It is now more than three months since the Air Force issued a "stop-loss" order that froze involuntarily everybody then on active duty and prohibits uniformed Air Force members even those who have completed their enlistments from retiring or returning to civilian life. The "stop-loss" freeze action confirms that the United States military now needs more people than it is attracting. The all-volunteer military is no longer all-volunteer.
The time has clearly arrived for the Bush administration, as well as for Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, to explain why it is less unjust to retain in uniform involuntarily a young American who has honorably fulfilled his or her voluntary obligation to the nation than it would be to bring to active duty those young Americans who have yet to serve.
The all-volunteer military has always relied upon a libertarian, free-market faith in the autonomy of the individual citizen to serve or not to serve. With the Army and the Navy having already imposed more limited freezes against the retirement or separation of their own active-duty personnel, that freedom has now been suspended by the "stop-loss" order.
This means that the unavoidable question President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld must now answer is not whether Americans ought to be "drafted" to defend their country, because obviously the administration is already doing exactly that, but instead just exactly which Americans are to be drafted.
Why has there been no public debate about the freezing of active duty American military personnel? Yes, the nation has been attacked and those at their battle stations are expected to remain there during the emergency. But why must all the sacrifice be borne exclusively by those Americans who did volunteer and have defended this country?
Is the war on terrorism that President Bush commands to be the first armed conflict in more than 150 years that the United States has entered without a military draft, but with a tax-cut for its best-off citizens?
But the real reason for the lack of public debate about the Bush policy forbidding scheduled retirements and the return of those who have fulfilled their service obligation to civilian life is that there are today 1,157,947 enlisted non-officer personnel on active duty in the United States military, with 260,410 in the Air Force. And nobody powerful, in or out of the White House in this city of power, even knows their names.
That is because those who wear the uniform do not live near or go to school with the children of the elite, who the odds are good, could never find their neighborhoods. America's enlisted warriors are not the sons and daughters of the "influential" in Washington or anyplace else. Their fathers walk beats, and they pack lunches and punch time-clocks. Their mothers wait tables or work in hospital emergency rooms, where they give hope and healing to those among us who need it the most.
The families of the Americans who defend this country write no PAC checks to favored candidates. Like so much of their lives, all their money is hard not "soft." Everybody knows that enough "soft" money, judiciously distributed, can get you a private lunch with the right committee chairman on Capitol Hill or maybe a White House overnight.
So the next time you hear some self-styled patriot, on or off TV, telling you how easy it would be "to take out Saddam," first ask him to give you the names and hometowns of two enlisted members of the Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force or Coast Guard. Then ask him if he is volunteering his son or daughter for that "easy" mission.
Let's be honest this once. We are now "drafting" good people to serve involuntarily because they were already voluntarily in the service. If we must draft, let that draft be just where all serve and stand together at common and individual sacrifice.