Time to start feeling a draft again

St. Petersburg Times

Once again, we should bring back the draft.

I was inspired to return to this subject because of the furor John Kerry created when, while addressing students in Los Angeles, he lamely joked about President Bush’s incuriosity and intellectual deficits, saying, “Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Instead of using Kerry’s gaffe as a springboard to an honest national discussion about Bush’s wrecking of our military, too many of us are letting the GOP’s putrefaction machine distract us from the reality on the ground in Iraq and the demoralization of our all-volunteer fighting force.

The U.S. armed services, even the Army, the biggest supplier of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, met their 2006 wartime recruiting goals. But the price has been high, and it may do permanent, irreparable harm to the enlisted ranks.

Following are some of the major concessions the services were forced to make, according to the Military Officers Association of America:

_ Recruit quality has been affected. Until now, the Defense Department wanted 90 percent of boots to have a high school diploma, and 60 percent to score above the median on armed forces aptitude tests. This year, only 82 percent of Army recruits had diplomas, and 61 percent met the aptitude test standards _ down from 92 percent and 72 percent, respectively, since 2004.

_ Enlistment standards have been changed. The Army, for example, increased its maximum enlistment age first from 35 to 40 last January, then to 42 in June. Most recently, the Army loosened restrictions on tattoos, criminal infractions and a host of other old red flags.

_ Bonus budgets have skyrocketed. Enlistment bonus costs jumped from $166 million in 2005 to $238 million in 2006. Re-enlistment bonus costs for fiscal year 2006 went past $650 million, versus an average of $120 million for fiscal years 2000-2004. If re-enlistments drop, as they are expected to, recruiting goals will rise exponentially.

“The recruiting problem is not just an Army problem,” Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, told NBC News. “This is America’s problem. And what we have to really do is talk about service to the nation _ and a sense of duty to this nation.”

Recruiting in the regular ranks is being hurt by many problems, such as longer and more frequent tours in Iraq, erratic schedules and the rising lethality of the fighting. Reservists also face these problems, with the added pressures of discontent at their daytime jobs, financial ruin and longer-than-expected deployments.

Pentagon officials are desperately seeking solutions to this manpower crisis. While they are tinkering with shorter enlistment terms and talking of using current troops more efficiently, the big, bad gorilla remains in the middle of the floor: We need many more troops.

According to most analyses, recruitment is being hurt mostly by the appeal of college. That is right. More and more high school graduates are attending college without giving the military a second thought. Officials are trying to find attractive ways to lure college graduates into volunteering during this time of war. Based on everything I read, no gimmick or battery of gimmicks will work.

The solution is obvious: We must reinstate the draft. As Cody said, we are talking about “service to the nation” and “a sense of duty to the nation.” I believe that every able-bodied, mentally fit U.S. citizen has a duty to serve. I leave the logistics to the experts.

I agree with Nicholas Confessore, editor of Washington Monthly, in his March 2003 article for the magazine: “Every year, a million young adults begin attending four-year colleges. As a condition of admission, those students could be required to serve their country for up to two years, in civilian national service programs like AmeriCorps, or homeland security efforts such as guarding nuclear plants, or … in the military. Some percentage would choose the latter, especially if they were to receive more GI Bill-type college aid as a reward for higher-risk duty.”

Let us face a nasty truth about ourselves as U.S. citizens: When it comes to serving our great nation, we are AWOL. This crisis, not a flubbed Kerry joke, should be our national discussion. We should be ashamed.

(Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail maxwell(at)sptimes.com)