The burden of war is never equitable.
Thousands of American troops have been killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many thousands more will bring home at least some of that burden. But most Americans experience no direct or even indirect cost of a war soon to last longer than World War II.
Would reinstituting the military draft even things out, spreading the responsibility while influencing politicians to think twice before sending men and women into harm's way?
Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York thinks so. Challenging Iran and North Korea as well as increasing the US force level in Iraq to try to stem the heightened violence there can't be done without a draft, says Mr. Rangel, a Korean War combat vet. He has dusted off his proposal to bring back conscription, which was suspended in 1973.
Rangel's bill is unlikely to go far in Congress, where opposition reflects public opinion. But his proposal does raise important questions about how the armed forces are put together today and how the US military operates.
"I do think we need a draft," says Charles Moskos, military sociologist and professor emeritus at Northwestern University. "Our country is experiencing what I call 'patriotism lite.' Nobody's willing to sacrifice anything. We don't even have gas rationing. Congress votes to go to war, but won't send its own children. We don't have enough troops. We've used reservists and the National Guard in an unprecedented manner."
Then there's the element of economic and social privilege as relates to military service today, says Dr. Moskos. In his 1958 Princeton University class of 750 men, more than 400 served in the military, he says, including many who went on to distinguished careers in business, education, and government. In Princeton's most recent graduating class of about 1,100 men and women, nine entered the military.
"These are not by any means bottom-of-the-barrel soldiers today," says Moskos, who was drafted into the Army after graduation. "But they are working-class and lower-middle-class young men and women."
In congressional testimony last week Army Gen. John Abizaid, top commander of US forces in the Middle East, acknowledged that former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki was right when he said at the beginning of the war that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy Iraq. But General Abizaid also said that increasing troop levels in Iraq now, as Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and others have called for, would put "a tremendous strain" on the military. Most military experts find no legitimate reason to bring back conscription.
"A draft would induct far more people than are needed by the military if it were universal, posing the question of what to do with all the surplus draftees – a million or so," says military analyst John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org. "It would be politically very disruptive if it were a lottery with only 1 in 10 getting called."
Even should there be a draft, it would take many months before new draftees could begin to fill the need in Iraq, says retired Army Col. Dan Smith, senior fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Quaker lobby in Washington.
First, there would be prolonged congressional debate, likely followed by legal challenges over exemptions and the general fairness of the system, says Colonel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. Then it would take more time to develop training programs and produce equipment.
"These are the practical constraints," he adds. "Sociologically, I don't think the country will stand for reinstituting the draft over a threat that is not mortal."
There are philosophical and ethical issues involved as well.
A draft "contradicts the principles of a free society by coercing people to fight for freedom," says Ivan Eland, national security analyst at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. "Soldiers who want to be in the military do a better job than those who don't, and the military services know it."
As with Vietnam, public concern about the possibility of conscription is useful to those who oppose the Iraq war.
"It seems to me the issue is about making it more difficult for policymakers to use the military instrument without full support of the American public," says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner.
Retired US Naval Reserve Capt. John Allen Williams agrees.
"Rangel's bringing it up for political reasons," says Dr. Williams, a professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago. "But you know what? He's right. If we have some mechanism that links the military to civilian society in a way that spreads the burden around when you use the military, it's less likely to be used. On the other hand, once it is used it's more likely to be used in a total way – people are going to want to get it over with."
Military sociologist Moskos's answer is a three-tier system of required public service for all young men and women: uniformed military service, homeland security jobs (guarding borders, ports, nuclear plants, and other sites), or civilian tasks such as teaching in poor neighborhoods and helping the elderly.
No school loans or other education benefits should be awarded unless the recipient serves in one of those three areas for a year or two, says Moskos.
Still, at this point in a drawn-out war with no clear light at the end of the political and military tunnel, a return to the draft seems unlikely.
"It is too late to win popular support for conscription," says Loren Thompson, a national security expert at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "The public has turned against the war. Proposing a draft now will simply hasten the collapse of domestic support for the war effort."