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The Nation: The Short-Handed Military; A Wisp of a Draft

THE Navy cannot put full crews aboard its warships. The Air Force has a shortage of pilots. Recruiting soldiers has become so difficult that between now and May, the Army will give $3,000 up front to any reasonably able young man or woman who enlists.

Isn't it time, then, to think about bringing back the draft?

Now, relax, all you draft-eligible young men (and maybe, someday, even young women) out there. It's early yet to start reviving old excuses for the draft board or packing your bags for Canada.

But a quarter century after the last conscripts mustered at boot camp, the idea of reviving the draft has gained new currency among a small group of academics, lawmakers and even military commanders.

They argue that a restoration of the draft -- perhaps as part of some wider program of compulsory national service -- would not only solve the personnel crises facing today's volunteer forces but also provide an antidote to the military's growing detachment from society.

The Army Times called for the draft last month, saying it would make up for recruiting shortfalls and insure that political leaders ''would enter office understanding the military, its strengths and weaknesses, and its culture.''

In a recent book about the Marines, ''Making the Corps'' (Scribner, 1997), Thomas E. Ricks, a Wall Street Journal reporter, argued for conscription to rectify what he regards as an ominous alienation of the military's warrior culture. He and others say it would restore to American society a sense of collective duty and sacrifice lost after the draft ended in 1973. This is the sort of sentiment behind the popularity of ''Saving Private Ryan'' and Tom Brokaw's new book, ''The Greatest Generation.''

''I think it's certainly worth considering,'' Capt. Thomas G. Otterbein, commander of the Navy's newest aircraft carrier, the Harry S. Truman, said when asked about the draft. ''We, as a people, don't seem to have the same national ethos we used to have, where public service, whether it be military or some other aspect of it, was sort of expected.''

It would take an act of Congress to restore the expired Military Selective Service Act, and that is not about to happen, given the political, social and economic forces arrayed against the idea of interrupting the fledgling careers of today's youth at a time of peace and prosperity.

Imagine, too, the debate that would have to take place about the question of women. When there was last a draft, America was a different place. The notion of conscripting women was almost unthinkable (though not entirely, since for a time during World War II, the Army worried that it might have to draft female nurses).

Today, women make up 14 percent of the military, serving in virtually all except the most combat-intensive units. In the attacks on Iraq in December, women flew jets into combat from the deck of the carrier Enterprise. Excluding women from the draft today would raise vexing questions about equality and women's role in society. ''It's one thing to ask people to send their sons to battle,'' one Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''Is anybody going to support sending their daughters?''

FOR this and other reasons, the overwhelming majority of the nation's uniformed leaders oppose the idea of reviving the draft on its face. Most of them are old enough to remember the malcontents that the draft foisted on the Army and, to a lesser extent, the Marine Corps. (The Air Force and Navy always had enough volunteers, many motivated by the desire to avoid being drafted into the Army or Marines.)

The uniformed leaders say today's military is better educated, better trained and better motivated than any conscripted force ever was or could be again.

Rudy De Leon, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, said that nothing short of a national emergency would rally the public support necessary to reinstitute the draft. ''The notion that the country would have a draft absent a critical problem is out of sync with our history,'' he said.

Through most of its history, the United States has depended on volunteers to fight its wars and keep its peace. The nation first drafted soldiers in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War, when it faced the ultimate emergency: survival. It did not do so again until May 1917; 15 months later, the drafted ended before World War I did.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt revived the draft in 1940 -- technically the first peacetime draft, though war was imminent. A year later, only weeks before Pearl Harbor, it survived a Congressional challenge by only a single vote. After a postwar respite, the longest period of compulsory service began in 1948. It lasted 25 years, through tense times of the cold war: Korea, the Berlin airlift, the Cuban missile crisis.

President Nixon, a Republican who campaigned against the draft, let the Selective Service Act expire in 1973 during the waning months of the Vietnam War. It was Vietnam, of course, that killed the draft, but not just because the war was unpopular. The draft was widely viewed as unfair. Those with the means or the connections -- Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle -- avoided conscription. Those who didn't -- blue-collar workers, blacks -- went to the jungles.

Yet while a revival of the draft appears remote today, the question is not as academic as it might seem. By law today, as during the draft, every American male citizen or permanent resident between 18 and 25 is required to register with the Selective Service System. High compliance is insured in part by the fact that proof of draft registration is a prerequisite for Government jobs, job training or student financial aid.

Ninety-one percent of men of draft age -- more than 10 million -- are now a draft card away from military service should the need arise. (Failing to register is a Federal felony punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 fine, though the crime hasn't been prosecuted in years.)

In recent months, some members of Congress have mused publicly about reinstating the draft, including Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam and Representative Floyd D. Spence of South Carolina, the Republican chairman of the House's Armed Services Committee.

And the military's mounting personnel woes -- even at a time of force reductions -- have given the idea new seriousness. The Navy fell short of its recruiting goals last year by nearly 7,000 sailors, and the shortfall is now manifesting itself as shortages of sailors in the fleet. In the first quarter of this fiscal year, the Army fell short by 2,345 recruits, nearly 20 percent below its goal for the period, despite new ads, bonuses and an increase in college aid.

For now, the Pentagon hopes to solve the problem with raises and better retirement benefits. The services are also taking steps, some of them controversial. The Navy plans to recruit more youths who have not finished high school. The Army hopes to target the nation's growing Hispanic population, where many young men and women seem more eager to serve than non-Hispanic whites or blacks.

Adm. Jay L. Johnson, who as Chief of Naval Operations is the Navy's top officer, said that even with recruiting problems, it was ''pretty tough to beat'' the force he has. ''Now, somebody might say, 'Yeah, O.K., Johnson, what if you can't get that force?' '' he said. ''If you can't get that force, then I guess we have to have another discussion.''

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