In a taking-the-temperature-of-Washington sort of way, this is unquestionably true. The president, his cabinet, the Pentagon brass, and leading members of Congress remain adamantly opposed to conscription. Though a handful of lawmakers have signed on to Rangel’s bill, established opinion has written off the measure as noble-but doomed. A headline from a Buffalo News editorial summed up the mood: “Even if Conscription Stands No Chance, the Idea Poses Food for Thought.”

But if the chance of universal service was measured by what the American people actually think, a different picture might emerge. In late January, a Newsweek poll found that 14 percent of Americans favored and 38 percent would consider reinstating the draft; only 45 percent would refuse to consider the idea at all. As it happens, that poll did not describe the kind of draft that Rep. Rangel has proposed, one in which young people would be able to choose either military or civilian service. The only poll I know to pose that question was conducted in November 2001 by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and found that 60 percent of Americans favored a draft that offered a choice between military or civilian service.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of these poll numbers. Among other things, they don’t reveal whether those who oppose the draft are more intense in their opinions (as one might expect they would be) than those who favor it. Nevertheless, the polls do suggest that a majority of Americans are at least open to the idea of some sort of draft–more than supported the president’s tax-cut-heavy economic plan in early February (46 percent), and more than supported a U.S. ground invasion “soon” (37 percent) rather than giving U.N. inspectors “more time.” Yet the same Beltway observers who write off the draft as a political nonstarter think that some version of Bush’s economic plan will probably pass and expect U.S. forces to march on Baghdad within weeks, not months.

They might be right about universal service. Then again, they have often been wrong. Most pundits in the mid-1980s dismissed the idea that the loophole-ridden tax code could be simplified, because doing so would mean gouging just about every Washington special interest. In 1986, Congress passed and President Reagan signed a bill simplifying the tax code. A few years ago, Beltway prognosticators insisted that soft money would never be banned because incumbents in both parties benefited from it. Last spring Congress passed and President Bush signed a bill banning soft money. Both measures faced serious obstacles while enjoying broad, if not very deep, public support. They became law only because of the intense and relentless efforts of a handful of smart politicians–Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan on tax reform, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) on campaign finance reform.

Almost every argument against the draft boils down to the belief that we don’t really need one to defend ourselves. According to this line of reasoning, the all-volunteer force is fully up to the task; and in any event, the public simply won’t support conscription if they don’t feel an immediate, obvious need. One often hears this from hawks who argue that we should invade Iraq, if only for precautionary reasons. Nevertheless, history belies the notion that a draft can only be passed when the need is overwhelmingly apparent. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act, which created the World War II draft, in the summer of 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor.

For the next two decades, the draft remained a successful and relatively uncontroversial fixture of American life. Millions of young men, from farmhands to Harvard students, put in their two years of service. Some enjoyed the experience; others hated it. All came away with a better sense of their fellow Americans. Most importantly, the military had the manpower it needed to prosecute World War II, the Korean War, and the early Cold War.

In the 1960s, three factors came together to undermine the effectiveness and popularity of the draft. First, the military’s manpower needs lessened to the point that the Selective Service began instituting a draft lottery and offering an array of deferments, including for college. Second, as the Vietnam War turned ugly, more and more sons of the nation’s elite availed themselves of such deferments to avoid fighting in what they saw as a pointless and unjust conflict. Third, a group of libertarian economists, led by Milton Friedman, began applying free-market principles to various aspects of government, including military manpower. They concluded that the policy of conscription amounted to a hidden “draft tax” on those chosen to serve. A fairer and more effective military could be had, they argued, if the government simply paid competitive wages to attract those interested in serving. President Richard Nixon, eager to defuse the anti-war movement, seized on the economists’ ideas, and in 1973 created the all-volunteer military.

For the first decade, this force was a disaster; the quality of recruits and retention rates plummeted. Over time, however, as Congress beefed up military pay and benefits and the Pentagon got better at recruiting and managing volunteers, the quality of the force rose dramatically. By the 1990s, the average enlisted man or woman had substantially higher test scores and more years in uniform than in 1973, when the draft ended (though not necessarily higher scores than during the 1950s, when many more college-grade men were drafted). Greater aptitude and experience proved a boon to the new high-tech military. Studies began to show that smarter recruits were easier to train and did a more effective job manning everything from Patriot missiles to complex communication systems. And every soldier who reenlisted was one less soldier who had to be recruited and trained. The amazing success and low casualty rates of recent military engagements, from the Gulf War to Bosnia to Kosovo to Afghanistan, convinced most Pentagon leaders that the all-volunteer force was a blessing, and that any return to conscription would be militarily disastrous.

In the meantime, however, fundamental flaws in the all-volunteer force began to show. In the late 1990s, the military, especially the Army, started having serious trouble meeting recruitment targets without lowering standards. The percentage of enlistees deemed high quality dropped from 74.4 percent in 1992 to 59.1 percent in 1999. Retention rates also fell. More importantly, the increasing scope and pace of overseas deployments started eroding readiness and wearing out the troops. (See “G.I. Woe.”) Since 9/11, many troops in the highest-demand specialties such as light infantry, military police, and civilian affairs have been spending the majority of every year away from their families, whether in training exercises in California or in tents in the Middle East desert.

Because the active-duty military simply doesn’t have enough of these troops, the burden falls increasingly on reservists, who signed up for part-time duty but have become, in effect, part-time civilians. When not called to duty, these reservists typically work as police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, hospital nurses–precisely the jobs most needed should a terrorist attack strike this country. But for reasons of law and fairness, municipalities are not allowed to fill slots left by deployed reservists. Nor would it be easy to hire capable replacements without bidding up salaries higher than many municipalities can afford. So the more the military is overstretched, the more homeland security erodes. If America invades and occupies Iraq, this overstretch will increase dramatically.

Defenders of the all-volunteer force believe the military can solve these overstretch problems the way it fixed earlier problems: recruit more troops with higher pay and better benefits. Yet with each passing year this is getting harder and harder to achieve. With the higher level of skill needed in today’s high-tech military, recruiters are loath to hire many high school dropouts. But high school graduates increasingly prefer to go on to college rather than the military: 70 percent entered college in 2000 within a year after graduating, up from 57 percent in 1987, a trend that will almost certainly continue.

A 21st-century draft ought to be crafted in a way that would help fix the weaknesses of today’s all-volunteer force without undermining its strengths. Such a draft should provide what the military most needs: smart, college-quality recruits, funneled toward the peacekeeping roles that are an increasingly unavoidable part of war but that put a special strain on the combat-oriented all-volunteer force. It should also help shore up homeland defense and ease the burden on reservists. Finally, a draft to fit the times should strengthen the growing, bipartisan national service movement by providing young people the option of serving their country in a civilian capacity through programs like AmeriCorps.

It’s not hard to imagine how such a draft might be structured. Every year, the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars subsidizing university education, from student loans to research grants. In the words of military sociologist Charles Moskos, “We’ve created a G.I. Bill without the G.I.” Why not pass a law that says that no four-year college or university can accept a student unless and until that student completes a 12-month to two-year term of service? No lotteries, no deferments.

Such a measure would build on existing law; colleges are already required to assure that incoming students have registered with the Selective Service. It would funnel about a million young people a year into service, and would offer them something all Americans today demand: choice. They could choose to fulfill their obligation in the military, in homeland defense (guarding nuclear power plants, for instance), or in an array of national service programs–tutoring disadvantaged children, building low-income homes, or cleaning up after natural disasters. Most would no doubt select the least-risky option available. But others would choose the military, especially if such duty offered a significantly larger G.I.-Bill-type college grant. If only 10 percent chose the military option, the armed services would gain 100,000 fresh recruits a year, with aptitude test scores as high or higher than normal enlistees. And they would be motivated, having chosen the military over other forms of service.

Many young people would surely object to such a draft–if “draft” is the right word for it. But none would have cause to feel that their peers were getting an unfair head start on the career ladder, because all prospective four-year-college students would be in the same boat.

Even a draft such as this, tailored to modern needs, would run into a buzz saw of criticism–from nervous parents, the higher-education lobby, and libertarians of both the left and right who would see it as a form of “slavery.” But with polls already showing significant public support for the idea, would it really be impossible to enact? That depends on whether there are politicians, think tanks, and newspaper editorial boards willing to fight for it. Two years ago, the idea that Iraq would be the primary target in the war on terrorism seemed farfetched. Public support was weak, and the entire national security apparatus, from the Pentagon to the State Department to the intelligence agencies, was against it. Yet a handful of committed neoconservative defense intellectuals in and out of government convinced the president, rightly or wrongly, to back the idea. That president’s party went on to gain seats in the midterm elections. And as of this writing, 125,000 U.S. troops are poised to invade.

A few clever strategists are beginning to see similar possibilities for the draft. “If you challenge the American people, instead of pandering to them, they will be drawn to the cause, even when they don’t agree with every particular,” argues Bruce Reed, president of the DLC and a supporter of universal service.

President Bush, however, has done far more pandering than challenging. His much-trumpeted plan to expand volunteer national service has vanished without a trace (see “What Ever Happened To National Service?“). Instead of calling on young people to serve in uniform, he has given an already overburdened military more and more missions. And instead of paying for the war as his wartime predecessors did, by raising taxes, he has cut taxes and wants to cut them more. The aim may be to shield current voters from the war’s costs. But this is fiscally and militarily irresponsible–and any White House aspirant would be both patriotic and politically shrewd to point that out.

Some conservatives are beginning to understand this vulnerability. At a recent roundtable on universal service sponsored by the nonprofit Grantmaker Forum on Community and National Service, Tod Lindberg, editor of the conservative journal Policy Review (and a draft skeptic), said: “If I were asked to pick a single big issue that I think could galvanize, energize, and return power to the Democratic party, I think national service may well be that issue.” Perhaps, then, the draft is not the political loser that most Beltway observers think it is. It just might be something like the opposite: the sleeper issue of 2004, waiting for someone smart and daring enough to grab it.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.