PARIS -- The question of reviving military conscription in the United States made a fleeting reappearance in the American national debate recently, with thus far curiously little reaction.
Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, named in June as President Bush's "war czar," gave his first interview Aug. 10, to National Public Radio, subsequently re-broadcast on international television. But his remarks on the draft seem to have vanished into the void of news Washington does not want to hear.
Questioned about manpower constraints in the two wars he oversees, General Lute said that future manpower demands, in given circumstances, might make it necessary to resort again to the draft, last used in the Vietnam War and ended by Richard Nixon in 1973: "I think that it makes sense, certainly, to consider [conscription]." In the television report, a correspondent speculated that this might have been a Pentagon trial balloon.
So far as the public debate to this point is concerned, General Lute's remarks would seem to have been treated as misspoken or even unspoken - as if politicians and the press feared making any comment. Rep. Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, called some time ago for reinstating the draft (as a way to end the war), but he remains a man alone.
Obviously, the draft is potentially political dynamite, for the administration and for the Democrats as well. What politician wants to be questioned by voters about reinstating the draft? Any presidential candidate who spoke honestly would likely be instantly blown away.
The general's comment seems lethally impolitic in today's Washington, but it was the truth, and possibly it was a deliberate inauguration of a discussion that has to take place soon. Everyone knows that the Army and Marine Corps are tightly stretched, with some units on at least their fourth combat rotation to Iraq or Afghanistan - a pace unknown in Vietnam, where GIs did a year and that was that. Today, soldiers (and their families) are cracking under the strain, as General Lute indicated.
This can't go on, but what are the alternatives? The administration promises to enlarge the Army and Marines, as do the leading Democratic presidential candidates. Fine. But what if the pool of volunteers is drying up?
The Army and now the Marines are missing their monthly recruiting quotas. The Army has lowered its educational expectations and widened its age standards, and is taking other recruits it would not have signed up in the past. It is offering a $20,000 enlistment bonus to young people ready to report for training immediately.
Iraq is destroying the all-volunteer Army proudly created after the disaster of Vietnam. The Army's leadership had convinced itself that failure in Vietnam was not the fault of Army leadership or due to the political and military character of the war itself; theirs was a "can do" Army supposed to win all its wars.
But the Vietnamese enemy obstinately resisted Army leaders' conventional warfare approach, their technocratic vision and methods, and the best and brightest efforts of the U.S. government and military.
The military leadership convinced itself that political and popular anti-war forces at home, plus a hostile media, had caused a craven Congress to betray them. The Army set out to create an entirely professional force that could fight its own high-tech war without conscripts; ignore or control the access of the media; and follow presidential orders with indifference to public opinion. This is the Army that has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The plan hasn't worked. If public opinion does not support a war, not only do people vote against the politicians in office, but the all-volunteer Army loses its volunteers.
The Army now understands this, or it wouldn't talk about the draft. The politicians don't admit it. The Democrats who say they are against the war, but also say that the United States must stay on in the Middle East with a bigger Army, and the Republicans who share the administration's flagging belief in victory in Iraq, have yet to grasp that their electoral platforms can't be carried out without military conscription.
How can they promise to enlarge the Army to perpetuate the Middle East mission without resort to the draft?
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist. His Web site is www.williampfaff.com.