Could the Draft Come Back?

It's one of the Internet's most persistent rumors: The Pentagon and the White House are quietly laying plans to reinstate the military draft--as soon as the 2004 presidential election is over.

The president, the secretary of Defense and any number of senior lawmakers have all insisted that a draft is not necessary--nor in the works. "I don't know anyone in the executive branch of the government who believes that it would be appropriate or necessary to reinstitute the draft," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in an April speech. "There isn't any reason in the world why we can't manage this force better with less stress on it, and it simply requires changing the rules, changing the requirements, changing the regulations in ways that we can manage that force considerably better."

But that hasn't stopped the conspiracy theorists. "Most Americans believe there's no way that a draft can happen, but it doesn't take a lot of vision to see it right around the corner if we pick up one or two more enemies," says Scott Kohlhaas, the state chair of Alaska's Libertarian Party who launched a Web site called in late 2002. And while 63 percent of 18-29 year olds in a NEWSWEEK GENEXT poll conducted late last month think it is unlikely that the draft will be reinstated, a full 36 percent say it's likely a military draft will be reactivated.

But how real is another draft? In the past year, some lawmakers have urged that a draft for military service be reintroduced, most notably New York Rep. Charlie Rangel and South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings, both Democrats, who have sponsored bills to that effect, primarily as a way to protest against war in Iraq. Though both bills (S. 89 and H.R. 163) remain stuck in committee--and Sen. Hollings was unable even to garner any cosponsors for his bill--one widely forwarded e-mail letter claims the administration is "quietly trying to get these bills passed now" so the draft could begin as early as the spring of 2005.

Dan Amon, a spokesman for the Selective Service System, which has about 13.5 million men between the ages of 18 and 25 registered, says he's heard the rumors. But he insists: "That is just not the case." While the agency was asked to look at a special draft for health-care personnel should one be needed, he says the agency's report on the subject is "gathering dust on the shelf" and that there are no plans of implementing either a targeted or a general draft. "We take our cue from the Department of Defense and from Congress," he says.

The possibility of a reviving the draft, says Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, would only come up should there be a "massive surge requirement" over that demanded by current military operations abroad.

But a series of headlines detailing new military service extensions in Iraq and the deployment of reservists have done little to quell suspicions. This week, the Army announced an expansion of its so-called stop-loss policy that would require soldiers who are being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan to extend their active duty at least until their unit's terms of deployment are over. That means that thousands more troops could be forced to stay in the service months longer than they'd anticipated. In a speech the next day, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry called the extension a "backdoor draft" and said soldiers are being stretched too thin.

Kerry acknowledged that the military's stop-loss methods--which include delaying retirement and preventing enlisted personnel from leaving the service, as well as extending tours abroad--have increased forces by an estimated 30,000 troops. But he vowed that should he become president, he would add 40,000 more troops who "will not be soldiers who've already been on the front lines but new volunteers trained and ready to defend their country."

Hunter says the new defense bill passed by the House this week, would add close to that, about 39,000 more troops. He doesn't see a problem in filling any newly created slots in the military. "You have an all-volunteer military, which is a little more than half the size we had in 1991 during the gulf war," says Hunter. "And last I checked, most of the recruiters are meeting their goals."

But some branches are having a harder time recruiting new troops than others. "The challenges are greater than usual this year," says National Guard spokesman Reginald Saville. The National Guard is down by about 5,000 to 6,000, he says--lower than usual for this time of year, when recruiting typically goes into high gear.

That's in part because members of the National Guard, once nicknamed "weekend warriors" because of their part-time service requirements, are being called to duty in large numbers. The National Guard is supposed to maintain a force of about 350,000 (the Air National Guard has about 107,000 members). About half of the Army's National Guard are now either mobilized or on alert (meaning they've been told there is a strong possibility they will be mobilized). "We have gone from being a strategic reserve force to being an operational force," he says.

Saville says about half the new recruits each year typically come from the Army, but many who are leaving are choosing not to enlist in the Guard now since it is not looked at as being "part-time" anymore. That's made the National Guard more dependent on recruiting graduating high-school students, who have been reluctant to join after reading headlines about the number of Guardsmen being called to duty--and, in some cases, being killed--in Iraq.

Those who would be eligible for a draft today had not been born yet when the country last conscripted men into service 31 years ago. At that time, the United States was embroiled in a war in Vietnam that would claim the lives of more than 58,000 Americans. About 2.59 million people (both volunteers and draftees) served in Vietnam during the war, which lasted from 1964 to 1973, when the draft ended.

About 135,000 troops are now serving in Iraq, with thousands of others stationed from Kosovo to Korea to Kabul. Combined, there are significantly fewer Americans in uniform today than during the Vietnam years, when 9 million were on active duty. About 1.4 million military men and women are on active duty now (more than 2 million, if reservists are added to the tally), according to the Defense Department.