since then, he and his father, Jorge, have publicly protested the US presence in Iraq. The Medinas refuse to allow Ivan's sister, who is currently serving in the Reserve, to go to Iraq if her unit is mobilized.

Medina claims that, like him, many of the enlisted have lost faith in President Bush for "telling lies." Nonetheless, he does not regret having enlisted-he simply wants the war burden shared by all. "In the military there are a lot of people who can't afford college, who are trying to get out of the ghettos, who are trying to make a better life for themselves. My feeling is, send President Bush's daughters, all of those congressmen's and senators' family members first, and then come and tell me that we're reinstating the draft for everybody else."

In late September 2003 draft rumors began circulating when a Selective Service advertisement asking for volunteers to fill positions on approximately 2,000 local and appeal community draft boards "if a military draft becomes necessary" appeared on the Department of Defense Web site In November, following media attention, the ad was withdrawn. Also, in a November 3, 2003 article, community draft board members said that during training sessions that summer they had unexpectedly been asked for recommendations to fill the nation's estimated 16 percent of empty draft board seats. Draft board members are uncompensated volunteers who must be recommended by the state's governor to be appointed by the Selective Service.

Some policy changes made in response to the events of September 11 have been interpreted to indicate a draft reinstatement. Through an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, for instance, it has become easier for military recruiters to find eligible young people. The amendment makes it illegal for schools to refuse to pass students' vital information-names, grades, addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, and birthdates, all of which are routinely entered into computer databases and school directories-to military recruiters upon request. Failure to furnish the information means loss of federal funding. However, parents (and students aged 18 and over) can "opt out" of allowing schools to pass on information by filling out a form. (For more information, see "Policy Guidance-Access to High School Students and Information on Students by Military Recruiters" at

The Canada-US Smart Border Declaration, signed in December 2001, "provides for ongoing collaboration in identifying and addressing security risks while efficiently expediting the legitimate flow of people and goods across the Canada-US border." Although the plan is ostensibly designed to keep terrorists out of the US, it could also be used to stop would-be draft dodgers from fleeing into Canada.

Yet despite rumors and possible indications of a draft, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) remains largely unconcerned. The Nobel Prize-winning Quaker organization, founded in 1917 to carry out service, development, social justice and peace programs throughout the world, as well as assist civilian war victims and COs, has been closely monitoring US military policy since September 11, 2001.

"We've been monitoring [draft rumors] across the Internet, and much of it is alarmist, less rooted in fact than emotion," said Oscar Castro, director of the AFSC's National Youth and Militarism Program. "That's not to say the facts are erroneous-it's the interpretation of them that is. People who are concerned about the draft see things like this, and get upset, and it spins out of control."

Castro does not interpret Selective Service budget increases and recent moves to attract new draft board members as indicators of an impending draft. "Draft board members do have a shelf life of 20 years-they need to be replaced. There's no reason to believe a draft is coming just because new people are being brought in. While it's true the Selective Service has increased its budget to $28 million, the organization's standard budget allocation for the past 20 years has been $20 to $25 million. That's really only an increase of $3 million more, and not an extra $28 million-it's not like they've suddenly got an extra $28 million to do what they need to do."

Castro does not believe there will be a draft, or that the Universal National Service Act will be legislated. "People are using the legislative process to have a conversation about the costs of war and who pays," he said. "But the bills are dying in committee; they're not ever going to be passable because of what they are. In order to pass them the population would have to be indifferent to a perpetual draft, and that's not going to happen." Nonetheless, Castro said the AFSC will not cease closely monitoring the situation. "Let's just say we've got all our oars in the water and we're rowing in tandem, just in case."

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