If war in the Persian Gulf leads to a resumption of the draft, the fate of millions of young Americans may be decided not in the Mideast, but the Midwest.
Within hours of a call-up, a secretly located data processing center near Chicago could begin spewing overnight Mailgram draft notices across the nation. Fearing sabotage, officials decline to reveal the exact site of that computer.
“In 24 to 72 hours we could have our (first) induction orders in the mail,” explained Air Force Lt. Col. Ronald Meilstrup, deputy director of the Selective Service System’s regional headquarters in Illinois.
No one has been drafted in the United States since 1972, and there’s clearly no groundswell for reviving the draft even now, despite suggestions made at recent congressional hearings. Reinstituting it would require action by both houses of Congress and the signature of the President, a process likely to provoke heated debate.
Still, the Persian Gulf crisis has raised new questions not only about military preparedness but also the fairness of an all-volunteer force in which minorities and the poor could do most of fighting--and dying. If a draft is approved, officials say they now have an “equal opportunity” system at the ready that could fill training camps with 100,000 civilians in barely a month.
“We function something like an insurance policy for the nation,” said Glenn Ford, operations officer for the regional draft headquarters in Denver. "(We’re) expected to open up the draft mechanism overnight in the event of a national emergency. Administrative offices have been pre-identified, local boards appointed and trained.”
Indeed, ever since the standby draft was created in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-81, a few thousand military reservists and civilian volunteers have been preparing for the potential reactivation of the draft.
A few National Guard and Reserve units in each state are assigned to Selective Service duties, much as other units would train for the infantry or air patrol. As part of their regular, one-weekend-a-month service obligations, the Selective Service units drill on the finer points of how to set up and operate headquarters and field offices. Periodically, they also supervise refresher courses for local draft boards, which are five-member panels of presidential appointees dispersed by the dozens across each state.
“They have role-plays where there are actual incidents that would be similar to what they would go through in a real-life scenario,” said John Cumicek, a banker who also serves as the state Selective Service director in Wisconsin. “They actually have a (simulated) board meeting and make some decisions.”
Although commonly referred to as draft boards, the panels would really have little say in who would be called.
Gone are the days when national draft officials set regional and state-by-state quotas, or when the whims and prejudices of local board members could dictate who was drafted and who was not. Much of the flexibility has been bred out of a system that was widely criticized during the Vietnam War for enabling large numbers of middle- and upper-class whites to escape military service.
Under current law, men must register for the standby draft when they turn 18, and the data are fed into the nationwide computer. Women are exempt. The data bank currently has the names of 15 million draft-eligible young men on file, including 4 million in California alone.
If the draft were reactivated, the age group with primary vulnerability would be 20-year-olds. First, a lottery would be held to determine draft priorities by birth date, such as May 12 or June 16. Then, following the dictates of that lottery, the Chicago-area computer would spit out draft notices to 20-year-olds. Next would come 21-year-olds, then 22-year-olds, and on up to 25-year-olds. Last in line would be 18- and 19-year-olds.
Perhaps in keeping with the no-nonsense atmosphere of the new draft, induction notices would be as dry as the mouths of the shocked young men who open them: There would be no salutation of “Greetings,” as draft notices of another era once began. They would simply say “Order to report for induction” and include a travel voucher to the nearest induction center. Draftees would be given 10 days to report.
Local boards would be limited to granting deferments--and even that power has been severely curbed. Draftees could still argue hardship, conscientious objector or ministerial claims to the boards, but student or job-related deferments--the most popular ways to delay or evade military service in the old days--have been eliminated.
“I enjoyed that luxury of staying at the University of Florida, receiving those letters (from the draft board) asking how I was doing in school,” Douglas Maddox, now the Selective Service director in Florida, recalled. ". . . Now, if you are at college, you will be allowed to finish the semester that you are currently enrolled in . . . then you will be drafted. If you are a senior, you will be allowed to graduate.”
Mark Kiester, a 20-year-old from Redondo Beach, will begin his last semester at El Camino Junior College later this month and plans to graduate in June. Kiester said he and his friends have talked about the draft and they’re “pretty much scared. Most of us are up on the situation. We know there will be no deferments for school.”
But random interviews with draft-age men nationwide revealed widespread confusion and misgivings about their vulnerability, although the rules are fairly clear-cut.
“I’m in school, so I probably wouldn’t have to go--at least that’s what my grandmother said,” predicted Greg Parham, a 21-year-old psychology major at the University of Colorado at Denver. “I’m the youngest surviving male in my family, so my older brother would go.” Parham was wrong on both counts.
Perhaps because of misconceptions, calls about the possibility of reinstating the draft “have certainly increased” at the Selective Service’s Western regional headquarters on Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, according to Patty Roberts, regional program manager and public affairs officer.
“A big part of the calls have come from the media, and many from parents and registrants,” she added. “They’re responding to the situation as it is. Basically, they want to know if there is going to be a draft and if it is going to affect them.”
But in Los Angeles, Larry Dozier, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman, reported “no unusual activity or increases of calls about the possibility of a draft. We’ve just had a regular flow of calls here, five to 10 a week. There hasn’t been any significant change.”
Adam Holzhauer, 23, a supermarket manager in Marietta, Ga., said he believed a draft would create morale problems for draftees and volunteers alike.
“The problem I see with having a draft is you are forcing people to do something which other people have done out of their own volition,” said Holzhauer, who describes himself as a conservative Republican. “Not only would it cause resentment in the people who get drafted, but also in the people who are already over there.”
Still, Holzhauer said he would serve if called, although he added: “I would hope with my background and experience I would be put in a non-combat position, probably in the supply corps.”
Similarly, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 19-year-old sophomore physics major Benjamin Marshall declared: “I wouldn’t want to go, but if I were drafted, I know I would go.”
Even so, Kuwait is " not worth losing lives over,” Marshall said. “I question if we would go to that extent for any country of that size if it weren’t for the oil.”
But backing for the massive U.S. deployment seems overwhelming.
“I don’t know anybody my age who disagrees with us being (in Saudi Arabia),” said Kenny Vils, 23, who graduated from Cal State San Diego last June and now works for an insurance broker in Los Angeles. “They think it’s our role. It’s a ‘Somebody’s got to do it’ type of thing. But they still think (President) Bush is a wimp.
“If I was drafted, I would go, but I don’t think they need a draft,” he added. “We’ve talked about it. About eight out of 10 of my friends would go. I know two guys who wouldn’t. They joke about going to Canada or Mexico. It’s not so much a political consideration with them, or not so much (that they are) against us being over there--they just don’t want to fight and die.”
Also contributing to this story were Times staff writer Lynn Simross in Los Angeles and researchers Anna Virtue in Miami, Ann Rovin in Denver, Edith Stanley in Atlanta and Doug Conner in Seattle.
HOW DRAFT WOULD WORK * Who Must Register: Men must sign up when they turn 18; women are exempt.
* Who Would Be Called First: A lottery would determine draft priorities by birth date, such as May 12 or June 16; then 20-year-olds would be called, followed by 21-year-olds, 22-year-olds and on up to 25. Last would be 18- and 19-year-olds.
* Exemptions Still Allowed: Hardship, conscientious objector, ministerial.
* Exemptions Not Allowed: Student or job-related deferments.