An Army of the Unwilling

At the end of last month, the U.S. Selective Service System issued a report assuring President George W. Bush that it would be ready to implement a draft within 75 days. While stirring up a storm of speculation, this report may actually be the least compelling harbinger of a draft.

Far more dire is the skyrocketing need for troops amid plummeting supply. More than 300,000 of the 482,000 soldiers in the US army are already deployed abroad, predominantly in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and the former Yugoslavia. The ratio of two soldiers abroad for every one at home is the opposite of what military strategists say is necessary to maintain a long-term deployment.

It would take 100,000 new troops at home to correct this discrepancy, but the government concedes that new troops are not coming in.

All four military services missed their enlistment quotas last year, according to one analysis, and regular military, reserve and National Guard recruitment levels are at a 30-year low.

With a lack of new troops, the Pentagon has relied heavily on rotations to maintain the 150,000-strong force in Iraq. Yet a Pentagon-funded poll in late 2003 found that 49 percent of troops did not plan to re-enlist, and that number is likely to be even higher now.

Without a major influx of new recruits, many observers say the option of relying on Reserves and National Guard troops is not sustainable.

Last September, the 40,000 National Guard troops who make up nearly half of US forces in Iraq were asked to remain on active duty after their tours were done, and most were officially told that their enlistment would extend until 2031. This presidential action, known as "stop loss," is only meant for emergencies or congressionally declared wars, of which Iraq is neither.

The head of the Army Reserves recently wrote a memo saying that over-deployment has crippled his troops’ readiness and that the reserves were "degenerating into a broken force."

Almost desperate, the Pentagon has called up more than 5,500 "Ready Reserves," older men and women whose regular reserve duty has already ended, and many of whom are now grandfathers and grandmothers. The Army also plans to significantly increase the number of recruiters and to launch a new $150 million ad campaign.

Jeffrey Record, a visiting professor at the Air War College, said in a January 2004 report that the US Army is "near the breaking point." And Charles Moskos, creator of the Army’s "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" policy on gay soldiers, and an advisor to four presidents on military affairs, was quoted last July as saying, "We cannot achieve the number of troops we need in Iraq without a draft."

Since Vietnam, those who cried "draft" have been laughed at. But the combination of increasing troop needs, a shortage of new recruits and a hawkish administration that is now casting shadowy glances Iran, Syria, and Korea, has led the US media, from Rolling Stone to Time Magazine, to once again to take up the question of a draft.

The US left is also gearing up to counter a potential draft, and to strike at the occupation where it is most vulnerable – military recruitment.

Last weekend, activists and former military personnel who resisted combat duty came together for a youth and resistance conference in New York City. At the heart of the conference, organized by NYC No Draft No Way, was a plan to support and encourage resisters in the military, and to cut off the information channels and recruitment methods used by recruiters like the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

"Bush and Rumsfeld said absolutely there will not be a draft," said Dustin Langley, a former Navy officer and organizer for the No Draft, No Way campaign.

"This is the man who said that ‘we know where the WMDs are’, ‘I will restore dignity to the White House’, and ‘we will be greeted as liberators in Iraq’."

"All a draft takes is for Congress to sit down and pass legislation," Langley said. "Military recruiters don’t have the right to be on our campuses, to lie to us, and to take our children to an early grave."

Justino Rodriguez, the son of an officer waiting to return to Iraq on his 42nd tour of duty, also spoke. On Mar. 9, Rodriguez was beaten and arrested by police along with two other students from the City College of New York for peacefully protesting the presence of military recruiters at a campus career fair.

Rodriguez said that the career fair more or less consisted of three groups. A line of students wrapped around the corner for jobs offered by the telecom giant Verizon, while the retail chain Walgreens made its case for entry-level positions paying eight dollars an hour. And then there were the military recruiters.

"They prey on the fact we can barely afford to go to college," Rodriguez said. "What they don’t say is it’s so hard to get the GI Bill that less than half do."

Rodriguez and two other students, as well as 20 faculty and staff who challenged the recruiters, were suspended from school. A petition started that day demanding the full reinstatement of staff and students – which has been done – received 1,000 signatures. The students are still fighting the criminal charges.

Langley and others say parents need to be educated about parts of the "No Child Left Behind Act," which allow military recruiters to access information about students including their home address, telephone number, and extracurricular activities.

Most are unaware that they can prevent this information from being released by submitting an Opt-Out Form signed by parents or students to the school administration.

Organizers also want to publicize the option for military resisters to find safe haven in Canada. During the Vietnam War, over 50,000 Americans went to Canada to avoid the draft. Today however, Canadian law does not allow foreigners to apply for immediate "landed immigrant status"; they must apply outside of the country and wait up to two years or more for a decision.

But Gerry Condon, a former Green Beret who refused to fight in Vietnam and who is organizing support for military personnel who have already gone to Canada to avoid fighting in the Iraq war, says that military resisters can avoid the new law by entering Canada as tourists and applying for refugee status.

At the conference, Condon said he was surprised the antiwar movement had not been bolder in asking people in the military to resist.

"It’s illegal," he said, "But so is the war."