A draft that gives a real case of chills
Newsday, October 10, 2004

Will someone close the window, please. I think I'm feeling a draft.

George W. Bush denies it. The Republican Congress tried to vote the rumors away. The nation's top military leaders all swear they like our volunteer Army just fine.

But still, the war in Iraq is far from over, and anxiety over the feared return of a military draft is getting stronger by the week. No one is buying the denials. And the mathematical argument for conscription is getting harder and harder for military analysts to ignore.

So what do you say? Is it time to root around the remainder bin for a scratchy Country Joe and the Fish LP? Well, here's hoping the kids come up with some better songs this time!

Certainly this much is true, despite all the foot-stomping denials: The draft talk isn't being quelled yet, and especially among those whose lives and futures could well hang in the balance.

As Justin Sane of the punk band Anti-Flag told me from Lancaster, Pa., at week's end: "They're saying they'll need more bodies for Iraq. We're saying, 'Those bodies have to come from somewhere.' The reality is, if this war keeps going, there's going to have to be a draft."

The polls say his analysis isn't confined to the pierced-and-tattooed crowd.

Fifty-one percent of 18-to-29-year-olds say they believe that Bush wants to reinstate the draft. That's according to a new poll from the nonpartisan National Annenberg Election Survey. Eight percent say they think John Kerry supports a draft too.

So what are we to take from that?

Kate Kenski, an analyst at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, tries to explain it away like a typical post-draft-age adult. "Young voters are much more misinformed about the presidential candidates' positions on the draft than the population in general," she says.

Maybe so, Ms. Kenski. But how 'bout this possibility? The kids just don't believe what the president says!

Back at the start of the war with Iraq, Harlem congressman Charles Rangel decided to cause a little political mischief for the president - and press an issue he cares deeply about. If Bush was really taking the country to war, Rangel figured, poor kids shouldn't have to do all the fighting. Only a draft, Rangel said, would ensure that rich and middle-class people did some of the sacrificing too.

Rangel wasn't really keen on conscription, of course. But his long-shot bill to resume the draft got a lot of attention.

Then, there is the math, which gives some real policy credence to the draft fears.

Already, the military is straining mightily to keep up with current demands: 135,000 troops in Iraq, 20,000 in Afghanistan, another 230,000 deployed elsewhere around the globe. And how many more will be needed? Paul Bremer, the man who ran post-war Iraq, finally conceded the other day what military planners have been saying all along: The U.S. can't pacify Iraq without more troops there.

And where exactly are they supposed to come from?

When anxious Republican leaders brought the Rangel draft bill up for a sudden vote last week, almost everyone voted no. The measure was rejected 402-2. Even Rangel voted against it.

But that did nothing to quell the anxiety among America's millions of potential draftees.

"I don't think it changes anything at all," said Scott Goodstein, who runs the music-and-politics activist group Punk Voter, which has jumped all over the draft issue.

"Kids are smarter than that," Goodstein said. "They know the answers don't add up. Every night on the news they're being told that 40,000 or 80,000 people will have to go fight in Iraq. No other country is really jumping into this war. We're left in the same scenario. Where are these people gonna come from? We not pulling out. Kerry says we're not. Bush clearly says we're not. Anybody 18 or 20 years old can figure out, 'Hey, this is a reality I need to be scared of.' "

Added Sane, Anti-Flag's ironically named lead singer and lead guitarist who's been traveling swing states as part of the Punk Voter Rock Against Bush Tour: "The young people I talk to are really concerned. This is very real to them. Most of them know someone who has been sent to Iraq. They take it very personally. The degrees of separation are very few here. We can't just sit quietly."

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.