Bring back the (don't say 'draft')

Thu Jul 1, 6:33 AM ET Add Op/Ed - to My Yahoo!

By Don Campbell

The so-called handover of Iraq (news - web sites)'s government to the Iraqis is being heralded as an important turning point in the war. But it strikes me as little more than a Washington think-tank exercise. We may not be running the country anymore, but we'll be deeply engaged there militarily for many years to come.

From what we've seen, the sacrifices in Iraq will be borne by a tiny fraction of the American people, a point underscored this week when the Pentagon (news - web sites) announced plans to call back to duty 5,600 troops who have served their time but remain in a "ready reserve" status. And that doesn't include the sacrifices that may be necessary elsewhere in the worldwide war on terrorism, or if North Korea (news - web sites) provokes our intervention.

That's why the most important thing we've learned from the Iraq venture is the need to introduce more Americans to the sacrifices of war, starting with a program of compulsory national service.

Too many people seem to view sacrifice in wartime as giving up a few square inches on the rear window of their SUV for a flag decal and a slogan that says "United We Stand." But sacrifice is what has happened to the families of the 3,000 victims of 9/11, the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops who've died in Afghanistan (news - web sites) and Iraq, the full-time military regulars who have served in the Iraq theater and the reservists and Guardsmen who've been called up for extended tours of active duty.

God forbid that the rest of us should be inconvenienced.

We now have the curious spectacle of liberal Democrats pushing for a revival of the draft, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (news - web sites) calling for more combat troops, while Pentagon officials and hawkish Republicans are opposing the draft or expansion of the U.S. force.

In both cases, consider the motives: The liberals are betting that a reinstated draft would institutionalize anti-war sentiment and foment class warfare; conservatives are stinting on personnel costs to protect gold-plated weapons systems being built by their defense-industry campaign contributors.

Vietnam's failed draft

Any discussion of national service inevitably evokes bitter memories of the Vietnam War, when the draft was so filled with loopholes that it became a joke. Some 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam, of whom more than 58,000 were killed. What's forgotten is that the overwhelming majority of those who served and died were volunteers, not draftees.

If chasing people around the jungles of Vietnam was worth that kind of sacrifice, surely we can undertake a broader sacrifice to battle terrorists who attacked us on our own soil.

We could start by taking the word "draft" out of the debate and focusing on the benefits of service to country, which is not exactly a new concept. We've used the Peace Corps to help the disadvantaged in foreign lands and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) to help the disadvantaged at home.

Dozens of countries around the globe have mandatory military service, and a few, most notably Israel, require both women and men to serve. What we need in America is a much broader call to service.

We have boundless human resources. Each year in this country, between 3 million and 4 million teenagers turn 18. If I had my way, they would receive a notice on their 18th birthday informing them of the date, before their 26th birthday, on which they are to report for two or three years of national service. They would then be able to plan their lives accordingly.

A red, white and blue name

Call it the Patriot Corps - Congress likes to attach the "patriot" label to programs that it fears might be unpopular. The details:

Except for those with severe physical or mental disabilities, everyone would be required to serve without deferment or exemption.

Those chosen for the most demanding military duties would be required to serve three years because of training considerations. All others would serve two years.

The decisions on who does what would be based on aptitude tests, the needs of the military and the preferences of the inductees.

Some of the inducted could work as support personnel for homeland security. Some could work on rehabilitating our national parks. Others could join the graffiti police in blighted urban areas.

Those who oppose the draft, and, by extension, national service, usually trot out the argument that volunteers for combat are preferred to conscripts. But with several million national service corps members to choose from, the military could easily identify highly motivated combat candidates.

When all else fails, opponents of compulsory service ask ominously: Would you want to see your daughter drafted?

Let me answer that: I have four daughters, the oldest of whom is a career military officer. I'd be pleased to tell the other three that the privilege of being an American requires that they devote two or three years of their lives to the service of their country.

Don Campbell, a Vietnam-era U.S. Air Force veteran and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors, lives in Atlanta.