Of all the upside-down, misreported issues of 2004, the phoniest is the Kerry camp’s assertion that a re-elected George W. Bush will bring back the draft. The case is much stronger that John Kerry himself would do so.
Military conscription was abolished more than 30 years ago by Richard Nixon (yes, that’s right) after a six-year campaign by Republicans to replace draftees with volunteers attracted to service by decent pay and better living conditions. I know, because my book, “The Wrong Man in Uniform,” in 1967, helped launch a movement for reform that borrowed heavily on the ideas of economist Milton Friedman and was led in Congress by a young Illinoisan named Donald Rumsfeld.
Fighting on the other side of the issue were Democrats led by none other than Ted Kennedy. President Johnson’s administration had resisted draft reform and Kennedy and company wanted to retain conscription and make it more universal. Since only a small share of each age cohort of young men was needed to serve in the armed forces, Republicans sought to enlist that share with positive incentives while the Democrats proposed to draft everybody for “National Service,” a new kind of conscription that could be fulfilled in the military, but also in various government-assigned jobs.
The volunteer military was a political victory by libertarian conservatives against social-engineering liberals, and its success, as nearly all military leaders acknowledge, has been a significant factor in improving the quality and motivation of America’s armed forces in the years following the draft-driven (and protested) Vietnam War.
But liberals have never given up the idea of national service. Funded by fat grants from major foundations, a long parade of studies and schemes to introduce the idea has marched forth in a seemingly endless column from think tanks and academia. In the face of the military’s own desire never again to rely on coerced recruits, such organizations as the Brookings Institution have proposed instead an ever-expanding realm of paid voluntarism in the social service sector.
President Bush, like his father, has supported voluntary service, too, even with government funds, but nothing like the scope and cost envisioned by such liberals as Kennedy, and now John Kerry. Candidate Kerry wants to enlist a half million people in his plan, many doing “service” for indirect pay, such as schooling grants, that taxpaying citizens perform now, or could perform if compensated.
But always lurking in the background for liberals has been the idea of getting “service” out of everybody and the full awareness that that will entail coercion in the form of conscription someday. Democrats are the main backers of comprehensive national service proposals in Congress and two Democrats, Charles Rangel and Jim McDermott, were the sponsors of the bills on the draft that the House voted down recently.
Meanwhile, the military (despite misreporting to the contrary) continues to meet and exceed its recruiting and re-enlistment quotas, even as the total size of the armed forces has been increased somewhat. Only the National Guard has failed, in August this year, to fully meet its re-enlistment quotas, largely, one suspects, because of recent unanticipated extensions of service in Iraq. The latter is a concern, though temporary, but it does not bear on the case for and against a resumption of a draft. Much more serious threats to enlistments and re-enlistments were experienced in the Clinton years when pay scales and health services were allowed to erode.
If anyone doubts what is going on here, he might simply examine who backs Kerry, and he will find that almost all the longtime advocates of national service (including many who wish to resume a draft) are among them. On the other stand nearly all of us who worked to introduce a volunteer military in the first place and have worked ever since to preserve it.
Polls show that military families will vote for Bush over Kerry by ratios of up to 3 to 1. Among other things, they know who wants a competent professional fighting force and who would allow it to degrade to the point that a draft became necessary.
It is demagogic, therefore, for Kerry to claim that it is Bush who would like to bring back the draft, not him. It is even more reprehensible that Kerry’s friends in the media have refused to explain the background on this issue to a generation of voters who are too young not to be gulled by campaign propaganda.
Bruce Chapman, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, is president of the Discovery Institute.