NEW YORK — The iconic recruiting poster of Uncle Sam, drawn by James Montgomery Flagg in 1916 and captioned "I Want You for the U.S. Army," has had no greater vitality than in today's terror-besieged world.
American forces are stretched thin around the world. The United States has almost 700,000 soldiers and marines on active duty in South Korea, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, and elsewhere. Few think that is enough, especially when it comes to replenishing the ranks as tours of duty end.
In Iraq, US forces number about 138,000. The ratio of soldiers to civilians in Iraq, 1 to 180, is far below the 1-to-30 ratio that experience has shown is optimum for occupation. In addition, 20,000 of those serving in Iraq have been there for more than a year. Forty percent are reservists or members of state National Guard units, called up out of civilian jobs. The law limits their tours of duty to two years.
Congress wants to add 30,000 soldiers to the volunteer Army, and Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry would like that figure to be 40,000.
The Bush administration has instituted a "stop-loss" program, called by one senior official a finger in the dike, which prevents soldiers from leaving the service for 90 days before or after their unit is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, even if their commitment is scheduled to end. And last week, the Army announced it would begin this month recalling to active duty 5,600 "ready reservists" who had recently finished their tours.
There has even begun to be talk of a military draft. In this election year, both President Bush and Senator Kerry are declaring that they would not reinstate the draft, but there are two bills in Congress that would start forced conscription next June.
It's interesting to note that the machinery for a draft, the Selective Service System, remains in place, used primarily to register 18-year-olds in case of an emergency call-up. Congress recently added $28 million to the Selective Service implementation budget, presumably to reestablish draft boards throughout the country.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, sponsor of one of the draft bills, believes in conscription for reasons that go beyond adding bodies to the ranks. He thinks a draft could remedy what he sees as a disproportionate number of working-class and minority soldiers in the volunteer military. The war on terror, he claims, is like the Civil War: a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.
Still, it's a tough sell.
Memories of Vietnam haven't dimmed - burned draft cards, young men fleeing to Canada, thousands protesting in the streets. In the 1960s, the draft didn't solve the rich man/poor man problem: Of the Vietnam War casualties, 14.1 percent were blacks, although blacks accounted for only 11 percent of the young male population at the time.
But the draft did spur volunteers: Of the 58,226 American casualties in Vietnam, almost 65 percent had enlisted. Many of the volunteers who came forward, and who were therefore allowed to choose their branch of service and their specialty, would never have enlisted but for the draft.
A new draft wouldn't be the same as the old draft. The proposed measures try to take some of the sting out of conscription by requiring all Americans, male and female, between 18 and 26 to serve for two years in either the armed services or "in a civilian capacity that ... promotes the national defense."
No young American wants to be forced to kill or be killed, but the agony of the situation is that there may be no alternative to conscription.
What other mechanism would be as fast and as effective if we are to find the troops necessary to discharge our global responsibilities as the world's only superpower? Suppose the situation in North Korea heats up? Or in five years, China, or even Latin America?
Out of choice or necessity we may need to proceed unilaterally in our national interest without the United Nations or our traditional allies.
As the presidential campaign intensifies, the draft bills languish in committee.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says a draft adds "no value, no advantage" to the war effort, and Kerry derides the Pentagon's "stop-loss" program as a "backdoor draft."
But campaigners on both sides of the aisle may be delivering the old bait-and-switch. Come January, things could change: "I Want You" may mean you have to go.
• James D. Zirin is a lawyer in New York. @ 2004 Los Angeles Times