WASHINGTON — Several observers have recommended that our leaders give serious consideration to reinstating the draft - as a means of affirming the duty of all Americans to serve in time of genuine need. I agree.
How many personnel the military will need in this war against terrorism we have no way of knowing. But the draft process should once again be put in place so that if the war goes on and on, perhaps for years, as the president tells us it will, this reservoir of manpower will be available.
Furthermore, the draft this time could be used to provide draftees to serve with domestic security or with other civilian organizations deemed vital to keeping the strength of the home front.
I went into the draft in World War II, and I'm proud of it. I had just finished law school, passed the bar, and taken over the law office of a former mayor of my hometown who had been called to active duty as a reserve officer when President Roosevelt put the draft into effect. I drew one of the lowest numbers in my county. I donned the uniform of a private in the Army in March of 1941.
We were not yet in the war. Theoretically, I was to serve for just a year. But the war clouds were hovering over us. And as we draftees assembled in the Reception Center at Fort Sheridan, there was little expectation being expressed about getting out early. Instead the talk was that we were in a war that would last for years. And that was before Pearl Harbor.
For a college boy, my immersion into this world of draftees was a cultural shock. I was the oldest in the barracks where I was first assigned and the only one who had gone beyond high school. It so happened that most of the fellows with whom I would sleep, eat, and talk until I was given a more permanent assignment hailed from the steel mill area of Gary, Ind. They were husky and they were tough. I kept quiet a lot.
But they also amused me. They showed a most dexterous speaking skill as they took one four-letter verb and used it - constantly - as a verb, adverb, adjective, and noun. I had not led a sheltered life; I had played ball with the guys in my town who lived on "the other side of the tracks." But this was a new educational experience.
Anyhow, in my year as an enlistee, before going to Officers Candidate School, I mixed with a lot of men who make up America's melting pot - fellows from a variety of ethnic, economic, and geographical backgrounds. It was "hurry up and wait" for whatever we had to do. I didn't like a lot of it. And there were many nights, as you lay in your bunk, that you would wonder whether this might be the best that life would hold for you.
I immediately began benefiting from this draftee experience when I became a second lieutenant. I soon was assigned as an adjutant to a large (2,200 men) squadron in Mississippi where the men were taking schooling to become airplane mechanics in the then Army Air Corps. I soon discovered I had a rapport with enlistees who worked with us that my fellow officers in that squadron didn't have: these men had found out that I had been an enlisted man.
As a newsman, I have so often looked back in gratitude to that dip I had into that world of young draftees. No, I haven't forgotten the pain. The adjustment wasn't easy. But I did adjust. And I've come to treasure that association with men who came from so many different backgrounds.