Archive for Wednesday, November 21, 2001

It’s time for the U.S. to bring back the draft

November 21, 2001


— Last week, well ahead of the Thanksgiving weekend rush, I joined hundreds of fellow travelers standing in long lines to clear security at Dulles Airport outside Washington and at the airport in New Orleans. Connecting through Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta on the way home, I heard the grumbling of passengers who had been waiting even longer at security.

Shortly afterward, an impatient football fan, who had left a camera behind at the Atlanta security gate, rushed past the guards, rather than wait in line a second time, setting off an alarm that forced evacuation of thousands of travelers, disrupted airline schedules for 24 hours and reportedly cost the airlines millions.

Plainly, there are not enough guards or gates to process travelers through the necessary but time-consuming inspections. The president has just signed a bill to hire and train federal airport security inspectors, but they will simply replace the employees of private security firms not expand the force.

Nor is this the only place where security shortages exist. Michigan Gov. John Engler had to appeal personally to Tom Ridge, the new federal domestic anti-terrorism coordinator, to keep National Guardsmen on duty assisting Customs and Immigration inspectors at the bridges linking Canada to the United States. Engler told me that 30-mile backups of trucks carrying auto parts were disrupting production at Detroit-area plants and causing Canadian nurses to miss their shifts at U.S. hospitals.

The reality is that homeland defense in the war on terrorism is bound to be labor-intensive, as demanding of manpower as the big wars of the past. But we do not have the vital tool we used in those wars: the draft.

That word is so unmentionable to politicians in Washington that it was little short of astonishing to listen the other day to a serious discussion of the draft by a roomful of experienced people. American University provided the venue for a forum organized by the New America Foundation and Washington Monthly magazine. The Monthly had just published an article by its editor in chief, Paul Glastris, and Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University professor who has specialized in studying the military, advocating "a new kind of draft" for a new kind of war.

At the conference, they acknowledged that the draft that ended in 1971 was fatally flawed, because it provided generous deferments for those wealthy and wise enough to be in college, while unfairly burdening minorities and the less-affluent. But during World War II and Korea, the children of the elite served along with those of the working class, and had a lesson in democratic citizenship along the way.

Moskos and Glastris propose universal registration for men and women between 18 and 24, with a choice of service in the military, in domestic security or in community organizations. All would receive substantial education benefits, with the greatest rewards for those in the uniformed military and the least for those mentoring students or working in nursing homes.

No one thinks it will happen soon. The military is opposed to resuming the draft, but as retired Army Col. Stephen Norton pointed out, 30 years ago, it also opposed ending the draft. "We adapt," he commented drily. And Moskos noted that the services themselves are having trouble meeting their manpower needs. One-third of those enlisting fail to complete their commitments.

Before drafting is resumed, several conference participants said, Congress would need a careful of assessment of the functions to be performed and other options for filling those jobs. The bipartisan bill to expand voluntary domestic service and increase military enlistments, sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Evan Bayh and Reps. Harold Ford and Tom Osborne, which I have praised previously, includes a commission that could be asked to make such a study.

But the idea of drafting people, not just for the armed services but for vital tasks here at home, is not as novel as it may seem. Lew Brodsky, a senior official of the Selective Service System, reminded the forum that in the past, tens of thousands of draftees who claimed conscientious objector status were assigned to public or private institutions, including schools and hospitals, for alternative service.

And former Sen. Harris Wofford, who headed the Clinton administration Corporation for National Service, offered a clever idea for assuring that this time, the elite would not duck out: Simply ask the Ivy League and other selective colleges announce that two years hence, they will accept applications for their freshman class only from those who have completed a period of military, homeland defense or community service.

David Broder is a syndicated columnist with Washington Post Writers Group.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.