Why Bush will restart the draft if re-elected

A major terrorist attack could easily serve as the pretext for setting the draft in motion.

President George W. Bush may or may not have a secret plan to reinstate the draft. But this is besides the point. The deteriorating facts on the ground in Iraq, plus the Bush doctrine of acting pre-emptively and unilaterally against hostile regimes, will soon leave him no choice. If Bush is re-elected, he will have to restart the draft.

Indeed, Bush has already imposed stage one of a new draft. Many soldiers whose enlistment period is up are not being allowed to leave the service, and those who left the service years ago are being forced to put on the uniform again against their wills. It is clear that we already have a back-door draft. Bush has effectively ended the all-volunteer military.

And stage two of a reinstated draft would be easy to implement. Draft boards are already in place in every county in the United States, and young men who turn 18 are already required to register with their local draft board. A major terrorist attack could easily serve as the pretext for flipping the switch and setting this apparatus in motion.

It is obvious that our armed forces are stretched dangerously thin. We do not have enough people in uniform to meet current needs in Iraq and Afghanistan, much less to deal with a confrontation with Iran or North Korea.

Right now, total active Army and Marine personnel number approximately 655,000, and that includes support units, training units, headquarters personnel and others who do not see combat. In a long, drawn-out war such as Vietnam or Iraq, units sent to the front lines have to be rotated out periodically and replaced by an equal number of forces.

Currently, we have 135,000 troops in Iraq, 20,000 in Afghanistan, approximately 100,000 in Asia and more than 100,000 in Europe. Our armed forces have been strained to the breaking point. To fill the gaps and shortages, tens of thousands of National Guard and reservists have been called up, some for several years at a time.

But there is a cost to all of this. Morale is suffering, as evidenced by the recent refusal of an Army Reserve platoon to carry out an order. Enlistments and re-enlistments are down. The Army National Guard fell 10 percent short of its 2004 recruiting goal. The regular Army has had to ease up on standards to meet its recruiting goals.

What if all-out civil war breaks out in Iraq and we have to increase our troop strength to 200,000 or 300,000 to quell it? What if a newly re-elected Bush decides to act pre-emptively against Iran, Syria or North Korea?

Today, people are hesitant to join the National Guard or reserves because of skyrocketing odds of being sent into combat or kept away from family and jobs for a year or longer. Morale, enlistments and re-enlistments are falling, at the same time that military manpower needs are rising dramatically.

So where would a re-elected Bush get the manpower to pacify Iraq while pursuing the next phases of his doctrine of pre-emptive, unilateral war? There is only one viable option: a reinstated draft.

It is probably too much to expect Bush to acknowledge this before Election Day. But we would do well to remember when President Lyndon B. Johnson was running for election in 1964.

Voters were afraid he had a secret plan to escalate the war in Vietnam. He denied it, repeatedly promising, “I will not send American boys halfway around the world to do a job that Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

Johnson was re-elected. And sure enough, millions of U.S. boys were drafted and sent halfway around the world to Vietnam. More than 17,000 of those draftees got killed in combat.

So Americans, today we have good reasons to fear the return of the draft. Bush might have avoided the draft when he was a young man. But if re-elected, he will not be able to avoid the draft as president.

Tom Harkin is a Democratic senator from Iowa. Please send comments to [email protected]