It is unlikely that the United States will ever have -- or need -- another draft, yet whenever the nation's affairs lead to talk of military confrontation, many immediately begin to worry.
In calling recently for reinstatement of the draft, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) tapped into these fears, introducing legislation that would require universal service of citizens and permanent residents ages 18 to 26. First call on those inducted would go to fill the needs of the armed forces, but all would be required to give two years of service in some capacity.
Given the effectiveness of the professional all-volunteer force we have today, it's quite unnecessary. But Rangel, a decorated veteran, wants to try to bring the possibility of war with Iraq, which he opposes, closer to home for all Americans. Noting that few members of Congress have children in the military, he wrote recently, "If we are going to send our children to war, the governing principle must be that of shared sacrifice.... A disproportionate number of the poor and minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged are underrepresented or missing."
While it is worth debating whether there is something wrong about how the burdens and benefits (yes, benefits) of military service are being allocated within our society, it is not useful to frame this debate in the context of a return to the draft.
First, the Vietnam-era draft that most people recall was hardly a model of fairness. It was riddled with loopholes and was susceptible to being gamed. Its biggest failing was that, unlike earlier drafts, the burden it allocated was far less than universal; fewer than 10% of eligible-age men served during that period.
Today, a lottery-style draft would be even more unfair as well as unnecessary -- unfair because far fewer members of a much larger population are needed to fill today's much smaller force, and unnecessary because the armed forces currently get all the volunteers they need to fill the ranks.
Second, the draft isn't a good path to military quality. Today, the United States' professional military is undeniably the world's greatest because sufficient numbers of highly qualified men and women volunteer or reenlist every year.
Moreover, these highly motivated volunteers are willing to sign up for the longer enlistment tours necessary for the military to train them to become proficient users of the high-tech weaponry, communications and information systems now deployed. That valuable training, as well as a strong sense of purpose and commitment among those who serve, is the reason that recruitment and retention rates remain high in a force that is both diverse and cohesive. That diversity is one of the military's strengths. There is nothing pernicious about the fact that many minorities seek to serve -- and not just in the enlisted ranks.
Short of a time of total war in which the very existence of the United States is threatened, the draft will never again be a useful or viable way to fill the ranks of our nation's military.
We should nevertheless challenge every young American to ask, "Whose responsibility is it to serve if not mine?" Indeed, a system of universal national service in which military service is but one option among many would increase the opportunities for all young people to have the experience of giving something back to their country.
We should also do more to teach America's young people that the benefits of military service far outweigh its burdens. Although there are unique risks and hardships that come with military service, the courageous and patriotic men and women who serve today take these on willingly out of a sense of duty and love of country. By serving they are learning invaluable lessons about themselves, about others and about our country and all it stands for.