Two prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus have voiced support for a nationwide military draft, saying that children of the rich should serve alongside less privileged Americans in the war on terrorism.
Reps. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), both armed services veterans, said this week they would ask the House to consider legislation to reinstitute the draft, perhaps as early as next week, at the start of the 108th Congress. The United States has not drafted troops since 1973.
"If indeed the president believes war is necessary in terms of our national welfare, then he has to believe that sacrifices need to be made, and those sacrifices need to be shared," Rangel said. "We have to kick up a notch the sense of patriotism and the sense of obligation."
Conyers said in a statement that "once the conscription process for service in the military becomes universal and mandatory for all those who meet the criteria . . . it removes the long-held stigma that people of color and persons from low-income backgrounds are disproportionately killed and injured while serving as ground troops on the front line."
Critics of the lawmakers, along with neutral observers, said their motive appeared to be a political attempt to call attention to race and class inequities in the military during the buildup over Iraq, rather than a call for mobilization toward war.
"A member introducing legislation that they don't really support in order to play politics and embarrass the president is disingenuous," said Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), who co-sponsored with Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 2001, which would have mandated basic military training for Americans ages 18 to 22. The bill languished and died in the House Armed Services Committee, but Smith said he and Weldon planned to reintroduce it.
Pentagon officials have said that with the National Guard and reserves to complement active personnel, they have more than enough troops to fight a war against Iraq.
Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor, said the call for a draft by two senior black House members "was a way of bringing home . . . a sensitivity to the stakes that are involved in war."
"We have ample National Guard and reserves for Iraq. I look at it as a political move to call attention to whose ox is gored in a war," Walters said.
The belief that African Americans and other minorities die disproportionately in combat is as old as the Vietnam War, in which black soldiers represented more than 12 percent of the dead, according to a study by Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler, authors of "All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way."
In 1960, before American troops had a large-scale presence in Vietnam, African Americans represented 10 percent of the population; it was not until the 1990 Census, more than a decade after the war ended, that they came to represent about 12 percent of the population. Minorities represent about 37 percent of the military's 1.3 million troops, according to Department of Defense statistics.
Larry Wortzel, a retired Army colonel who is a defense analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said the combat roles of African Americans in the military had decreased dramatically since Vietnam.
"If you take a look at the distribution of minorities by military specialty, you will find that it's not blacks who are going to die in combat, it's whites and Hispanics," Wortzel said. "That's who's in infantry and armor. Blacks are underrepresented in infantry and armor. They're clustered in support services, like ordnance and field supply, medical support, places where you're not in direct combat."
Wortzel said he supported a draft because military service helps to socialize young Americans. But a draft would not help the war on Iraq, he said. "It takes a year before a conscript is combat-ready, and the Iraq war would be over before they could even serve."