WASHINGTON — Our two most recent presidents came of draft age during the Vietnam War, but managed to escape the draft. I mention this without animus as one called to service in the citizen's Army during World War II. And because the word "draft" is being heard anew, mainly from people who claim to be dead set against it.
Draft is a word that politicians hardly dare to speak, especially in an election year. When Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York introduced a conscription bill, the House leadership raced to sweep it away, bringing it up for a vote suddenly without hearings, without a debate, without anything. And in the end Mr. Rangel voted against his own bill, having accomplished the stir that he hoped to accomplish - creating an issue where there had been none.
Responding to persistent rumors, President Bush stated, "We will not have a draft so long as I am president of the United States." He has promised to win the antiterrorism war with "an all volunteer Army."
An Annenberg Foundation Survey indicates that most draft-age Americans don't believe him. Actually, the Army isn't quite all-volunteer now. As a result of "stop-loss" orders, National Guard and Reserve enlistees are often held, without their consent, beyond the terms of their enlistment.
There is clearly a problem of a military stretched too thin. According to The New York Times, a panel named by the Pentagon reported that American forces might not be able to handle a new emergency if one arose. Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate, says in the article, "We don't have the capability to handle another major contingency."
Conscription has played an important - if controversial - role in American history. President Lincoln instituted the draft without constitutional authority, and it was widely evaded by those who could buy their way out.
During World War I, antiwar protesters went to jail for resisting military service. The draft that President Franklin Roosevelt instituted in 1940 when the war in Europe had started remained in effect until 1973, when President Nixon abolished conscription in an effort to allay widespread protest against the Vietnam War. A skeleton Selective Service organization and local draft boards still exist. Registration is required for 18-year-olds. And although no one in authority says there is the remotest possibility of a revived draft, a shudder of apprehension runs through many campuses, fueled by late-night talk shows.
The question of a draft was brought up during the town-hall meeting presidential debate in St. Louis on Oct. 8. The way it was put by Daniel Farley was, "Mr. President, since we continue to police the world, how do you intend to maintain a military presence without reinstituting a draft?"
Mr. Bush responded, "Yes, that's a great question.... I hear there's rumors on the Internets [sic] that we're going to have a draft." He proceeded to say, vehemently, "Forget all this talk about a draft. We're not going to have a draft so long as I'm the president."
Senator Kerry chimed in, "I don't support a draft." But he then used the question as a launching platform to quote a number of retired generals on the subject of an overextended military force. "Our Guard and Reserves have been turned into almost active duty," he said. "You've got people doing two and three rotations. You've got stop-loss policies so people can't get out when they are supposed to. You've got a backdoor draft right now."
The net effect of this emphasis on an overextended military is to support speculation that, whatever politicians say now, they will be forced to consider a draft after the election. This fuels nervousness on campuses, on the Internet, and wherever draft-age young people meet. It may be one reason for a recent surge in voter registration.
It has been a long time since we heard, "Hell, no, I won't go."
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.