Young Americans

The tragedy of war struck home hard last week with news that Army Spc. Casey Sheehan had been dragged from his Humvee just outside Baghdad and killed in a firefight. A 24-year-old from Vacaville, Sheehan chose to enlist in the all-volunteer Army and paid the highest possible price for that decision. Now we must add his name to the list of more than 600 young Americans who have died in Iraq.

The awful fact of his death is made less harsh, if that is possible, by the fact that he used his own free will to join the military. Worse still would be the deaths of young Americans who didn’t volunteer for duty—who were simply selected by the government, by virtue of age and situation, and forced to pick up a gun and face the consequences.

Rumors of a renewed draft (abolished three decades ago during the final days of the Vietnam War) have circulated through the media since last year, and two bills on Capitol Hill—Senate Bill 89 and House Resolution 163—seek to restart the draft as early as June 2005. But the bills are languishing for lack of support, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has denied that selective service is on the way.

But the stories won’t go away, and maybe that’s because they are based on more than paranoia. The creation of an infrastructure to support a draft does seem to be in motion. The Selective Service System’s Annual Performance Plan for Fiscal Year 2004 commits the agency to be fully operational within 75 days of “an authorized return to conscription.” Last November, the Pentagon solicited volunteers to sit on local draft boards. And the Selective Service System recently admitted that it has considered plans for a targeted or “special skills” draft for those who have computer and language skills.

Add to this the fact that some military analysts, such as those from the Cato Institute, think the draft is inevitable because there are simply not enough soldiers in the pipeline to sustain a long-term military occupation of Iraq. Indeed, U.S. forces are stretched ever more thinly, and Rumsfeld himself just announced that some troops in Iraq must have their stays extended.

Then there’s the matter of recruitment and retention. The Pentagon claims that enlistment rates in the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps have exceeded its admittedly lowered wartime expectations. But a recent Stars and Stripes poll revealed that some 55 percent of the soldiers now serving in Iraq say they do not plan to re-enlist despite being offered financial incentives to do so.

We don’t blame them.

Jump-starting the draft is not the answer (remember Vietnam?). Instead, as Senator Robert Byrd said in his remarks on the Senate floor last week, it’s time “to face the magnitude of mistakes made and lessons learned” since last year’s invasion and occupation. It’s time to find a better, quicker roadmap out of Iraq, however complicated that might be. Otherwise, rumors may turn out to be true, and the appalling deaths of countless more young Americans surely will follow.