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The Return of the Draft, a Bipartisan Production

Counterpunch.org | June 1 2004

Barring a sudden reversal in the direction of US foreign policy, a strong bipartisan push to reinstate the draft can be expected soon after the November elections. Whether or not Bush wins is irrelevant. The logic of empire requires more boots on the ground, and conscription looks like the only way to get them.

In fact the campaign for the draft is already under way, though election-year politics have dictated a nuanced approach. Long-dormant draft boards have been quietly reactivated and restaffed -- even as the Bush administration continues to claim, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that current troop levels are sufficient.

Meanwhile, a consensus behind conscription is building on Capitol Hill. Senators Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) and Joseph Biden (D-Del), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are among many prominent politicians suddenly calling for a "national debate" on the draft. Open supporters of the draft include Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) and Reps. Nydia Velazsquez (D-NY), Pete Stark (D-Cal), and Charles Rangel (D-NY). HR 163 and S 89, Democrat-sponsored bills to restore conscription, are quietly working their way through committee. According to The Hill, Republicans are ready to sign on as soon as they get the nod from the Bush administration.

Because the draft is potentially a catalyst for student protest, many leftists are happy to believe that the Establishment would never dare to reintroduce it. But that view fails to take into account the tremendous post-Seattle expansion of the state's repressive apparatus. Now that protest pens, mass arrests, chemical crowd control, and embedded journalists have become the norm at major demonstrations, the powerful may well believe that they have little to fear from free speech.

In any case, pro-draft forces appear willing to assume any downside risks involved in reviving conscription. A quick survey of the state of the empire shows why.

At this writing the US military is deeply mired in Iraq, fighting a brutal war of counterinsurgency that has stretched the 1.4-million strong, all-volunteer military to the limit. The Army has 10 active-duty divisions; nine of these are either in Iraq or Afghanistan, have just returned, or are about to be deployed there.

Hundreds of enlistees are killed or wounded every month. Tours are being extended and enlistments prolonged. Troops are even being transferred to Iraq from strategically critical US bases in South Korea. The 138,000 US soldiers officially stationed in Iraq have been quietly supplemented with at least 10,000 private military contractors; i.e., mercenaries. Even so, as recent events in Falluja and Najaf make clear, all these bodies are not nearly enough to sustain the occupation.

While conceding that the Iraq war has been a military and political disaster, the US power elite -- ranging from George Bush, to the New York Times editorial board, to Presidential candidate John Kerry -- agree that we must "stay the course" in Iraq. In plain language, that means crushing resistance to the occupation. To subdue a population that wants us to leave, and is increasingly willing to fight for independence, will require many more troops -- as many as 500,000, according to pre-war Pentagon estimates. Despite the machinations of Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan, Europe has so far shown little inclination to augment US troop strength with its own soldiers.

Moreover, our West Asian wars are only a part of the equation. Under cover of the "war on terror," the US has increased its military presence across the globe: at least 176,000 troops are now deployed in forward bases and "peacekeeping operations" overseas.

Official US policy calls for waging "pre-emptive war" and effecting "regime change" wherever threats to American power and security are perceived. Any new war -- with or without an escalation of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- would require many thousands of new soldiers. No President will long tolerate an inability to wage war as and where he sees fit.

The math isn't hard to do. The empire needs bigger battalions. Enlistment is barely sufficient to maintain current troop levels. Only draftees can fill the gap.

Would President Kerry make any difference? There's no reason to think so. Kerry has scrupulously avoided taking a position on the draft, but his approach to foreign policy is virtually indistinguishable from that of George Bush. A member of the hawkish Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), he supports escalating the war in Iraq and further enhancing US military presence worldwide. A Kerry administration would therefore be subject to the same imperial logic that guides Bush -- and, on a purely pragmatic level, the former war hero and Vietnam protester would be a far more credible advocate for conscription.

Kerry calls military service "the highest form of national service." Not coincidentally, a proposal for universal "National Service" is available on his campaign web site. The proposal closely resembles a recent DLC policy blueprint (Magee, From Selective Service to National Service: A Blueprint for Citizenship and Security in the 21st Century, 1993) that antidraft advocates see as a stealth plan for staged reintroduction of conscription.

Kerry's plan does not mention a military draft -- yet -- but incenting youth to join the armed forces is manifestly at its heart. The proposal would require draft registration for women and appears to makes financial aid for college contingent on two years' national service beginning at the age of 18. Even without a draft as such, Kerry's program represents a massive militarization of young people that provides ample opportunities for "patriotic" indoctrination, along with near-coercive incentives to join up.

The draft can still be stopped, but only if we act to prevent it. Although most Americans oppose the draft, public opinion alone is rarely enough to stop measures demanded by a consensus of the powerful. Historically, when US elites see a need to pass unpopular legislation (tax increases, benefit cuts, etc.) bipartisan action is taken early in the term and swiftly, before the people have a chance to register their displeasure.

That means we need to start organizing, educating, and speaking out -- right now. It is time to launch a preemptive strike of our own.

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