Is there a need for the draft today? Or has the need diminished since Mr. Obama took over the reins from Mr. Bush Jr.?
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Recall that early in April 2004, head of Central Command Gen. John Abizaid raised the prospect of a draft on the grounds that the U.S. Army could not yet withdraw from Iraq. This was four months after Saddam Hussein had been captured and two years before he would be executed. On account of religious infighting and the raw state of the replacement security forces being trained to keep peace in the country (but who Gen. Abizaid called a “great disappointment”), Central Command asked for authorization to send two more brigades to the country and for an extension of duty tours for 20,000 soldiers who were set to come home at the time (Thompson, 2004).
Those troop numbers do not look very sizeable but observers raised fears about a draft even then because the 1.4 million active-duty servicemen across all branches of the military were spread thin in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Puerto Rico. Even then, Reservists and National Guardsmen already comprised nearly half of those fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Dickinson 2005).
Fast forward to mid-2009 and one observes how the new president predicts sustained presence in Afghanistan and continued spending on an occupation of Iraq that then-candidate Mr. Obama promised would end by June 2010. In the budget for next fiscal year are White House proposals to increase the total war budget by $75.8 billion, a greater number of Reserve and Guard units set to be deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, continued funding support (if somewhat diminished) for Iraqi security forces and boosted funds for the Afghan counterparts, intensified counter-insurgency efforts in Pakistan, buying ambush-resistant vehicles suited to the Afghan terrain, more Hellfire missiles and Predator drones for use against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghan border, and generally more money to support the war in Afghanistan.
All in all, it seems, the U.S. military is digging in for sustained conflict in the three countries (Leys 2009).
The truth is, the nation has had to resort to conscription many times in its history. Initially, during the colonial era and the Revolutionary War, the states exercised their right to conscription. National conscription was first legislated and employed during the Civil War. The Confederate side also had to employ the draft.
On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, there were far-flung and violent protests.
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Such protests and seeking “conscientious objector” status has remained a fact of life from then on, every time the draft or “selective service” was implemented.
Conscription resumed in 1917 when America declared war on Germany. Post-war, the military began to lay the groundwork for the modern draft system as early as 1926. By 1940, with the war in Europe already a reality, President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, squeaking through a recalcitrant Congress, into law. Through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as the Cold War, the draft remained.
Since then, conscription has been affected by political expediency and geopolitical threats. Officially, the draft was stopped in 1973 and even registration was no longer mandatory under the Gerald Ford presidency. But when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Carter was quick to reinstate the registration.
In the face of an all-volunteer military, Selective Service still requires men from 18 to 25 to register in case a new draft ever has to be instituted.
Politics and Expediency
Today, the U.S. military is hard to put trying to stabilize the Iraqi nation and wage both the “War on Terror” and “War on Drugs” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some who protest these foreign adventures are critical of America’s inability to succeed at its avowed aims and extricate itself. One important reason the U.S. military got bogged down in Iraq, Carter and Glastris (2005 1) claim, is that the Army underestimated the number of soldiers it would take to secure Iraq, prevent Sunnis and Shiites from slaughtering each other, and pave the way for respectable Iraqi security forces untainted by Saddam Hussein to take over. Had the country deployed enough soldiers to subdue the enemy and occupy a troubled country long enough to gain stability – as America did in Japan, Haiti, Germany, the Philippines, South Korea, Cuba, Bosnia, and Kosovo – the result could have been peaceful turnover to a democratically-elected government and a stabilized political situation. But not enough men volunteer.
America being a pluralistic democracy, there are strident voices raised about the prospect of a draft being reinstated. In addition, opinion polls (representative or not) claim that the population does not support the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. This situation leads political pundits, newspaper columnists, and TV commentators to bicker that the U.S. presence in those Middle Eastern countries should end forthwith and that a draft is not an option where forces of occupation are concerned.
Since many in the liberal press belong to the generation that came of age during the protests of the Vietnam War era – when it was fashionable to dodge the draft, for Jane Fonda to have her picture taken with the enemy in North Vietnam, or for anyone to wear t-shirts with the likeness of Che Guevarra who died a failure in a South American jungle – criticism of a draft is an instinctive reaction. But that does not make them right. There are also loud voices raised about legalizing marijuana and cocaine but responsible leadership of a nation refuses to take their medical “evidence” at face value.
And so it goes for those who get on their soapboxes to assert that teenage girls should be allowed abortions without parental knowledge or consent, that the U.S. military should welcome those who are openly homosexual, that the entire country should emulate California’s tolerance toward crystal meth addicts, and that universal health care should be legislated now regardless of where the money will come from.
America is not alone in having resorted to the draft. What was then Great Britain resorted to conscription beginning in 1916 because of catastrophic casualty rates suffered right from the start of World War I? However, the Military Service Act of the time permitted exemptions for widowers with children, religious ministers, being engaged in vital civilian work, domestic hardship, by reason of health, and conscientious objection. When the battlefield situation worsened in the spring of 1918, the government even raised the maximum age from 41 years to 51 and decided to apply conscription to Ireland too. Predictably enough, the latter led to general strikes and other civil disturbances.
In 1917, Canada resorted to conscription when French Canadians refused to volunteer and shocking news about casualties in Europe’s Western Front resulted in a shrinking number of English Canadian volunteers. But Canada needed to replenish its depleted battalions in France. On New Year’s Day of 1918, the government began to enforce the Military Service Act despite the fearsome ethnic conflicts the internal debate had already triggered.
In embattled Israel, military enlistment is compulsory for both young men and women, despite the fact of deep political and religious divisions about being a militaristic society. Exempted from the draft are Israeli Arabs and Haredi Jews. However, “conscientious objector” status is not permitted. Even active-service personnel who object to lawful orders in the occupied territories are jailed.
Summary and Conclusion
The bitter memories of 9/11, the vulnerability of America even today to terrorist action, and the compulsion to fight terrorist Muslims right where they seek refuge have been easily forgotten. The reality is that waging war in the Middle East has already strained the all-volunteer Army to its limits, as the large Reservist and National Guard presence can attest. Should the conflagration spread to Iran or China and North Korea, Selective Service call-ups would become a necessity, no longer a topic for democratic debate.
- Carter, Phillip & Paul Glastris. 2005. The Case for the Draft. Washington Monthly.
- Dickinson, Tim. 2005. The Return of the Draft. Axis of Logic.
- Leys, Jeff. 2009. Analyzing Obama’s War Budget Numbers. Truthout blog.
- Thompson, Trevor. 2004. The Foul Draft of War. The Simon (blog).