Dems to revive draft demand
Rep. Rangel and Sen. Hollings see new mood on Iraq

By Alexander Bolton,, October 7, 2003

Key Democrats in the House and Senate will renew calls for the military draft as part of a critical barrage they are preparing to launch against President Bush over the length of troop deployments and the heavy reliance on reservists in Iraq.

Military experts outside Congress say there is a political advantage to be gained by Democrats who want to make the president squirm at a time a growing frustration among military families and other Americans over the occupation.

But they also say that there are legitimate policy grounds for re-instituting the draft, which was phased out after the Vietnam war.

Leading Democratic critics of the structure of troop deployment in the Middle East — proponents of a universal military draft — are Rep. Charles Rangel (N.Y.) and Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), the top Democrats on the House Ways and Means and Senate Commerce Committees, respectively.

Rangel has instructed his staff to conduct an in-depth review of the make-up of National Guard and armed services reserve units.

“My staff is researching now the number of people killed in action and wounded in action and where did they come from,” said Rangel. “It’s a profile of who are the National Guard people and what are their backgrounds and how fragile are their economic backgrounds.

“Are they people who thought they’d be spending a year in the combat area where they are fish in a barrel and there is no game plan at all?,” he asked rhetorically.

Such information could serve as a pillar for future Democratic attacks on the administration’s handling of reconstruction efforts, which have become more frequent and intense since Congress authorized the use of force last fall.

Rangel said many people had joined the National Guard for economic incentives, or to feel patriotic and march in Memorial Day parades, or to respond to floods or other emergencies but not to spend a year in Iraq.

Rangel said he wants to show the public that Americans being killed and wounded in Iraq are not unknown people or solely professional warriors, but ordinary citizens.
Hollings declared that if that Rangel renews a push for the draft, “I’ll join him.”

In January, Rangel and Hollings introduced H.R. 163 in the House and S. 89 in the Senate, respectively. The legislation would re-institute a draft to compulsory military or alternative national service for men and women between the ages of 18 and 26 who are U.S. citizens or residents.

“I think it’s a combination of political move and more positively a wish to restore the concept of giving back to the community or serving the nation,” said Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information.

However, Corbin questioned the timing of renewed discussion of the draft, saying: “I don’t see it as something viable politically. Right now the feeling of not wanting troops in Iraq is as strong as it’s ever been with all the reserve mobilization. There seems to be growing resistance to the operation in Iraq.”

The issue could be more politically potent now, because in the intervening months since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, large numbers of U.S. troops and reservists have been needed in Iraq to quell terrorism and maintain order.

Adding to difficulties for the administration, foreign allies have refused to contribute a meaningful number of soldiers to share the peacekeeping duties, as U.S. strategists anticipated at the start of the war.

As a result, tours of duty for American soldiers have been extended beyond expectations and reservists have spent more time in combat conditions then they or their families had anticipated.

Even top Republicans in Congress have grown critical of the Pentagon’s troop deployments.

Last week, House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) called for a full review of the structure of U.S. armed forces. He expressed concern about the frequent use of the National Guard and Reserves.

“Brave Americans join the Guard and Reserves to make their skills available to our nation during times of crisis or particular need — not because they want to serve in the permanent forces,” he said. However, a spokeswoman for Blunt said he supports an all-volunteer force and would not support a draft.

Blunt’s disgruntlement shows that dissatisfaction with the heavy reliance on reserves is becoming a bipartisan issue that is gaining political traction, which could give Democrats an electoral weapon they are clearly ready to use.

Rangel said Republican lawmakers have privately expressed support for a draft but would not advocate it now because of fear of undermining the president.

“You see the problems they’re having in finding replacements for the troops that are over there,” said Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

“We can’t sustain a one front war for any length of time.,” said Murtha, who supports a draft but is not sure the time is ripe for its reintroduction. “You can make the deployment but you can’t sustain it because we have so many worldwide commitments, so I’m for the draft.

“There’s 128,000 [troops] over there right now. To sustain 128,000 American troops [you have to] have more National Guard and reserve troops than regular.”

He added, “I don’t think we can afford that. I’m talking about the complaints I’m getting right now from all reserves and guards about their lives being so disrupted. I’m getting major complaints from almost every major unit.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he does not think the Democrats’ support for the draft was politically motivated.

“I would acknowledge that there is a big problem with reserve operational tempo,” he said. “I do share the worries that motivate the congressmen about the draft.”

However, O’Hanlon and Corbin questioned the accuracy of Murtha’s estimate that it would require a force of 50 percent reserves to sustain the occupation in Iraq.

Jonathan Kaplan contributed to this report.