President Carter has asked the Congress to provide the necessary funds to revive the dormant military selective service system in the United States. Public opinion polls based on samples taken immediately after the announcement of Jan. 23 showed a substantial majority in favor, except among persons of potential draft age. Those who might have to serve were less enthusiastic than those whose age makes them immune.
Since the announcement of the polls the political caucuses in the state of Maine showed Senator Edward Kennedy, who says Mr. Carter overreacted to the crisis in Afghanistan, and Governor Jerry Brown, who opposes revival of conscription, doing well in communities where students help in getting out the vote.
Clearly, the younger generation has not been persuaded as solidly as their parents and grandparents of either the necessity or the desirability of moving back toward compulsory military service. The chances are that Congress will take a good long second look at the idea before it goes along with Mr. Carter's proposal.
There are powerful arguments for reviving compulsory military service in the United States. The Pentagon argues that volunteering is not providing enough manpower to meet US commitments. Recruiting quotas are not being met. The services are not getting the quality of recruits which they want. Few if any would argue with the proposition that if the US is going to fight a major conventional war it would need many more men than the voluntary system is now providing.
But is there likely to be a major conventional war?
What kind of war, if any, is implicit in the present situation?
The talk of possible war and Mr. Carter's selective service proposals both came from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during last Christmas week. Mr. Carter, understandably, has wished to underline the danger of that invasion and the determination of the United States to defend its oil interests in the Gulf area. A revival of the selective service system would do just that.
But what kind of war might develop in the Gulf area?
If the Soviets marched on from Afghanistan into either Pakistan or Iran or both there would have to be a US military reaction -- assuming that the "Carter Doctrine" means what it says in clear and unambiguous language. But no military leader in his right mind would dream of trying to put a major US Army ashore under the back doorstep of the Soviet Union. That would be accepting battle on a field of the opponent's choosing where he has every advantage of proximity and shorter supply lines.
The most the US could do rationally would be to use its excellent sea and air power to back up whatever local resistance the people of the Gulf area could and would offer to the Soviet invasion. The American role in such a war would be the classic one of the great power which wages a limited war for a limited objective on the far side of the world. Anything other than such a limited war for a limited objective would mean a sudden nuclear war.
You do not need mobilization of mass manpower for a nuclear war. It would all be over before the new recruits could even get to the training camps. Mr. Carter is not thinking about that kind of war. No sane person would.
So what we are talking about is the possibility of using US sea and air power in support of local forces. And that support, if the action is to be kept from escalating into a nuclear war, would have to be severely limited, and waged for limited objectives; in other words what a hundred years ago would have been called a "colonial war." The nearest example was the Crimea war of 1853-1855. A British-French army was put ashore in the Crimea to release Russian pressure on Turkey. But fighting was limited to the Crimea and the British and French kept up ordinary trade with Russia through the Baltic during the war.
Colonial wars have usually been fought with professional soldiers. The two longest-lived empires in history were the Roman and the British. Neither used conscripts in their colonial wars. The Romans gave up compulsory military service after consolidating their hold on what is now Italy. They built and patrolled their later empire with professional volunteers and local recruits. The British never used conscription until World War I.
Compulsory military service leads to political trouble on the home front in any war other than for defense of the homeland itself. The longest-lived empires knew better than to resort to it for colonial wars. US defense of the Gulf would be, in effect, a colonial war.
Congress is likely after Vietnam to be ultra-cautious about anything smacking of possible conscription.