Draft Talk Worries Generation That Hasn’t Seen One

By Erik W. Robelen — November 02, 2004 5 min read

Whitney Misch, a senior at Falls Church High School here, has heard the talk that the United States might reinstitute the military draft.

Although he doesn’t believe that it will happen, the mere prospect of serving in the military gives a shudder to this 17-year-old, who—clad all in black and with spiked, partially dyed hair—looks as if he’d fit better in a punk-rock band than an Army barracks.

“I don’t want to die,” he said last week. “I’d rather just push some papers.”

He added: “I don’t know; I’d probably serve if I got drafted, but it better not come to that. They better have some noncombat positions. … My future’s too important to me.”

Come next fall, Mr. Misch hopes to be studying art at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts stoked already-rampant rumors about a possible post-election draft by suggesting in his presidential-campaign appearances that President Bush would likely bring back conscription in a second term. Mr. Bush said flatly that he would not. Mr. Kerry also said he had no intention of bringing back the draft if elected.

While many outside experts and military officials have said a draft would be unnecessary and ill-advised, recent personnel strains on the U.S. armed forces, especially because of the extended action in Iraq—where more than 130,000 U.S. troops are now stationed—have fueled speculation that conscription could become a reality.

To many of today’s high school students, the draft—which was ended in favor of an all-volunteer force in 1973—isn’t a completely idle curiosity. Though the prospect seems remote, reinstatement of a draft could someday take them from civilian life and even thrust them into a war.

‘Talking Smack’

Six seniors from Falls Church High, a diverse school of nearly 1,500 students in the 164,000-student Fairfax County school district in suburban Washington, sat down Oct. 28 with an Education Week reporter to share their thoughts on the draft issue.

While Mr. Misch doesn’t see a draft happening anytime soon, some of his classmates aren’t so sure.

“Bush says he’s not going to have the draft, but if enough folks keep getting killed, then he has to change his mind,” said 18-year-old Ashley Hector, who has two friends, both women, who are serving in the U.S. military in Iraq. In fact, she said, one of her friends thought she was going to come home, but was informed that her tour of duty was to be extended.

“If you want to fight for your country, if you want to take that chance of life and death, then go right ahead,” said Ms. Hector, a Democrat who plans to be a hair stylist when she graduates next spring. “We’ll support you back at home. But I don’t think [a draft is] called for.”

Diana Bonilla, a 17-year-old who calls herself an independent, said it was hard to trust much of anything politicians had been saying lately.

“I think everybody right now is talking smack about each other,” she said. “You really don’t know who to believe.”

A recent survey suggests many young people believe a draft may well come. About half of 18- to 29-year-olds said they believed Mr. Bush would bring back the draft if he was re-elected, while only 8 percent thought Mr. Kerry would do so if he won the White House, according to a poll conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 3 as part of the National Annenberg Election Survey. The poll had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Selective Service Rules

Although the draft ended more than 30 years ago, all 18-year-old males must register with the Selective Service System, a federal agency created in 1940. Young men who fail to register may be subject to a fine or imprisonment, and also are ineligible for certain state and federal benefits, including federal student aid for college.

The Selective Service System has a program for volunteer registrars in high schools, typically teachers or guidance counselors, who seek to inform students about registering.

However, if a draft were reinstated, federal law dictates that the first group of young men to be called up would be 20-year-olds, followed, if needed, successively by birth year, by those ages 21 to 25, leaving 18- and 19-year-olds last. Men ages 18 to 25 currently are eligible for the draft.

Changes to the federal draft law in the early 1970s limited the reasons to excuse a man from service. The lengthy college deferments available during much of the Vietnam War would be a thing of the past. Under current law, a college student who was drafted could postpone his induction only until the end of the current semester, and a college senior could postpone it only until the end of the academic year.

Seeking to quell growing rumors of a draft, House Republicans recently brought up a bill introduced by Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., that would have mandated two years of military or alternative service for both men and women. It was defeated 402-2 on Oct. 2, with even Rep. Rangel voting against it.

Only one of the six students interviewed at Falls Church High, Mohammed Ahmed, a member of the Junior ROTC program, said he intends to join the volunteer military. He wants to be an infantryman in the U.S. Army, and hopes to sign up upon graduating from high school next spring. But there’s one obstacle.

“[My parents] want me to go to college first,” Mr. Ahmed said. “I’ve been wanting to join the military since I was 8 years old.”

Skepticism About War

He wasn’t too keen on the idea of a draft, but said he could understand that if the situation were dire, it might have to happen.

“If you really need it, what are you going to do?” said Mr. Ahmed, 17, who described himself as a political liberal and said he would vote for Sen. Kerry if he could.

Like the other students, most of whom were self-described Democrats, he was fairly skeptical about the war in Iraq.

“I think … it was unjustified,” said Jay Sheth, a 16-year-old who plans to attend college next year and study either business or medicine. “I don’t think [a draft] would be necessary unless we were in some immediate danger at home.”

Mr. Sheth said he does not believe the situation in Iraq meets that threshold.

Asked if he’d voluntarily join the military, he said: “No, because I guess you watch the news every day, and you see what’s going on over there [in Iraq], and it’s just not attractive. … It’s not a place you want to be.”

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