UNITED STATES: Will 'imperial overreach' lead to the draft?

February 16, 2005

"I hear there's rumours on the internets [sic] that we're going to have a draft. We're not going to have a draft, period. The all-volunteer army works... We're not going to have a draft so long as I'm the president", George Bush declared during an October 8 debate with his then rival for the Oval Office, Senator John Kerry. But despite denials by Bush and other figures in his administration, rumours about a plan to reinstitute military conscription in the US have refused to die.

Fears of the draft's resurrection have been stoked by the "imperial overreach" being suffered by the US military because of the large-scale armed resistance it has encountered in its occupation of Iraq, requiring a counterinsurgency effort that was not anticipated by US war planners.

As a result, the "all-volunteer" US military lauded by Bush and his war secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, is increasingly relying on "stop loss" orders, which prevent soldiers retiring or being discharged, in order to maintain troop levels, and reservists to wage its war in Iraq.

The US has 1.4 million active-duty soldiers, according to the January 21 US Socialist Worker, and an additional 865,000 National Guard members and reservists. These troops hold down some 153 bases arond the world

According to a February 1 Reuters report, of the 150,000 US soldiers stationed in Iraq at present, almost 50% are army reservists or National Guard members, rather than regular troops.

As an increasing number of Americans have turned against the Iraq war, the recruitment rates for the US Army and Marine Corps have fallen and a growing number of currently serving soldiers are refusing to re-enlist.

Falling recruitment

On February 1, US ABC News revealed that Marine Corps recruitment had fallen short of the corps' monthly target — for the first time since July 1995. Marine officials were quick to dismiss the shortfall's significance, pointing out that the goal was missed by only 3% and that the corps was still likely to meet its annual recruitment target. However, Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina, pointed out to the February 3 New York Times that "it's most troubling because the Marines tend to attract people who are the most macho, seek the most danger and are attracted by the service most likely to put them into combat".

Major Dave Greismer, of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, told Associated Press that parents were resisting attempts to sign their children up for military service. "Whereas before it may have taken one visit [to families] and they would accept, now it may take a recruiter two, three, four [visits]." AP reported on February 3 that in "some cases parents of 17-year-olds, who are a prime target of recruiters, are insisting that their son or daughter wait until age 18, when recruits no longer need parental approval to join".

The Marine Corps' recruitment shortfall isn't an isolated case. In fiscal years 2003 and 2004, the US Army National Guard's recruitment fell short of its goal by 13%; in the first quarter of fiscal 2005 it met only 80% of its target.

The authority under which the US defence department currently mobilises reserve forces allows only for a cumulative total involuntary mobilisation of 24 months for each reservist during a national emergency. By last June, 30,000 US reservists had been mobilised for 24 months, according to Derek Stewart, a member of the US Congress's Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Testifying before a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives armed services committee on February 2, Stewart said that since Washington's post-9/11 military offensive began some 363,000 members of US military reserve services had been mobilised; as of January 19, some 192,000 were currently mobilised.

The GAO's assessment of the Pentagon's ability to deal with the stress being placed on reserve forces is that the "DOD [Department of Defense] does not have the strategic framework and associated policies necessary to maximize reserve component force availability for a long-term Global War on Terrorism" and that because of the 24-month cap on reservists' mobilisation "DOD could eventually run out of forces".

Bigger army needed

A January 28 letter to Congress by members of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) — the right-wing think-tank that has provided much of the blueprint for the Bush administration foreign policy — called for an increase in the size of the US armed forces to crush any Third World resistance to Washington's aggressive post-9/11 empire building.

While the PNAC founders included current Vice-President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, the January 28 letter is a clear rebuke to the Bush regime's emphasis on a "streamlined", allegedly more flexible, US military that relies more on technological superiority rather than large numbers of group troops to win wars. The experience of the Iraq war has proved that the superior equipment of the US military can't substitute for "boots on the ground" when dealing with an armed resistance backed by a sympathetic population.

The PNAC letter accused the Bush regime of failing to increase US ground forces to "the size needed to meet today's (and tomorrow's) missions and challenges". The signatories advocated a combined increase in the number of active duty troops in the US Army and Marine Corps of "at least 25,000" per year for "the next several years".

The letter's writers cited a December 20 memo by Lieutenant General James Helmy, the commander of the Army Reserve, addressed to the US Army's chief of staff. Helmy's purpose was to inform the Pentagon of "the Army Reserve's inability — under current policies, procedures, and practices governing mobilization, training, and reserve component manpower management — to meet mission requirements associated with Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom [the US military's name for its occupation of Afghanistan] and to reset and regenerate its forces for follow-on and future missions". The PNAC letter claimed that the Bush regime "has been unable to adapt to this new reality".

But even if the White House were to adopt the PNAC's latest prescription and try to increase the size of the regular army, which would relieve some of the strain on reservist-based forces, it remains likely that the US would face great difficulty inducing enough people to sign up voluntarily. As Tim Dickinson put it in a January 27 article for Rolling Stone magazine, "the Marines are now offering as much as [US]$30,000 to anyone who re-enlists. To understand the scope of the crisis, consider this: The United States is pouring nearly as much money into incentives for new recruits — almost $300 million — as it is into international tsunami relief."

So, despite the undoubted political cost such a move would have, and despite the White House's denials, a draft, particularly one aimed at reversing deficiencies in important skills in the US military, remains on the agenda. This is particularly so as long as the process of trying to "Iraqise" the US counterinsurgency war in Iraq — that is, building up reliable puppet military forces — remains an abject failure, with US-recruited Iraqi forces refusing to engage in combat with the Iraqi national liberation fighters.

Rumours of a draft were first sparked by a September 23, 2003, notice on the Pentagon's "Defend America" website calling for volunteers for draft boards — the first attempt since 1981 to revitalise the draft boards. The notice stated: "Local board members are uncompensated volunteers who play an important community role closely connected with our nation's defense. If a military draft becomes necessary, approximately 2000 local and appeal boards throughout America would decide which young men, who submit a claim, receive deferments, postponements or exemptions from military service, based on federal guidelines." After the notice received a limited amount of attention in the corporate media, it was pulled from the website.

Rick Jahnkow, program coordinator for the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, a non-profit organisation, told the July 13, 2004, edition of US parenting magazine Family Circle that in late 2003 Bush's political adviser Karl Rove "polled Republican members of Congress on how they felt about the draft. They said they'd support the president."

Selective draft

While the White House denies that there are any plans to reactivate the draft, an agenda document for a February 13, 2003, meeting between Charles Abell, the principal deputy undersecretary of defence for personnel, and William Carr, the acting deputy undersecretary of defence for military personnel policy, and representatives of the Selective Service System reveals that mechanisms for a possible "skills-based draft" are being devised.

The document, obtained in early 2004 under the Freedom of Information Act by US journalist Eric Rosenberg, argues: "With known shortages of military personnel with certain critical skills, and with the need for the nation to be capable of responding to domestic emergencies as a part of Homeland Security planning, changes should be made in the Selective Service System's registration program and primary mission."

The document notes that Rumsfeld and "Department of Defense manpower officials have stated recently that a draft will not be necessary for any foreseeable crisis. They assume that sufficient fighting capability exists in today's 'all-volunteer' active and reserve Armed Forces for likely contingency, making a conventional draft of untrained manpower somewhat obsolete."

It also notes, however, that Pentagon officials "concede there are critical shortages of military personnel with certain special skills", citing "medical personnel, linguists, computer network engineers" as examples. While a "conventional draft may never be needed", a draft of people "possessing these critical skills may be warranted in a future crisis", it states.

Consequently, an extension of registration for the draft — currently required of all 18- to 25-year-old US male citizens and residents — is recommended, extending to men and women aged 18-34 with "an added focus on identifying individuals with critical skills".

The document provides confirmation of a report run in the October 19 New York Times that the Selective Service System was examining the logistics of a selective "skills draft". The NYT reported that "a contractor hired by the agency described how such a draft might work, how to secure compliance and how to mold public opinion and communicate with health care professionals, whose lives could be disrupted".

As the Bush regime is no doubt aware, the reintroduction of the draft would come at the cost of considerable political unrest within the US population, widening and deepening the discontent that already exists among the ranks of the US military engaged in the war in Iraq.

A May 5-7, 2004, poll conducted by the Horatio Alger Association found that 55% of US students aged 13 to 19 surveyed believed that a draft would be introduced, an increase of 10% on the previous year. Those polled were overwhelmingly opposed to the draft.

The October 20 Washington Post reported that in a pre-presidential election opinion poll it had conducted, 75% of surveyed "likely voters" opposed the reintroduction of conscription; only 20% favoured the reintroduction of the draft. Thirty-six per cent of likely voters considered the reintroduction of military conscription "very" or "fairly" likely if Bush was re-elected (among Kerry supporters some two-thirds thought a draft was fairly likely if Bush remained in the White House).

From Green Left Weekly, February 16, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.