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|Talk of a draft grows despite denials by White House
WASHINGTON -- The United States' uneven record in Iraq has kindled a small but persistent push to reinstitute the military draft, a politically charged idea that hasn't been seriously considered since the end of the Vietnam War.
Yet despite denials from the White House that a draft is under consideration, and despite the obvious political fallout of such a move during an election campaign, talk of a draft has heated up in recent days.
Asked this week if the president is considering reinstituting the draft, press secretary Scott McClellan gave a quick and emphatic answer. "No," he said, moving to the next question.
But military observers and some members of Congress say that the notion of a possible military draft is gaining traction, in part because of questions from Democrats in Congress about the conduct of the Iraqi reconstruction, from retired military officers who are worried that the force is too small to accomplish such a big and difficult job -- and because of the administration itself.
The Defense Department fueled the debate this week when it placed a notice on its Web site asking for "men and women in the community who might be willing to serve as members of a local draft board."
The notice, which appeared on an official Web page for the Selective Service System titled "Defend America," explained: "If a military draft becomes necessary, approximately 2,000 Local and Appeal Boards throughout America would decide which young men, who submit a claim, receive deferments, postponements or exemptions from military service, based on Federal guidelines. Positions are available in many communities across the Nation."
The Pentagon wouldn't comment on the notice, and by yesterday it had been pulled from the Web site without explanation.
Federal officials, falling in line behind President Bush and his official position, say there are no specific plans to bring back the draft but it's only prudent to have the plans and some of the people in place if it becomes necessary.
Despite those explanations, the public notice by the Pentagon marked the first formal request to re-establish draft boards since the draft was abolished in 1973.
Whether or not a draft is reinstated, debate about troop strength and the commitment to Iraq will continue. The United States has more than 130,000 soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, a deployment that has virtually drained the Army of its troops. One division remains in the United States.
Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior military officials have consistently said that the military is not stretched too thin and that there are enough soldiers to meet all responsibilities both domestically and overseas.
The Pentagon sought to underscore that point Thursday by announcing that it will send 85,000 new Army and Marine combat troops to Iraq to replace soldiers ending one-year tours. The Pentagon also alerted 43,000 National Guard and Reserve support troops that they may be sent to Iraq as well.
Taken together, those decisions constitute the largest rotation of U.S. troops since World War II.
In an added twist, the Army announced that soldiers in every unit designated for deployment to Iraq next year -- whether active duty or reserve -- will be prohibited from leaving the service during a period beginning 90 days before their departure to 90 days after they return.
Ironically, if the White House and Pentagon decide to reinstitute the draft they will earn support from some senior Democrats. Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Rep. Charles Rangel of New York have both said that the country should bring back the draft.
Without a draft, they say, the current force will be overly dependent on National Guard and reserves. That fact, coupled with the yearlong tours required of Reserve forces, has sustained demands that a draft be considered.
Rangel and Hollings each sponsored legislation that would re-institute the draft. The identical bills call for mandatory national service in either the military or some other national service of all men and women between the ages of 18 and 26.
Rangel argues that poor and less-educated Americans suffer a disproportionate number of deaths and injuries in an all-volunteer force.
"In Iraq, minorities represented a disproportionate 32 percent of the deaths among combat-related specialties and 40 percent of those among the non-combat ranks," Rangel said.
"I do deplore the fact that Americans and Americans-to-be of their socioeconomic positions make up the overwhelming majority of our nation's armed forces, and that, by and large, those of wealth and position are absent from the ranks of ground troops," he said.
"The point is that, under a draft, every economic group, every social class, men and women, would be given the opportunity to contribute to the defense of their country," he said.
While some -- even many -- members of Congress privately accept Rangel's logic, no one expects Congress to publicly embrace the draft.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who is one of the authorities on the military in Congress, opposes bringing back the draft, said his chief of staff, George Behan.
"He certainly doesn't think that an all-volunteer force is insufficient," Behan said. "We've been meeting all the recruiting goals and performance standards."
Not surprisingly, neither Hollings' nor Rangel's bill has gone anywhere this year.
And few expect Bush to take a step that would surely be politically unpopular, if not suicidal. Nor is Rumsfeld likely to push for the draft. He has consistently said that the all-volunteer force has performed well and meets all strategic demands.
VOICES ON THE DRAFT
Jon Myers, 22, waiting for a ride at the University of Washington: "It's one of those scary things. People our age haven't grown up with war being something we really think of as a possibility. It's not in our reality," Myers said. He's not worried, however, because he says he has a ticket out: "Color-blindness. I have a very mild red/green colorblindness. It runs in the family."
Carl Sheasley, 17, a member of the UW College Republicans, wearing a Bush/Cheney '04 sticker while attending a rally in opposition to a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich: "I would go right now. I will unilaterally support this country," he said, adding that military service isn't his first choice, but that he'd serve if his president asked him to. "I believe that the Iraq war was a just conflict."
Jameson Florence, 21, riding his mountain bike near the UW's Red Square: "Aren't college students exempt?" he asked first, before explaining that he's not opposed to the draft, just the administration. "If I was more for the cause -- I mean, we all live here. You've got to pay your dues."
Eric Solorio, 19, buying a ticket to see "The Matrix Revolutions" at the Bay Majestic theater in Ballard:
"He (Bush) better not ever. That's not me. It won't happen -- I'd have to leave the country. My mom has three boys, so we'd all have to go."
Solorio, who once contemplated enlisting in the Air Force, said he's not opposed to military service.
"I'm just opposed to him (Bush) forcing me to fight. I don't like him."
-- Jeffrey M. Barker, P-I
P-I Washington correspondent Charles Pope can be reached at 202-263-6461 or email@example.com