The Option Nobody's Pushing. Yet.


New York Times, October 3, 2004


CHARLESTON, W.Va. In the worried steel town of Weirton, W.Va., last week, the first question from the crowd that came out to hear Senator John Edwards was not about the economy, tariffs or health care. It was about the draft: Is a new one coming?

The Democratic candidate for vice president was unequivocal. Not in a Kerry-Edwards administration, he replied. But Erika Lontz, a 19-year-old college sophomore, was not reassured. "Students worry about it a lot," she said later. "With the way the war is going, how could you not?"

Though President Bush and Senator John Kerry talk about it in only the most glancing ways - the president pledged to defeat terrorism with "an all-volunteer army" during Thursday's presidential debate - many people across the country are wondering just who will fight the nation's wars.

There is good reason to ask. By most accounts, the military, particularly the Army, has been spread thin by America's global commitments, and signs of strain are mounting.

More than one-third of nearly 3,900 former soldiers mobilized under a special wartime program have resisted their call-ups. The Army National Guard fell nearly 10 percent short of its 2004 recruiting goal of 56,000 enlistees. The Army, concerned about recruiting, has eased some standards. And there have been bipartisan calls in Congress to expand the Army by more than 20,000 soldiers.

Just months ago, Pentagon officials suggested that a new draft could be avoided if recruitment and retention numbers stayed high. But as fighting in Iraq escalates, signs are growing that those numbers may not be adequate in the coming years. Thus, the new talk about a draft.

Of course, enacting a draft has historically been a matter of political will, democratic ideals and high passion, as much as military need. Some have long argued that citizenship is enhanced by having all young people serve; others contend that forced conscription violates democratic ideals. At various times, the draft has been sought either as a way to prepare for going to war, or to inhibit the temptation to do so. These days, public polls indicate that most people do not favor the idea.

And so, not surprisingly, both the president and Senator Kerry have outlined plans to relieve the military strain - without resorting to a draft.

The Bush administration has called for pulling troops out of Europe and South Korea, expanding the number of combat brigades to shorten rotations and increasing the size of the Army temporarily by about 30,000 soldiers, in many cases by delaying their departure from the armed forces.

Mr. Kerry has countered with proposals to expand the Army permanently by 40,000 soldiers, speed up training of Iraqi forces, double the number of Army special-forces troops and increase international forces in Iraq. Doing so will allow a swifter drawing down of America's 135,000 troops in Iraq, he contends.

The mathematics behind these suggestions can be sobering. In the combined American armed forces there are 1.4 million active-duty troops, with another 865,000 National Guard members and reservists. That may sound like a big pool to draw from, but consider: Total active Army and Marine personnel are about 655,000, and that includes support units, training units, headquarters personnel and others who do not go to the front. During a prolonged war like that in Iraq, units sent to the front have to be rotated out and replaced with an equal number while they rest and retrain.

So maintaining a level of 135,000 ground troops in Iraq, another 20,000 in Afghanistan and a smaller force in the Balkans, while a garrison of 36,000 (soon to be reduced) guards the Korean armistice line and other troops maintain bases in Europe, creates a major strain. The current system is already drawing on Guard and reserve units to fill the gap. What is more, some military officers and political figures have long questioned whether 135,000 troops is a large enough force to prevail in Iraq.

What if another big deployment is needed? Estimates vary widely on how many additional troops might be required, but some analysts say the current overall force could easily fall short by more than 70,000 ground troops. In the 1991 gulf war, when Saddam Hussein was at the height of his power, the United States sent 500,000 troops to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

So while military analysts have welcomed the presidential candidates' proposals as important first steps to address personnel needs, they have raised serious concerns about both. Even conservatives have questioned whether Mr. Bush would expand the Army enough to pacify Iraq.

"You might be able to squeeze more people out of pockets of the military, but the truth is, there is a limit to what you can do there," said Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative group that favors permanent expansion of the Army.

Mr. Schmitt and other analysts also say Mr. Kerry's proposal to internationalize the forces in Iraq is unrealistic. France and Germany, the countries with the best militaries not already in Iraq, oppose sending forces there and either face legal restrictions on deploying troops overseas or are overextended themselves.

"A French admiral once told me: 'Your generals' problem is our generals' problem: we are stretched too thin,' said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a military policy organization.

But the most striking shortcoming in both plans, experts say, is their lack of allowance for another major conflict - if war erupts on the Korean Peninsula, or tensions with Iran boil over, or the United States suffers a major terrorist attack.

A Pentagon-appointed panel recently concluded that the military would lack the forces to handle its current combat and stabilization operations if new crises emerged. The report, which has not been made public, apparently did not address the issue of a draft. But some policy makers have said it points to the potential need for one.

"We have put ourselves in a position where we don't have the capability to handle another major contingency,'' said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and a West Point graduate.

Experts say that getting Congress to approve a draft would probably be more difficult than implementing one. Draft boards exist, and 18-year-olds must register. All that would be required would be to determine who is eligible.

But there is little political appetite in Washington for a new draft. "The one sure way to lose public support for the war in Iraq is to say we will institute a draft," Mr. Krepinevich said.

History seems to bear him out. The United States has instituted the draft three times - during the Civil War and the two world wars. During the Civil War, when draftees could buy their way out of service, gangs in New York rioted and attacked blacks when the police tried to enforce conscription. Anti-draft protesters went to jail during World War I.

In the draft that was virtually continuous from 1940 to 1973, there were few protests during World War II and only muted complaints during the Korean War, but Vietnam was another matter. President Richard Nixon pushed to end the draft in the early 1970's in the hopes of defusing the unruly antiwar protests that had begun when his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was president.

Yet at other times, politicians have also been willing to use the draft to appease another potent constituency, the families of National Guard and reserve troops, said George Q. Flynn, a retired history professor and the author of three books on the draft. President Johnson, he said, chose to expand the draft rather than use guard and reserve troops for combat in Vietnam, he said.

Mr. Flynn said a similar dynamic may be taking form today, as guard and reserve troops express growing anger about repeated long rotations in Iraq. "One reason you hear talk of a draft today is that there may be a big political price to pay for using these reservists and National Guard," he said.

Professor Flynn is among those who believe a draft would be a good thing. He contends it engenders powerful feelings of citizenship, while spreading military service across a broader cross section of society. Some Democrats, led by Representative Charles Rangel of New York, who has sponsored legislation to require military or other national service from all young adults, also say a draft would prevent a rush into war.

But critics of the draft, including senior advisors to both President Bush and Senator Kerry, say conscription would reduce morale, cost too much and create short-term soldiers with inadequate training.

There is another solution to the overstretched military, some people argue: reducing America's commitments overseas. Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said America should withdraw troops from Iraq, Europe and Korea. But he acknowledges that his is a minority position.

For that reason, people like Sharon Underwood, here in Charleston, expect Army recruiters to keep calling their sons.

Ms. Underwood said the calls come almost weekly. She has persuaded her two sons, ages 18 and 19, not to enlist. But she is convinced a draft is on the way. "I'm just terrified about it," she said. "They just seem to need new troops so desperately."