America, Take The Conscription Prescription

We are at war to save civilization itself. Our enemies want to kill all Americans, all Jews and all Christians.

But don't take it from me. Just ask the president of the United States — he has reiterated this point on numerous occasions since last Sept. 11. His words, a reminder of our remaining in a state of clear and present danger, indicate a need for reinstating the draft.

A protracted multitheater war requires a larger military. President Bush has not specifically called for renewing conscription, but he has reminded the American people that “this is a different war from any our nation has ever faced — a war on many fronts, against terrorists who operate in more than 60 different countries.” He has also said this war would be fought on our soil.

The president has spoken of expanded roles for our military in Central Asia and at home. He has applauded our military efforts in Afghanistan and then explained, “We have posted the National Guard in America's airports [and it] has an increased role in surveillance at our border. The Coast Guard has taken on expanded duties to protect our shores and ports.”

Even before Sept. 11, our military was stretched thinly over 140 countries worldwide. The president must either reprioritize the Pentagon's missions or provide the military with more personnel.

In spite of a surge in patriotism and wide support for the war effort, the military's personnel shortages persist. Over the past few years, armed-services recruiters have failed to consistently enlist sufficient soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Personnel needs will likely increase as the war expands. Recruitment and retention will be increasingly tough as body bags are returned from the war and domestic terrorism continues.

The recruitment problem extends to our reserves and National Guard. Now that Uncle Sam is calling more of these soldiers to active duty, the problem of meeting domestic requirements is getting tougher. Guardsmen are protecting nuclear reactor sites, dams, airports, government buildings and bridges. They are also preparing teams to react to bioterrorism. The Pentagon has activated 55,000 guardsmen and reservists, denying states the use of their services.

Perhaps recognizing that the draft is a political “hot potato,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said the draft “is not something that we've addressed and it is not something that is immediately before us.” Once the full scope of the war effort is realized, however, the administration may see that the military is undermanned for the job.

It would take congressional action and presidential approval to reinstate a draft. Already, some members of Congress see the need to revisit the issue. U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., favors some form of conscription. “When we were downsizing,” he says, “the problem didn't show up because we didn't need a lot of new people; now we do, and we can't get them.”

In 1948, Congress passed the modern Selective Service Act to maintain the strength of the armed forces during peacetime. That law was allowed to expire in June 1973, when membership in the military was put on an all-volunteer basis.

President Carter ordered reinstatement of selective-service registration in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Today, federal law requires men, but not women, to register with the selective service within 30 days of turning age 18. Failure to do so is a felony and subject to serious penalties.

Today, the paramount reason for restoring the draft is the military's mission load. The president could reduce commitments such as the 10,000 soldiers in the Balkans or 100,000 stationed elsewhere in Europe. Failing this, we must find the means to attract sufficient able-bodied people to serve our expanding needs. Patriotism, higher pay and inducements such as money for college have not attracted enough qualified young people. The draft may be our only reliable mechanism for filling the ranks during the war.

The draft could provide long-term benefits. It would ensure that future generations of political leaders entered office understanding the military. Today, fewer than half of all senators and fewer than a quarter of the House are veterans.

The draft would also help re-establish a sense of public service. Sociologist David Segal explains: “Now, we have generations coming who don't have to think about what they owe to the nation as citizens.”

Any draft proposal would certainly involve a debate over whether women should be included.

Today, 14% of military personnel are women. After Congress lifted the combat exclusions in 1991, the Clinton administration removed 250,000 combat exemptions for women and a federal lawsuit contesting male-only draft registration would likely win.

The Bush administration must face this highly emotional issue head on.

We must also ensure fair and unbiased selection criteria for the draft. Fortunately, the current law eliminates most of the contentious Vietnam-era loopholes.

The military was overburdened before Sept. 11. The war on terrorism compounds the problem both overseas and at home. There is no better reason to restart the draft than, as the president stated, to “save civilization itself.”

Lt. Col. Robert L. Maginnis (U.S. Army, Ret.) is vice president for policy with the Family Research Council in Washington.