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Richard Cohen

Spread the Threat

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, October 7, 2004; Page A39

I am a child of the draft. I can remember precisely where the draft board was located (up the stairs at the post office) and the name of the clerk (Doris) and how she sent me my draft notice and, a bit later, how she rescinded it. I had made it into the National Guard by a day.

There is nothing remarkable about my story. It's similar to George Bush's and millions of others' -- down to, and including, years spent not attending drills and getting an honorable discharge anyway. No matter how common and prosaic my story is, it nevertheless stays fresh in my mind because there was a war on -- Vietnam -- and it was one I did not support. It was a hollow cause.

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But, like the prospect of one's hanging, it sure focused my mind. I cannot claim that the threat of combat made a newspaper reader of me -- that happened earlier -- but I became obsessed, scouring the papers for any word on the war, what things looked like in Washington and, in particular, what the manpower situation was. I came to hate Hanson W. Baldwin, the military correspondent for the New York Times, who was ceaselessly advocating calling up the National Guard and Army Reserves. I took it personally.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives stomped all over Charlie Rangel's bill to revive the draft, killing it 402 to 2. The bill was brought to a vote by the Republican leadership in an attempt to end rumors that Bush might revive the draft if reelected, so it never got the serious consideration it deserved. If that day ever comes, maybe someone will wonder not what effect a draft would have on the military -- we know something about that -- but on our democracy. It could bring some focus to focus groups.

One argument in favor of a draft is that it would produce an Army more like America itself. While much of the military is considerably blacker than civilian society -- African Americans make up 12.1 percent of the population in general but 24 percent of the Army -- combat deaths are another matter. When last anyone did the numbers, blacks were about 12.4 percent of the dead -- surprisingly, about the same as in Vietnam.

My intrigue with the draft has little to do with ethnic or racial representation in the Army and everything to do with spreading the threat. The only way I can fathom how Bush & Co. are not down to about 10 percent in the polls is that the war has had so little effect on the average American. It's not as if countless young men are facing the possibility, no matter how remote, of being drafted and sent to Iraq. If that were the case, then maybe more people would be wondering just why we went to war in the first place and what combination of incompetence, exaggerations and outright lies produced the present quagmire.

For most Americans, the war is merely something happening on TV. It does not have the immediacy of, say, Vietnam, because it lacks imminence. That's not entirely a bad thing, I concede, since a fully professional military gives a nation a kind of latitude to do what's necessary -- and sometimes it's necessary that people die. What's more, no one wants to return to an Army with unhappy conscripts, some of them more a danger to their colleagues than to the enemy. This is what the Pentagon fears more than anything.

But one reason -- an important reason -- we're in Iraq is that not enough of us had to weigh whether the cause was worth risking our lives or those of our loved ones. This was a war that concerned others -- Iraqis, volunteers. Not us. It encouraged Pentagon theorists and others to think about men and armies as if they were chess pieces. An optional war was launched because, really, we had the option to do so: a tool called a standing professional army. No one much had his routine interrupted.

I do not necessarily favor restoring the draft. I've been through one myself and it's no fun. But I have to wonder about a system that asks so little of us that we can make war for mythical reasons, conduct it ineptly and issue one justification after another -- each with the lifespan of store-bought flowers. It makes me wonder which is worse -- an unnecessary draft or an unnecessary war?

cohenr@washpost.com


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