Is the draft on the drawing boards?

Is a return to compulsory military service – the “draft” – on the Pentagon drawing boards?

The first weeks of November have been the bloodiest in Iraq since Bush claimed major combat was over, May 1. Occupation chief L. Paul Bremer was rushed to Washington for consultations with Bush, Cheney and other top officials this week, amidst a flurry of statements blaming the Iraqis for the ongoing crisis, and hints that the panicky White House was considering scrapping the Iraqi Governing Council, appointing a compliant Iraqi front-person, and perhaps even replacing Bremer.

American troops are now being killed and wounded daily in escalating bomb, mortar and rocket attacks. A suicide bomb attack on Italy’s military police headquarters in Nasiriya, a Shiite town in southern Iraq, killed at least 15 Italians and 8 Iraqis. It was the deadliest attack on non-U.S. forces since the occupation began, and showed that such attacks were not limited to the so-called “Sunni triangle” near Baghdad, where the U.S. has resumed aerial bombing.

The Bush administration has gotten no new troop commitments from other countries. With a growing number of U.S. troops saying they will not re-enlist, and recruiters reportedly not meeting goals, a curious episode suggests that some Department of Defense officials may be thinking about bringing back the draft.

In early November, a few news reports noted that the DoD’s “Defend America” website was running an announcement recruiting local draft board members. When this reporter called the phone number listed on the website on Nov. 5 to get more information, I was told to call the press office. There, the duty officer said he knew nothing about the posting, and referred me to the Selective Service System’s Public and Congressional Affairs Office. Asked about the web posting – an official-looking notice bearing the Selective Service System seal, Selective Service public affairs specialist Dan Amon told me his office “can’t remember ever having put it on there.” Acknowledging that “it sounds like us,” he carefully repeated, “No one remembers” posting it. When I called back the DoD press office and reported Amon’s response, the duty officer, Ensign Ott, asked me where I had seen the news reports about the notice, and suggested I could ask his boss about it. A short time later, he called me back and told me the site had been taken down. So, if you go to www.defendamerica.mil/articles/sss092203.html, you’ll get “file not found.” But it did exist on Nov. 5. I have a print-out to prove it.

Maybe someone jumped the gun. Talking about reinstituting the draft before Election Day 2004 could be political suicide for Bush. But if he is re-elected, could there be a post-election surprise?

Clearly, the administration has a problem. Robert Dove, an American Friends Service Committee staff member who runs the New England region GI Rights Hotline, says there has been an “obvious increase” in hotline calls. Hotline staff are seeing an increase in AWOLs and UAs – absences without leave from the Army and “unauthorized absences” from the Navy.

Many of these callers are in advanced training, preparing to be shipped out to places like Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s typically when recruits start finding out that things aren’t what they signed up for, Dove told the World in a phone interview.

Many joined for the promise that they will get “up to $50,000” for education, he said. It turns out they have to apply in order to be eligible for the funding, have to put in a certain amount of time and done certain jobs in the service, and have to pass exams. After jumping those hurdles, only a handful get some money, Dove said, and most of those get between $2,000 and $3,000, just enough for a couple years of junior college. And, they have to pay a $1,200 fee, deducted in monthly installments from their military pay.

Ninety-five percent of recruits are high school seniors who sign up in the Delayed Entry Program, according to Dove. With the DEP they agree to report for basic training and active duty at a future date. Many sign up because they see few other options after high school.

But frequently, they change their mind. Sometimes they find a job or education opportunity. And they see the extended, dangerous duty and mounting casualties in Iraq.

When they try to get out of the DEP, some recruiters threaten them with jail or “a black mark next to their Social Security number,” said Dove. Recruiters get points for those who show up for duty. Those points translate into promotions and higher pay for the recruiter, he noted, so some get abusive with youths who try to opt out. Recently, “a young woman was on the phone with me in tears,” he said. A college student, she was due to go into the military and was desperate to find a way out, he said.

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org