If you want to see Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld pull out his silver hair, just ask him if there is going to be a military draft.
Over and over since the war in Iraq began, rumors of a reinstated draft have whizzed around the Internet, college campuses and anti-war gatherings.
Time after time, Rumsfeld, U.S. Selective Service officials and a host of others have said, emphatically and unequivocally, that a draft is not only unneeded, but also unwanted.
Still, the rumors and suspicion persist. The Selective Service, the agency responsible for registering young men for the draft, is spending most of its time these days putting the fears of parents and their sons to rest.
And, with the Army now reporting it is having growing trouble in recruiting new troops, the question again is being asked.
The answer remains the same.
Rumsfeld let loose his impatience when he got the question-that-will-not-die during a recent visit to U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan.
“Some people are running around saying we ought to go back to the draft …. I’ll tell you, that is one of the worst ideas I can imagine. We don’t need to draft people. We’ve got plenty of people,” he said during the April trip. “We sure as the dickens don’t need a draft.”
Q: What spurred the latest outburst of draft heebie-jeebies?
A: Partly it has come from concern that the military is running out of soldiers for the war in Iraq, and that there’s a big drop in the number of enlistees signing up.
The Pentagon acknowledges recruiting for the Army is getting tougher, particularly for the Reserves and National Guard. The Marine Corps is missing its targets, albeit by a small percentage, for the first time in years. The Navy and the Air Force, however, are doing fine.
Rumsfeld and uniformed brass note that retention of the current 1.4 million active-duty troops _ more important for the war in Iraq than the recruitment of new GIs _ remains strong even in the face of the tough combat duty and long separations from home.
Rumsfeld says there is a shortage of troops that specialize in the sorts of tactics needed for anti-insurgency fighting, because the military has been slow in transforming from a Cold War-era, tank-and-artillery heavy force to a quicker, lighter one.
But the solution to that shortage is to retrain troops, he says, not to conscript new ones. Rumsfeld also says more incentives _ five-figure signing bonuses, for example _ and more recruiters should draw enough enlistees to fill the needs.
Another source of angst is the recent re-introduction in Congress of a measure to re-institute the draft, which was ended in 1973.
The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is essentially the same one that was crushed by Congress last year by a 402-2 vote. This time, it faces the same impossible odds.
Q: Why doesn’t the military want a draft?
A: Because it would produce a far inferior fighting force than the all-volunteer military has created.
The last time there was a draft _ during the Vietnam War _ the army was made up of thousands of disgruntled men who didn’t want to be there. In the current force, every soldier is there by choice _ a fact that makes for a far more professional military that is smarter, more disciplined and capable, and happier.
If a substantial number of more troops is someday needed, a draft would be one of the last options considered, Pentagon experts say. Far more likely to be instituted would be a drop in the entry standards for enlistees, as well as stretching the age limits for joining.
A small, targeted conscription of people with special skills _ such as health care workers _ is about the only draft that might even be contemplated, and even then as a last choice, experts say.
Q: Why do the draft fears persist?
A: Partly they have been fanned for political purposes. During the presidential campaign, independent candidate Ralph Nader was the first of President Bush’s opponents to caution that, if Bush were re-elected, a draft would surely follow.
Nader was followed by Democratic contender Howard Dean, and, late in the campaign, by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the party’s nominee. All issued similarly ominous warnings, though they were not accompanied with any evidence that such was the case.
Another source of unease comes from college campuses and other venues where anti-war groups such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Center on Conscience and War, have been holding workshops to give advice on how to claim conscientious objector status if the draft returns.
Breakout quote: “We sure as the dickens don’t need a draft.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
(Reach Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at)shns.com)