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The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ

Rangel's Selective Reasoning For A Draft: "If You're Going To Go To The Extreme Of Having A Draft," He Said, "You Think You'd Actually Want All The Training You Can Get, Including Vieques."


January 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ. All rights reserved. 

Republicans should thank Charles Rangel. By calling for the reinstatement of the draft, the New York congressman reminded thecountry that the idea of universal conscription has its proper home in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Until he spoke, many Americans were under the mistaken impression that it was the Republicans who favored the idea of universal conscription. Nothing could be further from the truth, for reasons that Rangel made obvious. "We need to return to the tradition of the citizen soldier - with alternative national service required for those who cannot serve because of physical limitations or reasons of conscience," Rangel wrote in the New York Times.

In other words, we need a huge new federal bureaucracy that will come up with ways to occupy a few years of the life of every young man in America -and every young woman as well now that we're in the era of sexual equality. That's why the draft is a progressive Democrat's dream and a conservative Republican's nightmare.

In Colonial days, the draft was a primarily local phenomenon. In 1777, for example, the New Jersey Assembly passed a law requiring every able-bodied man ages 15 to 50 to show up for militia training with "a good musket" or "a good rifle gun, with all its necessary apparatus, and a sword, cutlass or tomahawk."

The federal government didn't have much of a role in the draft until the Civil War. That draft was indeed a Republican initiative. But in the modern era, it has been progressive Democrats who have embraced the draft. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt had to overcome strong Republican opposition to win passage of conscription. The same was true in the Vietnam era, though many Americans seem confused on the issue ever since and mistakenly believe it was the GOP that backed the draft.

For example, name the peacenik who uttered the following quote:

"The fundamental right of man is the right to life. The use of force against that - as in the draft law - is clearly wrong."

It was none other than Barry Goldwater. He said that in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War. By the way, no American would have been drafted to fight in that war if it had been up to Goldwater. In the 1964 presidential race, Goldwater promised to end the Selective Service System if elected.

Instead, Americans voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate, the guy who defended the Selective Service System but who also promised, "We are not about to send American boys 9,000 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing."

Lyndon Johnson won the election and did just that. The United States was soon sending 18-year-olds 10,000 miles to protect a country whose own 18-year-olds weren't being drafted.

The youth of America didn't like this, but it didn't seem to bother the Democrats. In 1967, Sen. Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Oregon, proposed ending the draft, but the Democrat-controlled Senate endorsed a four-year extension. It wasn't until the early 1970s - when a Republican was president - that congressional Democrats finally turned against the draft and ended it.

It won't be coming back soon if the reaction to Rangel's proposal is any indication. After Vietnam, people became a lot more skeptical about politicians. Rangel, a decorated Korean War veteran, is using this issue to point out that the Republicans planning the war on Iraq did not for the most part serve in combat.

It's a valid point, but Rangel is not above a bit of politicking himself. The congressman who wants to put your son and/or daughter into the military is also willing to shortchange that lad or lass on training for political reasons. In 1999, Rangel was among the first politicians to call for the Navy to immediately cease training on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. This was a wise political move perhaps but not so wise militarily. The bombing range on that island is the only range at which fliers from the Atlantic fleet can practice the sort of skills they will need in Iraq.

Yesterday I called an expert in that field. He's a flier who has flown many missions over the no-fly zones of Iraq. He considers his training over Vieques to have been indispensable. If Rangel had gotten his wish and shut down the range, many fliers now headed for Iraq would have missed out on crucial training, said the flier, whose name I can't use because I reached him outside military channels.

"If you're going to go to the extreme of having a draft," he said, "you think you'd actually want all the training you can get, including Vieques."

That's exactly what you'd think - unless you were a politician courting the ethnic vote. But you can't blame a politician for playing politics.

You'd want to think twice before giving him power over a few million lives, however.

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