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A Draft in the Forecast?

by DAVE LINDORFF

 

With winter is approaching, it appears the White House may start feeling a bit drafty. It’s not a matter of poor insulation, but rather the result of mounting evidence that the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld war plan in Iraq is not going well, and there may well need to be more U.S. troops sent to Iraq.

The shoot-down of a Chinook helicopter earlier this week, causing the death of 15 soldiers and the wounding of another 21, is a good example of the problem. It turns out this military disaster was, in large part, the direct result of a shortage of troops on the ground. With the military’s 134,000 troops in Iraq spread so thin, there was nobody available to secure the area around the helicopter landing zone in what is acknowledged to be a high-risk area. Because helicopters are particularly vulnerable to attack during their slow landings and ascents, it is standard procedure to secure the perimeter of landing areas, but in this instance, the military had to abandon standard practice and take a chance. There were no soldiers available to protect the area.

A New York Times column following the shoulder-fired missile attack notes, correctly, that because of the high numbers of personnel required for support, maintenance and high-tech “back-office” functions in Rumsfeld’s “lean and mean” military, actually only some 56,000 of the 134,000 U.S. troops in country are available to carry guns. Since these guys need to eat and sleep, at best there are then only 28,000 U.S. troops available to patrol all of Iraq, a hostile country the size of California, at any given time.

There were hopes at the White House and in the Pentagon that Turkey would ride to the rescue with an influx of armed troops, but, like India and Pakistan before it, Turkey has thought better of this incredibly bad idea, and now says it will not participate in the U.S. war and occupation. That announcement assures that the U.S. will at a minimum have to call up more reservists and National Guard soldiers for Iraq duty during this election year.

But besides the political problems of calling up more weekend soldiers for active duty, the reality is that there simply are not enough Americans in uniform to handle a bigger war in Iraq.

It should come as no surprise then, even as the president and his advisers continue to claim that everything is going well and according to plan, that saner heads at the Pentagon are taking steps to prepare for return to the draft.

As I reported on Monday in Salon magazine, using a Defense Department news website called DefendAmerica that provides Pentagon reports about the so-called “War on Terrorism” to “military communities,” the government put out a call for volunteers to help fill the hundreds of vacancies in over 2000 local draft boards and draft appeals boards. Current draft board members also report that last summer, they were urged to go out and recommend people to fill those vacancies, which currently run at about 16 percent nationwide.

The goal, according to a Selective Service spokesman, is to have the draft machinery ready to go “at the click of a finger.”

Of course, the time between that “click” and the delivery of the first cannon fodder to Army boot camps for training would not be such a smooth or quick process. First, Congress would have to pass a bill authorizing a draft. Then it would have to be signed by the president. At that point, the Selective Service law says the Selective Service System has 193 days to deliver the first draftees to the tender mercies of the military.

A draft would be a political disaster for the president, so most military experts say it is unlikely that a return to conscription would occur before the November 2004 presidential election, but if the guerrilla war in Iraq continues to get worse, the day after that election, the president could well be forced to decide on either a phased withdrawal or escalation–and a national call-up. Faced with the same choices in Southeast Asia, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both chose escalation over withdrawal. What Bush or a Democratic successor would do (other than Dennis Kucinich or Al Sharpton) faced with that choice is anybody’s guess.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and the retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC) have companion draft authorization bills in the House and Senate. Rangle, for his part argues that a universal draft based upon a lottery would be fairer than the present system, which he calls an “economic draft,” which forces low income people without job prospects into military service. So far their bills have languished for lack of Republican support, but as the rosy assumptions of the war advocates in the Bush administration continue to be disproven, Republican hawks in Congress and the White House could well begin pushing for more troops to “do the job right.”

According to Charles Peña, director of defense studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, the closest model to the current Iraq occupation is Northern Ireland. There, he says, British “pacification” efforts required a force ratio of 10 soldiers to every 1000 citizens, and at the height of the Northern Ireland conflict, a ratio of 20 soldiers to every 1000 people. “If you transfer that to Iraq, it would mean you’d need at least 240,000 troops and maybe as many as 480,000,, says Peña. The U.S. military, with a total of 1.4 million in uniform, would have to strip every fighting unit domestically and around the globe to come up with such numbers–an impossible move that would leave the U.S. and many of its overseas strategic interests, completely unguarded.

Recall that during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. had a military about twice as large as today, fielding a force of 500,000 soldiers required a major conscription program.

Clearly, if the war keeps getting worse, there is a draft in the forecast.

DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html

 

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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