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Pentagon can't seem to kill idea of military draft

AP | June 1 2004

WASHINGTON (AP) — No matter what the Pentagon says, the idea of restarting the military draft never seems to go away.
Defense officials say they don't want it. And polls show the American public doesn't either. So why do lawmakers keep suggesting that conscription be reconsidered?

Since the fall of 2002, when the Bush administration asked Congress to approve force against Iraq, the Defense Department has said repeatedly that it sees no reason to abandon the all-volunteer, professional military and return to the days when thousands of untrained men were forced into service. (Related site: Selective Service System)

"I don't know anyone in the executive branch of the government who believes it would be appropriate or necessary," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said again recently.

Recent polling indicates four out of five Americans surveyed oppose resuming the draft, which would appear to seal its fate as a dead issue during an election year.

"It's an idea whose time may never come," said Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who studies military issues.

Still, lawmakers keep questioning whether perhaps a draft may be needed, even as proposed legislation on it goes nowhere.

Analysts say there are two main reasons the idea keeps coming back. One is that even with its 1.4 million active-duty volunteers and thousands more reservists, the United States seems to have too few troops for the wars it is fighting.

The other is a kind of guilt that the cost of the wars is being paid by very few Americans, analysts said.

The war in Iraq, coming on top of the global war on terrorism, has caused unprecedented strain on U.S. armed forces. The Defense Department has stopped thousands of soldiers from leaving when their enlistment times were up, made some stay longer in Iraq than the promised year, made unprecedented use of the National Guard and Reserve forces and is bringing troops from Korea for the first time in decades as it struggles to maintain more than 138,000 in Iraq.

Officials say they can continue using those same methods, as well as incentives to get sufficient volunteers. Rumsfeld further says the high amount of military activity now probably is temporary — "a spike."

But even if most troops come out of Iraq within several years, the war against al-Qaeda and other terror networks could last decades. And there is no predicting how many more sizable military campaigns there might be over that time.

"If we in fact, as the president says and I agree, are in a generational war here against terrorism, it's going to require resources," says Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel. "The mission must match the resources."

And there is also the question of who bears the burden. That's a point repeatedly made by another draft supporter, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation on conscription.

"Who is doing all of the fighting?" Hagel asked. "Should we continue to burden the middle class who represents most all of our soldiers, and the lower middle class ... burden them with the fighting and the dying if in fact this is a generational — probably 25-year war?"

"It's not a shared burden," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., noting that most Americans have sacrificed little through the Afghan and Iraq wars that started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

The military drafted conscripts during the Civil War, both world wars and between 1948 and 1973. The Selective Service System was reincorporated in 1980 to maintain a registry of 18-year-old men, but call-ups have not occurred since the Vietnam War.

Every time the idea of the draft resurfaces in the news, there is a small public furor, and cynics are sure the government is secretly planning conscription behind their backs.

Moskos calls it a case of "patriotism lite" — people say they're patriotic but are "not willing to sacrifice anything."

Elizabeth Kier, a University of Washington professor and defense specialist, also sees it in reverse.

"If you don't ask anything of the country, then the country is much more willing to go along with it," she said.

"I don't see it as politically possible," Kier said of a draft. "But I do think it allows people to talk about a lot of important things — shared sacrifice, greater responsibility of citizenship."