WASHINGTON -- Now that President Bush has belatedly admitted that the nation needs to increase the size of the Army by at least 30,000 and perhaps as many as 100,000, and is contemplating at least a temporary "surge" of up to 30,000 more troops to Iraq, critics of U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel's proposal to alleviate the Army's personnel problems need to re-evaluate their knee-jerk and ill-conceived opposition to what they refer to as his plan to resume the draft.
The New York Democrat is not advocating the resumption of the draft. Mr. Rangel is proposing a program of national service that would require every American to spend two years serving the country, either in the armed forces or in a non-defense agency such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. The draft that expired in 1973 was Selective Service. Mr. Rangel is not arguing for a draft that selects only those who cannot figure out how to beat the system.
He wants not just to ensure that more of the upper middle class and the wealthy elites bear the burden of this long war. His goal is to give the American people an emotional involvement in this conflict - something that is lacking when only those who volunteer are called upon to sacrifice. President Bush has acknowledged that he could not have sustained his "stay the course" policy in Iraq if we had a draft.
Moreover, supporters of the current all-volunteer system do not understand its purpose. The Army was the only service that had to rely on the draft. When the Selective Service system ended, the Pentagon maintained a small active-duty Army on a volunteer basis, with a reserve component that would serve as a bridge to the resumption of the draft if the nation became involved in an extended ground war. This is why the active Army is smaller than its reserve component and why all males must register with selective service when they turn 18. The volunteer Army was designed for the first Persian Gulf war, not the second.
Finally, the current force has two main problems that its defenders ignore.
First, it is no longer an all-volunteer force. About 50,000 "volunteers" have had their agreed-upon enlistment involuntarily extended for up to two years through "stop loss," which prevents their leaving the service until three months after their units return from Iraq or Afghanistan. Another 11,000 have been brought back on active duty involuntarily years after completing their agreed-upon enlistment because they had time remaining on their military obligation.
Second, by citing recruiting and retention statistics from all four armed services, supporters of the all-volunteer force gloss over the problems of the Army, the service most affected by the war in Iraq. The Navy, the Air Force and the Marines do not have personnel problems. In fact, the Navy and the Air Force are forcing people to leave because their new, high-tech weapons require fewer people, and virtually all of their recruits have high school diplomas and score in the upper half of standardized aptitude tests. And the Navy and the Air Force are not bearing much of the burden of the conflict in Iraq.
Moreover, even in the draft period of 1948 to 1973, these services had an all-volunteer force. The Marine Corps, only one-fifth the size of the Army, has an easier time filling its ranks.
The Army met its manpower goals in 2006 only by increasing its age for new recruits to 42, reducing the enlistment period to as little as 15 months, drastically increasing its bonuses and dropping its educational and aptitude standards to their lowest levels in more than 20 years. Even with all that, it had to grant waivers to nearly one out of five new recruits for criminal, medical and moral reasons, and it cut in half the number it flunked out of basic training. Retention among officers completing their initial obligation was so low that 98 percent of the captains got promoted to major.
To be sure, reinstating the draft might not be a practical solution to today's manpower challenges, but it is not to be dismissed out of hand given the Army's manpower problems and calls for an increase of up to 100,000 troops in the size of the active Army. If the American people had not thought that their sons might have to go to Vietnam, would they have been so insistent that we leave that country?
While most Americans want us to change course in Iraq, they do not have the same emotional involvement as our parents and grandparents did 40 years ago. If nothing else, debating Mr. Rangel's proposal might get them emotionally involved.
Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.