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Rumors fly of military draft

Star Tribune | June 24 2004

Comment: The cosy dismissal that the draft is not happening because the bills have stalled is a red herring. One big terror attack engineered by the government and those bills will be accelerated through Congress quicker than you can say 'Patriot Act'.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Although there hasn't been a draft in more than 30 years, 22-year-old Minneapolis college graduate Nathan Mittelstaedt is worried that he might be forced into military service.

He's not alone.

Despite shaky evidence -- and denials by top officials -- Mittelstaedt and many other young people in Minnesota and across the nation are convinced that a draft is secretly in the works. Through mass e-mails and Internet sites, the word is going out that as early as next June, men and women as old as 34 will be subject to random, mandatory military service.

The rumors have been sparked by debate in Congress and what some say is suspicious behavior by the Selective Service System. The fears have been exacerbated by news reports about troops stretched thin around the globe and the Pentagon's recent "stop-gap" order to extend tours of duty in Iraq.

Officials are finding the rumors difficult to quash. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., called the draft worries "a scare tactic." Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., attributes them to people "who like to stir up fear and angst."

The Selective Service System has received so many calls and e-mails that the agency posted a prominent notice on its Web site denying any draft preparations.

"It's just not going to happen," said Dan Amon, an agency spokesman. "There's no interest whatsoever in Congress."

Amon said the agency began receiving e-mails in November, when a Defense Department Web page advertised openings on the draft board -- a group of 11,000 civilians nationwide who would hear petitions for deferments during a draft.

Although the agency has maintained the board since 1980, Amon said, several watchdog groups took the posting as a sign that it was quietly mobilizing for a draft.

"There's nothing unusual about a call for new board members," Amon said. "We're always looking for volunteers."

Not since 1973

The military ended 25 years of the draft in 1973, in the midst of the highly unpopular war in Vietnam. Draft registration was suspended in 1975, but was resumed in 1980 in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since then, many military officials have said that a draft would weaken the current all-volunteer military by swelling the ranks with people who don't necessarily want to be there.

Although there's widespread agreement that there's no momentum on Capitol Hill to bring back the draft, several members of Congress are openly advocating it. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who has expressed concerns about maintaining troop strength, has spoken in favor of a draft. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has argued that a draft would produce a more demographically balanced force. He introduced a bill last year that would require mandatory service for all draft-age American men and women. Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Web sites and mass e-mails have used the bill introductions to raise the alarm.

The Web postings and e-mails -- often containing identical language -- usually cite the bills and the draft board openings as evidence that a draft is coming.

The warnings contain questionable assertions. For example, they claim that the Selective Service System received an additional $28 million from Congress in fiscal 2004, when there was no funding increase. They also claim that the White House is pushing to get the bills through, when in fact the administration opposes a draft.

Still, the fact that bills exist in the House and Senate was enough to convince Michael LaBrosse, a 57-year-old leadership consultant from Minneapolis, that a draft is coming. After confirming that the bills were real, he said he forwarded the e-mail to more than 100 friends.

"This is about as real a thing as I ever sent out," said LaBrosse. "It makes sense that if there's a bill like that out there under the radar, that there are other people getting ready for it."

The bills, however, have been stuck in committee since last year, and several lawmakers insisted that they will stay there. Kline, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said there is no support or logic behind recalling a draft. "It's an all-volunteer force that is working very, very well," said Kline, a retired Marine colonel.

According to the Pentagon, all branches of military service have met or exceeded recruiting goals for fiscal 2004.

Chris Lisi, spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., who is a member of the Armed Services Committee and a critic of the war in Iraq, also said the bill "has no legs."

Nader's view

President Bush and his presumptive Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, have said they support increasing the size of the armed forces. This has kept others, including independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader, worried about a draft.

Nader warned in a "Message to America's Students" posted on his Web site that "the Pentagon is quietly recruiting new members to fill local draft boards, as the machinery for drafting a new generation of young Americans is being quietly put into place." Nader spokesman Kevin Zeese said the Nader campaign will be doing even more to raise concern about a draft.

The warnings are "totally necessary," Zeese said. "Students should get organized, because these things can happen very quickly."

J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Washington-based Center on Conscience and War, is also working to put the possibility of a draft on the public radar screen. McNeil said she is booked through October with speaking engagements across the country.

"[The draft] is extremely likely," McNeil said. She added that she is committed to spreading the message so that people "aren't caught short after the election."

Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor and director of the 2004 Elections Project at the Humphrey Institute, said an "odd coalition" of liberal Democrats and "defense hawks" is keeping the issue relevant.

"When you see an idea that's around, and takes a beating and keeps ticking, you take notice," Jacobs said. "It's staying on the agenda ... I don't see yet the votes in Congress to pass this, but it's on the agenda."

Mittelstaedt, for one, is unmoved by the denials. To him, the draft is an inevitability if the country continues the global war on terrorism. "If we're going to continue to invade countries ... eventually we're going to run out of people to send," Mittelstaedt said.

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