Drafting for Social Equity?

It seems counterintuitive, but senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are backing a plan that would increase the number of minorities on the front lines of the coming war with Iraq.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D.-N.Y.), with the support of Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D.-Mich.), introduced legislation last week that would institute a military draft in case of a U.S. war with Iraq.

Rangel says his bill is designed "to let everyone have an opportunity to defend the free world against the threats coming to us." Rangel’s stated intent is disingenuous, as the military already provides opportunities for all who are physically and mentally qualified, and the military currently meets recruiting goals.

If Rangel truly believes that a draft will more equitably distribute front line duty among race and class, he is sorely mistaken. For an example to the contrary he should look no further than the draft that ended with the Vietnam War. In the Vietnam conflict, black soldiers died at a rate 20% higher than their representation in the general population.

His bill is nothing more than a political anti-war statement, intended to dissuade civilians and those without family in the military from supporting military action in Iraq. Worse, it would have a deleterious effect on the minority community he purports to be protecting: The legislation would merely force a greater pool of minority applicants into the military-and the front lines.

"A renewed draft," Rangel wrote in a New York Times op-ed last week, "will help bring a greater appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war." But the men and women who voluntarily serve have a greater appreciation than any of us. As do those who thoughtfully choose not to serve-including those minorities who have jobs elsewhere, but might be caught up in Rangel’s draft.

Job placement in the military-the selection of a military occupational specialty (MOS)-is based in great part on one’s score on the aptitude test taken by all recruits: the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). High-tech, medical and other non-combat specialties, on average, require a much higher ASVAB score than do many of the front line MOSs.

In a volunteer military, enlistees can pick, with come certainty, the occupational field in which they wish to serve, provided they have the required ASVAB scores. If the recruit’s chosen field is unavailable, he or she has the option not to enlist. And many don’t.

Like many others, minorities in the military often use the service as paid training for careers in the technical and professional fields. Also, the military offers its servicemen college funding, and an opportunity to advance post-military careers. For many minorities, especially those from low-income and high-unemployment areas, the military is a leg up where few other opportunities exist.

Once a draft is instituted, however, minority draftees who don’t have the scores necessary for their chosen field won’t have the choice to bow out. They will be forced to enlist in an MOS group dependent only on the needs of the military, and not of their choosing. And in time of war, the needs of the military will largely mean combat arms.

Similarly, the wealthy, college-bound students that Rangel hopes to bring into the military fold are unlikely to share the burden. Again, if past is prologue, it will be minorities, the poor, the illiterate and the politically unconnected that would bear the brunt of any draft.

Rangel said in a recent interview that, "just because we have a volunteer army that is recruited from the lower-and more moderate-income people in our country, we should not just be so anxious to allow them to go in harm’s way unless America feels more confident that they are in danger," But those are exactly the economic strata from which any draft will pull-further exacerbating Rangel’s complaint, not alleviating it.

Such disparity would likely be even higher with a draft today than in previous drafts, given the racial composition of the combat arms in the modern military. Currently, whites and Latinos represent the majority of front line troops. A draft would dilute the current racial hegemony, placing more minorities in harm’s way. Nowhere would this be more evident than in the special operations and air combat units that have seen so much of the action in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terror.

This is not the first time that politicians were willing to make capricious political statements with the lives of the young men and women in uniform, but it is no less dangerous. A draft should only be born of military necessity. And it should certainly never be employed for political purpose when the lives of young men and women-including those from Congressman Rangel’s district in Harlem-are at stake.