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Approaching the unthinkable

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U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., wants to reinstate the draft. His is an equal-opportunity proposal: “To those who say the poor fight better, I say give the rich a chance.”

It sounds American as apple pie — rich and poor fighting for their country side by side — and it actually happened in wars of the past. But if the young Dick Cheneys and Bill Clintons accomplished nothing else in the Vietnam era, they made avoidance of military service socially acceptable. The authorities came to realize that white middle- and upper-class young men could no longer be counted on to answer the call, and, further, that the youngsters’ refusal to respond would be endorsed by their elders. Defending one’s country has become a chore assigned exclusively to the little people. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently told the story of a Marine recruiter who went to a house where a mother answered the door wearing an American flag T-shirt and declared her support for the troops. Up to a point. “Military service isn’t for our son,” she told the recruiter. “It isn’t for our kind of people.”

Today, national defense is in the hands of a new warrior class that is not only poor but contains disproportionately high percentages of blacks, Latinos and other minorities. These are soldiers unknown not only as individuals but even as types to the upper-class decision-makers in Washington. And this unfamiliarity causes those decision-makers to leap recklessly into war, as they did in Iraq. It also causes others to support war thoughtlessly. If college boys were in danger of being drafted, the fraternity houses of America would ring with cries of “Hell no, we won’t go.”

“I truly believe that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that’s involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility,” Rangel has said. He himself is a black Korean war vet, representing a black and poor congressional district.

People are not rushing to join Rangel’s cause. The draft, not Social Security, is the real Third Rail of American politics.

But the military is not meeting its manpower quotas, and eventually, even lowering standards down to the Timothy McVeigh level is insufficient to satisfy the wartime demand for fresh meat. If the Iraq war and its casualties continue for as long as President Bush seems to project — more or less forever — something will have to give: Either get out of Iraq or get into conscription. Most Americans would prefer the former. There’ll be a lot fewer people wanting to stay the course if one’s own son may be sent off to stay it.


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