Lottery numbers, draft boards, and educational deferments may be little more than dusty relics of the Vietnam era, but if Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has his way, today’s young people could become familiar with them again when they participate in a military draft. In January 2003, Rangel introduced legislation that would replace the existing Selective Service law. It would establish a system in which all American men and women, as well legal permanent residents, ages 18 to 26 would be subject to compulsory military service or alternative civilian service. The President would determine the number of conscripts needed and the means of selection. Deferments would be limited to those completing high school, up to the age of 20, with no exemptions for college or graduate school. Similarly, Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) introduced the Universal National Service Act of 2003, a Senate companion to the Rangel bill. Both bills are now in their chambers’ armed services committees, but no hearings have been scheduled by the respective chairs. Speaking to National Public Radio host Tavis Smiley shortly after announcing his House bill last year, Rangel said that the likelihood of seeing a draft “anytime soon” was small. However, he said that he was heartened by the amount of debate that the issue was receiving, and that the bill made Americans think more deeply about the kinds of people that make up America’s armed forces. “We should not rely on people — no matter how patriotic they may be — enlisting in the military for economic reasons to share the entire responsibility of the aggressiveness of the United States of America as it relates to the war in Iraq,” Rangel said in the interview. A spokesman for Sen. Hollings’ office, Ilene Zeldin, says that the Senator agrees with the Congressman that it is fairer for all segments of society to share equally in the sacrifices demanded by national service. And, she added, “The Senator believes it would be good character building for American young people.” A primary reason Rangel would like to see the conscription reinstated is because the military is comprised of many who, whether due to class or race, have fewer opportunities to get the training and education required to achieve financial success. Rangel notes that this is why many Southern politicians also have called for a reexamination of the military draft. Many of their constituents are poor white people who also rely on service for an economic leg-up. Many New York parents don’t see the need for a draft, however. Randy Lewis, 60, a Manhattan father of teenage daughters, who was drafted in the 1960s and served in Vietnam, believes that increasing salaries would be the best way to ensure a large enough fighting force. “I think that they should pay enough money so that they don’t need to draft anybody,” he says. “Soldiers certainly deserve to make a comparable living while they are serving.” While Lewis, who volunteered for several special assignments once drafted, agrees with Sen. Hollings that “it’s a worthwhile experience being in the military,” he feels there’s no comparison between an all-volunteer force and a conscripted one. “There was no question about the quality and morale of volunteers over draftees,” he says. Lewis, whose older son also served in the Air Force, adds that if his daughters wanted to volunteer for service, it would be fine with him. The Department of Defense contends that an all-volunteer military is sufficient to support current efforts in Iraq and peacekeeping and homeland security efforts elsewhere. In fact, enlistments rose after 9/11. But with National Reservists and others who never planned to be in a war zone now being asked to extend their service in combat situations, the question remains whether recruitment can keep pace with the country’s needs. “We remain unconvinced by the Department of Defense's claims that the current all-volunteer military can meet any contingency that might arise. We are currently engaged in 14 peacekeeping missions around the globe. With prospects of continued military action in Afghanistan, a potential war in Iraq, the continued war on terrorism and growing tensions in the Korean peninsula, it becomes clear that we do not have the personnel to fight a multi-theater war," said Hollings and Rangel in a 2003 letter to their colleagues urging their support on the resumption of conscription. Beyond military readiness, experts suggest that a draft is necessary so that the entire country can understand what happens in a war. Terence Moran, Ph.D., who teaches in NYU’s department of culture and mass communications, says, “Unless we share the burden, the government can do anything they want with this mercenary Army.” Prof. Moran says that although his students support the war on terror, “there’s still no involving anybody” because so few of them know active service members. “The feeling is the war is something going on in another place and it doesn’t concern us,” he reports. And even parents today who are too young to have memories of Vietnam are cynical that a draft would be conducted without favoritism. Laura Wolfman, a 32-year-old new mother in Manhattan, says, “I don’t know how you go about fairly selecting people for a draft. I don’t see that happening. The people who can’t afford to run away or find the loopholes are the ones who get stuck.” In fact, the bill’s sponsors haven’t publicly discussed how these loopholes would be closed, or the penalties associated with failing to report for duty. Prof. Moran, a veteran who tried, unsuccessfully, to convince his stepson to join the military, adds that reinstituting the draft will force Americans to understand the ultimate price that many in the military pay. “What it does is makes the thing more shared, more open,” he says. “Part of what’s going on in Iraq is the hiding of the bodies, the hiding of the casualties. In order to buy a war, you have to know what it’s going to cost you. Almost always, when the government covered it up, or lied, and the real costs came out, it seemed to the public not to be worth it.”
To voice your opinion, contact Rep. Rangel’s New York office by calling (212) 663-3900, writing him at 163 West 125th Street, Suite #737, New York, NY 10027, or going to his website at www.rangel.house.gov. You also may use a locator on his contact page to find your own Congressperson.
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