Reinstating the draft

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(Note to listeners: In the Morning Edition version of this commentary, there were inaccuracies in the descriptions of Senator Fritz Hollings and Representative Charles Rangel. Hollings is a Democrat from South Carolina, and Rangel is a Democrat from New York.)

(Cheryl Hanna) As the president spoke, I could hear shouting from people in the Burlington streets outside. These weren’t voices of protest, nor were they cheers of support. This was Saint Patrick’s Day and these young people were out celebrating.

As tens of thousands of young men and women were awaiting the call to battle, the ones outside my window were thinking only about their next drink. And that made me think about the recent calls to reinstate the draft. Earlier this year, Representative Charles Rangel and Senator Fritz Hollings introduced the Universal National Service Act. The bill would allow the President to draft men and women, 18-26 years old, into either military or community service for national or homeland security. The only deferment allowed would be for a student to complete high school.

Now, not many in Congress support this bill, so it’s likely to die in committee. Neither Senator Jeffords nor Senator Leahy currently supports a universal draft, and Congressman Sanders, although supportive of efforts by his colleagues to raise consciousness about how easy it is to take a nation to war when none of your loved ones are at risk, isn’t for the bill either. The Bush administration believes that a volunteer military is far more effective and efficient, and according to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, we simply don’t need a draft. Not yet anyway.

But even if the bill won’t pass, there are good reasons at least to debate what affect a draft could have on American democracy. Even though many young people are now involved in the anti-war movement, only 8% of 18-25 year olds voted in the 2000 election, the lowest percentage in history. Most experts say young people don’t think politics directly affects them. A draft would likely make them think again. And what about their families? Congressman Sanders is right in that it’s much harder to support war when your own family could be affected by it.

There’s a big difference along race and class lines between those who’ll fight the war and those who’ll just watch it on TV. Many of us leading relatively privileged lives don’t know a single person with a family member in Iraq. And, there’s only one person in Congress who has a child in the war. True, we couldn’t expect that reinstating the draft would stop the war – it didn’t in Vietnam, but it might motivate us all to be more engaged.

Now, I would hate to see my child or any of my students drafted and sent to war, but mulling over the possibility has reminded me that we all need to be more involved at every level: by voting, by voicing our views on the war – whether in support or dissent, by supporting our troops, and by sharing equally in the costs. That’s the kind of democracy worth fighting for.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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