Nearly 2 Decades After Draft Was Eliminated, Students Are Anxious About Its Reinstatement
"My mom wanted me to go out of the country. But I won't do it," says the senior from Wakefield High School here, who admits that the thought of registering with the Selective Service System frightens him. "It's something I've thought of ever since I was a tiny kid."
Three of Mr. Blaylock's draft-age classmates--all with friends or relatives serving in the Gulf--who met with a reporter recently to discuss the possibility of a draft echoed his sentiments: Although they do not relish the thought of going to war, they would fight if they had to.
"It's not that I'm really looking forward to going, but I'd be proud to serve my country," says Moises Villa, 17.
Such comments point out that, as the Gulf war enters its sixth week, students are agonizing over an issue that has lain dormant for nearly 20 years: the military draft.
Despite assurances from President Bush and Pentagon officials that they have no plans to reinstitute the draft, many students remain anxious about the possibility that compulsory military service could be imposed, students and counselors say.
Although all men at age 18 have been required since 1980 to register with the Selective Service System, the war has generated new fears that the system could again gear up to provide the military with draftees.
In response, students have been peppering counselors with calls about conscription, and draft counselors, a common feature on campuses during the Vietnam War, have re-emerged in many places.
Just last week, in fact, Kyo Ladopoulous, a 17-year-old senior at West High School in Madison, Wis., resurrected a Vietnam-era tactic when he organized a "teach-in" on the issue.
Students, he explains, have no idea how registration works, what happens during a draft, who is exempt, and who is chosen.
"Rumors are flying that college students are exempt or that the last males in families are exempt," he says.
Moreover, Mr. Ladopoulous says, students need to know the consequences of not registering and how to obtain conscientious-objector status.
"You can't say to someone, 'Give up your education,"' he says. "There you have to look at broader goals."
More Than a Pell Grant
While the Persian Gulf war has lent urgency to concerns about the draft, students have been aware of the possibility of conscription since 1980, when President Carter, acting in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, required all men, within 30 days of their 18th birthday, to register with the Selective Service System. Women are not required to register. Some 14.5 million men ages 18 to 26 are currently registered, according to the SSS
The 1980 law stipulated that those failing to register faced penalties of up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
In 1982, registration became required before college students could receive federal and, in many cases, state financial aid. Similar requirements were imposed on Job Training Partnership Act participants in 1982 and on people wanting to work for the federal government in 1985.
In some states, men must register before enrolling in a state school or paying in-state tuition.
With the advent of the Gulf war, however, registrants for the first time are beginning to feel that carrying a draft card means more than being able to obtain a Pell Grant.
"I didn't want to" register, says Randy Harrison, a senior at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Tex., who turned 18 on Nov. 28 and proceeded to register. "I think a volunteer army should be a volunteer army."
"I don't think the government should force you to go to war if you don't want to," Mr. Harrison says.
Such concerns have prompted students to seek out information about their options in the event of a draft.
As many as 50 high-school students a week are calling with questions about a draft, compared with no calls six months ago, draft-counseling offices in New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco say. School counselors are also receiving many of the same questions, they say.
"I've had kids ask me, 'What is the draft? What do they do in a draft?' And they ask about the lottery," says Bob Godinez, a counselor at Chaffey High School in Ontario, Calif. "They're rethinking priorities."
Adds Doris Coy, a counselor at Whitehall-Yearling High School in Whitehall, Ohio: "A number of kids have applied to college and they're wondering, if there's a draft, will they have to go? And if they're drafted, will they be able to finish college or will they die?"
No Official Plans
In fact, Selective Service officials say, high-school students are the least likely to be called in the event of a draft. Registrants would be called depending on the results of a lottery of birthdates, they point out. Twenty-year-olds would be the first inductees. And registrants' chances of being called would decrease incrementally if they are between 21 and 26.
In addition, the officials note, high-school and college students could defer their service until they completed the semester in which they were called. But students could not be exempted solely because they were in school, the officials stress.
Nevertheless, both President Bush and Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney have insisted that there are no plans to reinstate the draft. In addition, aides to the House and Senate Armed Services committees say they are not developing legislation that would call for a draft.
Pentagon officials maintain that a draft is unnecessary. Although 20 percent of active U.S. military personnel worldwide are serving in Operation Desert Storm, they say, 5.4 million soldiers--including reservists, active-duty soldiers, and retirees who could be activated--are available for the fight.
"We prefer the all-volunteer Army," says Lieut. Comdr. Edward Lundquist, a Pentagon spokesman. "We're not expecting to go back to the draft."
"There's all kinds of doomsday contingencies, I guess," he adds, "but right now we think that the draft is not the way to go."
But other comments have, in the eyes of students and counselors, left the door open to a reinstatement of the draft. Mr. Cheney, responding to a query about reinstating the draft if the war lasts until this summer, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in December that "obviously, at some point, if you were going to stay for an extended period of time, you're going to want to come back and address anew the question of rotation policy."
And Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia and chairman of the committee, in November said: "We've always known from the very beginning of the volunteer force that, if we got into a large conflict, particularly ground conflict, we were going to have a draft."
In the wake of such comments, draft-counseling organizations across the country are making inroads into high schools to notify students of alternatives to the draft and to counteract military recruiters who they say have easy access to students.
Among the points they are trying to drive home: If the Selective Service mobilizes registrants, draftees have only 10 days before enlistment.
At the Concord Academy in Concord, Mass., for example, a 42-year-old mathematics teacher, Ted Sherman--a self-described "wealthy wasp white male who graduated from college in 1971 and found a way to flunk a physical"--has volunteered to counsel students about the draft.
And in Marin County, Calif., a group called Parents for Peace has begun collecting information about the Selective Service System and the draft to provide to draft-age students and their parents.
"I'm just absolutely frantic about giving up this child to be cannon fodder," says Linda Crossman, an organizer for the group. "Most of us don't want our kids to do this, and if they do, we want them to do so with understanding."
At Wakefield High, meanwhile, students confidently predict that the war will be over soon and that the discussion about the draft will be moot.
But if it comes, says Derrick Clark, 17, students should be exempt.
"I don't think college students should be in the draft, because they're going to be the leaders of your country," he says.
George Smaragdis, 18, disagrees.
"I don't care if you're Rockefeller's son or a garbage man's son," he says. "It doesn't matter how smart you are. A life is a life."
But Mr. Smaragdis asserts that, even if the war gets drawn out over a period of months, conscripting registrants for a ground war would be political suicide for President Bush.
"I think the Democrats might win a Presidential election" if the draft comes back, he says.
Vol. 10, Issue 23, Page 6