College students are often accused of ignoring the news, and Yalies are no exception. But if Congressman Charles B. Rangel gets his way, students — especially able-bodied males aged 18 to 25 — may want to start paying attention.
Rangel, a Democrat from New York, wrote a column in The New York Times last month outlining a modest proposal to reinstate the military draft in order to ensure “shared sacrifice” in the event of a war with Iraq. Rangel, an opponent of a U.S. invasion of Iraq, told CNN he thought the proposal might raise concern about the war. Nearly a month later, as U.N. inspectors prepare their report on Iraq’s weapons programs and the possibility of war with Iraq looms large, the draft is one of many trappings of war that suddenly seems relevant again.
Rangel wrote that he thinks members of Congress would be more cautious about voting for war if they knew their children might be required to serve in an armed conflict. He observed that only one member of “the Congress that voted overwhelmingly to allow the use of force in Iraq” has a child in the enlisted ranks of the military, and only a few more have children who are officers.
One might expect that Yale’s campus — where Rev. William Sloane Coffin was University Chaplain for 10 years before being indicted as part of 1968’s Boston Five for “conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet draft resistance” — would foster a vigorous debate over the draft. But while Yale students have joined the nation in debating the prospect of war, few on campus seem to have considered the part they may have to play in the conflict — whether they want to or not.
A Distant Memory?
Yale Coalition for Peace member Samuel Bernstein ’05 said students today see the draft as a “relic” from their parents’ generation. Men are still required to register with the Selective Service System when they turn 18. But many current students gave it little thought after dropping their draft cards in the mail. John Haynor ’04 was among them.
“I was kind of naive when I got my draft card,” Haynor said. “Maybe I had a conversation about it with a friend that night, for that one fleeting moment it was a little nerve-wracking. But since then I haven’t really given it much thought. I just never thought it would happen to me.”
But Haynor — who said he considers himself “pretty much pro-war” — said he thought Rangel’s proposal might spark discussion about war with Iraq because it makes the issue a personal one.
Many students in our generation have heard their parents’ stories about one of the Vietnam Era’s most infamous television events: the draft lottery, which the Selective Service System used from 1969 to 1972 to establish the order-of-call for the following year. Officials would draw plastic capsules containing birth dates from a large glass jar. While the process may have been low-tech, the stakes were high. Men between 18 and 26 born on the first date drawn — Sept. 14 in the 1969 lottery — received the lottery number 1, men born on the next date the number 2, and so on until all 366 dates had been drawn.
“I still hear stories about my dad sitting by the TV and waiting for his number to be called,” Haynor said. “It hits home for me.”
Democracy and Alternative Service
James E. Maloney ’72 attended Yale during the Vietnam era and worried he would be called up because his draft number was low. Even so, he called the draft “democratic” — not outmoded.
“I would hope, frankly, that it’s not a relic,” Maloney said. “It’s come a long way from the Civil War, where you could buy your way out.”
The response to Rangel’s widely publicized comments have been mixed. Rangel — whose New York City district includes the low-income, minority-dominated neighborhoods of East and Central Harlem and Washington Heights — wrote that he thinks the draft would help counteract the underrepresentation of “the most privileged Americans” in the ranks. But editorial pages have since carried concerns that Rangel had forgotten some of the draft’s flaws.
“He forgets that those with influence and means manage to get deferments or choice assignments. It would still be the poor and minorities shedding their blood,” reader Cynthia Putt wrote in a letter to the Times.
Daniel Kruger ’04 described Rangel’s suggestion as political maneuvering.
“By portraying the Bush administration as dumping burdens on minorities, he’s trying to drum up public opinion and perhaps opposition in Congress against early intervention in Iraq or against going to war,” Kruger said.
Bernstein said he thought problems with the current draft system made Rangel’s proposal a “flawed” tactic for starting discourse about the war. Since the SSS still allows draftees to serve in non-combatant or civilian alternative service positions, those who would potentially serve combat duty would still be disproportionately low-income and members of minorities, Bernstein said.
“If you look at Vietnam, they had a blanket draft, but the ruling class always found exemptions,” Bernstein said. “Bush, Cheney, Lieberman — they were all exempted. They never saw combat but they still can still say they were in the service.”
But these concerns have been raised before, and Congress reformed SSS procedures in 1971 in response to Vietnam-era protests against their unfairness. Prior to that year, draftees could qualify for student deferments as long as they could show they were full-time students. Under the current laws, however, a college student can only have his induction postponed until the end of the current semester, or, if he is a senior, until the end of the school year. Provisions intended to make local draft boards better reflect the “racial and national origin” of registrants in the area they served were also part of the 1971 reforms.
Bennett Clark ’03, who worked for the Department of Defense this summer, said his experience confirmed his ideas about the socioeconomic division in the military.
“Enlisted people were generally minorities, while officers were ‘WASP-y’ like me,” Clark said.
But even if reforms designed to integrate the military were successful, the draft would still entirely exclude over half of the U.S. — and Yale — population: women. The Department of Defense reviewed this policy in 1994 but pronounced it justified because military policy excludes women from front-line combat positions.
But Sally Wagner Partin ’05 said women should be drafted because they benefit from living in the U.S. as much as men do, and could serve in non-combatant positions.
Safety without Numbers
Many, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have questioned whether or not a military draft would be necessary in the event of war with Iraq. Rumsfeld told The Washington Post that troops from Vietnam War conscription added “no advantage, really” to the U.S. military because of the enormous amount of training they required relative to the short time they served.
Steven Shewfelt GRD ’08, who served in the Navy after going through a Reserve Officer Training Corps program during college, wondered whether the military needs to increase its size.
“I don’t have impression that the U.S. military’s biggest concern is numbers,” Shewfelt said.
Kamal Sidhu ’04 — who is from Singapore, which conscripts male citizens into its military or police forces for 30-month terms — said conscription in Singapore is a practical institution.
“In Singapore, conscription is seen as a duty that every citizen has to do for his country,” Sidhu said. “But as a more basic point, we need it for self-defense.”
A German citizen, Benjamin Wood ’03 served in the German military for 10 months before coming to Yale. Germany requires all male citizens to enter into military, community, or social service. Wood said he thinks conscripting membe
rs of the U.S. Army would actually decrease its efficiency.
“It seems like an efficient army is what the Americans need at this point,” Wood said.
Wood said conscripts in Germany are usually not sent to fight in international theaters because of their lack of training and motivation and also because of “constitutional issues” over whether people can be forced to fight when they are not defending their own country.
Wood said German conscription faces “quite a bit” of opposition. He said the German program is politically feasible in part because the government offers conscripts alternatives to military service. One argument by its proponents is that conscription connects the military to the people and makes it a “more democratic” institution.
Wood wondered about the value of his time in the German military.
“I wouldn’t really call it a positive experience,” Wood said. “I didn’t feel like I was doing something that was particularly useful.”
Then and Now
For Maloney, the draft’s last turbulent incarnation in the Vietnam Era is less a historical curiosity and more a bad memory.
Maloney said Yale students who were drafted reacted in a variety of ways, from burning their draft cards and fleeing the country, to gladly enlisting. Some draft boards, he said, could be talked into letting a draftee go, especially by a powerful family. But he estimated that most either opted to serve in the National Guard or failed to pass their physicals.
Liberal New Haven doctors who often had ties to Yale “weren’t particularly interested in passing people,” Maloney said.
Maloney himself was declared 4-F — ineligible to serve because of a physical defect — when his number came up. He had suffered from severe migraines since childhood. His seven-foot-tall roommate was judged “too tall” to serve, he said.
“New Haven was a wonderful place to have your physical performed,” Maloney said. “Very few people in the city believed in the legitimacy of the conflict, and many saw the U.S.’s military tactics as ‘calculated to fail.'”
Maloney said being declared 4-F was in some ways a let-down, but not when he thought about the possible consequences of going to war.
“On being declared 4-F, I was about as depressed as I ever had been,” Maloney said. “They would probably take dogs before me. But I suppose on the other hand, getting shot — you know, that’s kind of a bad place to be.”
Students today were divided on how they would react to a draft.
Kruger said he would “absolutely” fight if he were drafted today.
“I love America and I have a duty to uphold to the country,” he said. “But I don’t ever foresee that happening.”
Eric Hundman ’05 said he would benefit from the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuality by telling and facing the consequences.
“Honestly, I probably would just tell them and let them deal with it,” Hundman said.
Ronald Benigno ’04 said one of his best friends, a marine, would be among the first to go in the event of a war.
“I can’t say that I would want to see myself go, either,” Benigno said. “I would go and do whatever they asked me to, but I probably wouldn’t support it.”
Bernstein said if he were drafted, his choice would be between burning his draft card and fleeing to Canada or going into the service and helping fight against what he sees as an unjust war from within the ranks.
“One anti-war tactic [during the Vietnam War] was revolt by draftees in ranks,” Bernstein said. “But hopefully, it never comes down to that. That’s why I’m working right now.”