A dozen high school students, most of them just shy of voting age, circle their chairs in a basement room at the Unitarian Universalist Church. Another dozen parents and church members sit alongside the students or lean against a nearby wall.
Dylan Raithel, 17, pays close attention as Columbia peace activist Jeff Stack and John Betz, a Vietnam War veteran, address the church youth group.
“What criteria does the military use to qualify people to be a conscientious objector?” Raithel asked Stack at the meeting late last month.
Stack passed out photocopies of a Vietnam-era application for objector status. The group wasn’t there for history, however. Nor was Stack there to electioneer.
They were worried about the escalating war in Iraq — and whether one day they might be required to serve in the military. They talked about draft deferments, moving to Canada, alternative service and the chances of getting prosecuted for failing to register with the Selective Service System for the draft.
The Army doesn’t want one. The American people don’t want one. Politicians don’t even want to talk about one.
But even with Tuesday’s re-election of President Bush, who has vowed not to reinstate mandatory military service, the fear of a draft won’t go away.
Three-quarters of the population opposes the reinstatement of the draft, according to an Oct. 20 Washington Post poll. And during the presidential-debate season, Bush and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, routinely emphasized opposition to the draft.
“We’re not going to have a draft, period,” Bush said during the Oct. 8 debate in St Louis. “The all-volunteer Army works.”
Besides, the military lauds the volunteers’ superiority and says they are more dedicated soldiers and spend more time in the Army than draftees.
Concern remains among some military-preparedness experts, politicians and citizens, however, that the United States will not be able to recruit a sufficient force to maintain its current operations in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe. There is also concern that the country will not have enough troops should another military intervention arise.
The U.S. military has troops in 135 countries, according to the Department of Defense. Although there are only a handful of soldiers in many of those countries, the United States has large deployments in Germany, South Korea, Italy, Japan and Bosnia, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The situation in Iraq, with more than 1,100 American deaths, combined with concern about potential conflicts with North Korea or Iran, has stoked fears that the military is approaching a breaking point.
“Bush is running the risk of overextending to a point where the all-volunteer military might get worn down,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think-tank, in an interview before the presidential election.
O’Hanlon and others who study military preparedness point to the widespread use of “stop-loss,” a process that bars active troops from leaving the military after their term of service ends. Estimates for the number of troops held in service past the end of their term range upward of 5,000.
Call-ups made from the Individual Ready Reserve, the pool of former soldiers with time remaining on their eight-year obligation to military service, have also increased.
Left-leaning political action groups such as Rock the Vote and MoveOn.org invoked the specter of a possible draft in an effort, Republicans alleged, to scare young voters into going to the polls and voting for Kerry.
Not all such warnings came from the left, though. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told the Washington Post in April that the country needed to talk about the draft “to ensure that all Americans ‘bear some responsibility’ and ‘pay some price’ in defending the nation’s interests.”
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Selective Service, Bush and Kerry all have discounted the prospect of a draft. But that hasn’t stopped the public, concerned about reports of a military stretched too thin, from worrying.
Echoes of Vietnam
Some think that Iraq is a war that can’t be won and compare it to Vietnam, where the United States also fought a non-centralized enemy, from 1961 to 1975.
Although Bush declared an end to combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003, the resistance has grown since then, with the majority of U.S. combat deaths coming after the president declared victory.Betz, 58, superintendent of Columbia’s water treatment plant, connects the growing insurgency in Iraq with his Vietnam experience. He expects volunteer numbers will begin to drop if the violence in Iraq continues, and that the United States will be forced into issuing a draft.
“The longer it goes on, the fewer volunteers you find,” Betz said. “It is inconceivable to me, the way things are deteriorating in Iraq, that the people in Washington are not going to be talking about the possibility of it (the draft).”
At the Unitarian gathering, the prospects of mandatory military service seemed more than empty rhetoric.
Raithel said he regularly receives mailings and phone calls from military recruiters, but has no plans to enlist. While he is concerned about a possible draft, he doesn’t see that fear reflected in many of his classmates at Hickman High School. Few of his classmates plan on joining the military, and it would be a “rude awakening” were a draft to be reinstated, he said.
He dismissed election-year denials of a draft as “political posturing.”
To Betz and Raithel, the campaign promises by Kerry and Bush meant little. Betz invoked the words of President Lyndon Johnson, who in 1964 vowed, “We are not about to send American boys nine or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
“And within a matter of six months, he was landing the Marines in Da Nang,” Betz said. “Who cares what they’re saying now?”
With Bush elected for a second term, it appears unlikely to many that U.S. troops will be leaving Iraq any time soon.
The hunt continues for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and the developments in the ongoing war on terrorism could require flexibility in troop deployments. With potential nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, some experts worry that the military might be too overstretched.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy Web site, sees the extensive use of the Reserve as a temporary solution.
“Over 40 percent of the soldiers there (in Iraq) right now are in the (National) Guard and Reserve, and that can’t go on for much longer,” he said.
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Operation Truth, an anti-war organization of Iraq war veterans, said the White House must recognize that the current system of stop-loss and National Guard deployments is hurting the troops.
While he doesn’t think that a draft is on the way, he said the United States needs to reevaluate its military situation.
“In my opinion, you could do one of two things,” said Rieckhoff in a phone interview from Washington. “You could change your foreign policy or you could change the military.”
Draft unlikely, experts say
Among many military experts, there is general agreement that the United States is unlikely to reinstate the military draft in the near future.
“A snowball in hell,” declared Northwestern University sociology professor Charles Moskos, one of the country’s foremost experts on military affairs and a proponent of compulsory national service.
Moskos said that when asked in surveys about broader national service requirements rather than a strictly military draft, citizens tend to react more favorably. Moskos’ service plan would present options for military and non-military service. While it seems unlikely to many that a draft will be enacted, experts acknowledge the presence of many unknown factors.
“Less than 10 percent, but not zero,” said O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution on the chance of reinstatement.
Still, many experts qualify their skepticism and wonder whether candidates can be so certain of their promises.
“We don’t know what Iraq is going to look like a year from now,” Pike said. “We don’t know how big the insurgency is going to be. It’s quite possible they (American coalition forces) will pretty well have smothered it a year from now.
“On the other hand, if we bomb the mullahs, they may get really cheesed at us and we may be facing a much bigger war,” he said, referring to the leaders of the Iranian government and a possible U.S.-Iran conflict.
O’Hanlon agrees, but adds that any reliable predictions at this point are impossible.
“There is no way to extrapolate data and see what point in the future you’d have the problem,” he says. “You can’t say that you see a huge crisis coming. It may or may not happen.”
In addition to the political and social fallout that a draft reinstatement would likely spur, practical considerations also make the military extremely hesitant to resort to compulsory service, experts say.
“If you have a high-tech military where you need really smart, capable people,” said Beth Asch, then a draft might not be a viable way to recruit and retain those people. Asch is a senior economic analyst for Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization that focuses on national security issues.
“People who are motivated are people who want to be there, not people who are forced to be there, drafted to be there,” she added. “It’s hard to imagine that the leadership would ever want people like that.”
In a letter last month to the House Committee on Armed Services — a letter that reaffirmed the Bush administration’s objection to the draft — Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld explained his view on the military’s condition.
“There is indeed stress on our current forces — but not because of a shortage of uniformed personnel,” Rumsfeld said, noting that many of the Army’s divisions are not prepared for quick deployment. He downplayed reports of recruitment shortages, but said the Defense Department is watching these trends closely.
Recruitment goals climb
For now, the Army continues to meet its recruiting goals — helped greatly by Missouri. The St. Louis recruiting battalion, which stretches from Columbia to southeastern Illinois, was the nation’s top recruiting area last year and enlisted more than 1,700 soldiers. The Kansas City division finished second, nationally.
“We see people coming in, saying they’re watching stuff on TV and they feel it’s their duty to come in,” said Sgt. Bobby Cook, a Columbia Army recruiter.
Most of the people that Cook talks to don’t ask about the war in Iraq.
“They know that coming in the door,” he said.
The recruitment picture might not stay so rosy across the country.
“I think the Army is worried about recruiting,” said John Warner, an economics professor at Clemson University in South Carolina who studies military recruiting. “They believe that by the second quarter of FY 2006, they’re going to start having recruiting problems.”
The worries don’t come so much from a drop-off in recruiting as from an increase in the target goal.
The Army’s goal for new active recruits jumped to 80,000 for the current fiscal year. Between the end of the Cold War and Sept. 11, 2001, the size of the Army was in steady decline, Warren said. To increase the size of the Army now would likely require increased pay or lowered admission standards.
A small but vocal minority, however, thinks that the current recruiting system leads to socioeconomic disparities in the military, with disproportionate numbers of blacks, Hispanics and rural residents.
In early 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., authored a bill to establish mandatory military service. It was eventually voted down 402-2 in a move that many observers say was engineered by House Republicans to alleviate election year anxiety about an impending draft.
“The working class is getting killed,” said Moskos, the Northwestern University professor.
It is unclear whether a future draft, if enacted, would include women in some capacity. In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that it was constitutional to restrict the draft to men.
But in 1994, President Bill Clinton asked that the role of women be reexamined. A subsequent report concluded that the role of a draft has normally been to require combat troops. Women do not actively participate in combat roles in the U.S. military. Rangel’s defeated draft bill, however, did seek to expand the draft to women.
Moskos has long advocated a draft with three levels of conscription: military, homeland security and civilian service. Under his proposal, aimed at “get[ting] privileged youth serving,” college graduates would choose one of the three levels as a part of their service requirement, which would probably be two years.Moskos thinks that women should be incorporated into a compulsory service position, working mainly in civil work and homeland security capacities.
He dismisses claims that troop morale would suffer in the event of a draft.
“That’s baloney,” Moskos said. “The draftees had a dropout rate lower than that of the volunteers during the draft era. Ten percent of draftees did not complete their term, compared to 20 percent of volunteers.”
But observers like O’Hanlon are dismissive of such attempts aimed at combating social disparities in military service.
“The all-volunteer military is excellent, and no one who has been involved in it is going to give that up by some theoretical argument about fairness,” he says. “We’ve spent way too long building this force to throw it away.”
During the presidential campaign, Kerry argued that a draft had already begun.
What Kerry termed a “backdoor draft” referred to the use of policies to hold soldiers in the Army, call back former soldiers and deploy thousands of members of the Army National Guard to Iraq and Afghanistan.
While “backdoor draft” is a political, not military, term, it is a pretty good one, said O’Hanlon, the Brookings Institution defense expert.
“It’s actually a fairly clever description of what’s going on because people on the fronts are not being allowed out the back door,” he said.
President Bush issued the first stop-loss order shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The order has since been expanded to more divisions of the military; stop-loss prevents soldiers in active duty from leaving the military when their terms end.
Rieckhoff of Operation Truth said that while stop-loss is effective in the short run, it is damaging to morale and will hurt long-term military retention.
“Retention rates should really be called detention rates because stop-loss locks you in,” he said.
The National Guard fell 7,000 soldiers short of its “end strength” goal last year, said Guard spokesman Scott Woodhamfrom the Pentagon. One of the Guard’s traditional recruiting markets has been soldiers who are transitioning back to civilian life. Many of those who would be leaving the military are still serving due to stop-loss orders.
Woodham said the Guard has changed its marketing tactics for the coming year to align with its new role.
“They know that they’re probably going to be deployed,” he said. “Whereas before the expectation was the weekend warrior and two weeks out of the year. But that has changed and they’re aware of that.”
With that in mind, the Guard is now basing its advertising less on the financial benefits and is playing to patriotism.
An increase in reserve recruiting will take time before it alleviates the current situation. The Army needs experienced soldiers trained in specialties such as transport sooner than it can train those soldiers.
To get there, the Army plans 5,700 call-ups from the individual ready reserve, said Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon.
When recruits join the military, they sign for an obligation of eight years to military service, even if they only plan on serving for two or three. During the remainder of that eight-year period, they are kept in the ready reserve. Ready reservists are now being involuntarily called upon for service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is the first time there’s been a mass involuntary call-up,” said Hart, who also said that “by no means could this be called a backdoor draft.”
While anxiety over the draft escalated in the heat of the election season, it does not, at this point, appear to have had any impact on the youth vote. Election night exit polls did not indicate any significant increase in youth turnout from 2000.
And while the re-election of Bush settled the question of who will lead the country for the next four years, uncertainty surrounding the state of the U.S. military can only be expected to intensify.
With the partisan debate in the rear-view mirror, a decision over whether to reinstate the draft may no longer be a political one, but one of practical necessity.