'Back-Door Draft' Raises Questions

The sunrise silhouettes a soldier of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division (Task Force Ironhorse) while he guards the military base in Tikrit, Iraq , Monday, Dec. 8, 2003.
Since March of last year, Brett Donald's oldest son, Brent, has been serving in Iraq with the Army's First Armored Division. As the driver of a Bradley fighting vehicle, Brent has put in 16 months in the combat zone, making countless raids in and around Baghdad.

Three times now, Brent has been promised he's coming home. And each time, he's been called back into combat

Back when his son joined the Army, Brett Donald was happy he'd be earning money to pay for college and proud of his Brent's choice. But now, it doesn't seem like such a good deal.

"The tricky thing is," says the father, "once you sign the dotted line, there's not a whole lot of say that you have."

The problem is, the Army says it doesn't have a choice either, reports CBS News Correspondent Russ Mitchell for CBS News Sunday Morning.

Iraq dominates the headlines, but the U.S. has other vast military commitments. With permanent bases in 18 foreign countries and troop commitments in more than 100 nations, the sun never sets on America's armed forces.

Today, more than a year after major combat operations were declared "over," there are still 138,000 U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq, far more than anticipated, with the possibility of more to come.

So how is the Pentagon keeping up with demand?

One way has been to rely heavily on the National Guard and reservists, many of whom are now entering their third year of active duty.

Another has been to shift troops from one hot spot to another, including the Korean Peninsula, where despite ongoing nuclear tensions, U.S. soldiers are being shipped out to fight in Iraq.

And the Pentagon is handing out so-called "stop-loss" orders -- literally stopping the loss of troops by preventing volunteer soldiers from leaving the service, even after they've fulfilled their obligations.

"Stop-loss" is what's keeping Brent Donald over in Iraq, and it has become an election-year issue.

In a speech June 3, 2004, in Independence, Mo., Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry said, "The administration's answer has been to put Band-Aids on the problem. They have effectively issued a stop-loss policy as a back-door draft."

While he may be trying to score political points by calling the policy a "draft," it raises a question you can expect to hear more of: Is it time to re-think the all-volunteer military? Is it time to bring back the draft?

"The U.S. military is operating at about as high a tempo as it can," says defense analyst Frank Gaffney, who was a Pentagon arms expert in the Reagan administration. "In short, you may need to move rather more directly and swiftly towards a draft than most of us are prepared to contemplate right now."

He says a draft may be the only way the U.S. can tackle the war on terror.

Explains Gaffney, "The sheer magnitude of that problem on literally a global scale, I think, will overwhelm the current capacities of our military. Indeed, they're, by many accounts, pretty much at the breaking point as things stand right now."

Michael O'Hanlon, who analyzes military readiness for the Brookings Institution, says, political rhetoric or not, candidate Kerry is on to something.

"We are essentially imposing a mini-draft, or a draft by any other name, on people in the military who had no reason to think they would have to stay in many cases and are being told they must stay," O'Hanlon explains.

Would Americans support an actual return to the draft?

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed 70 percent of respondents opposed bringing it back.

According to University of Maryland sociologist David Segal, that attitude is nothing new.

Says he, "I think Americans have been willing to serve, to volunteer, when they felt that national security was threatened. We have been much less comfortable with involuntary servitude.

Since the Revolutionary War, when George Washington's request for a draft was turned down by the colonists, to the Civil War, when $300 could literally buy your way out of service, Segal says the draft has been viewed as, at best, a necessary evil.

"We had our first really large draft during the Civil War," he says, "and we had draft riots. During the first World War, we probably had something on the order of 300,000 draft resistors."

In World War II, a full two-thirds of those who served were drafted. When the war ended, many expected the draft to do the same. But the Cold War kept it going, all the way into Vietnam. By the late '60s, the draft had become a prime target of anti-war protests, and in the minds of some, the draft's unpopularity helped speed the end of the war.

"Maybe if we had the draft, a lot of people would say, 'We shouldn't be in Iraq in the first place,'" says New York Congressman Charles Rangel, himself a veteran of the Korean War. He has proposed a new draft that would take in everyone, male and female, with practically no exceptions. The result, he says, would end the military's reliance on those who join out of financial necessity, and spread the burden of service across all of society.

"It shouldn't be restricted to those people who have limited economic opportunity," he says. "It should be everybody."

The draft has some powerful opponents, most prominently U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who last April told a gathering of newspaper editors: "I don't know anyone in the executive branch of the government who believes it would be appropriate or necessary to reinstitute the draft."

According to defense analyst Frank Gaffney, "The civilian leadership of the Pentagon and, for that matter, the White House, does not want, especially in an election year, to contemplate a draft. I think most people in Congress don't want to think about a draft, and let's face it, I think most Americans would just as soon not have to think about a draft, either."

But how long can we put off the question? It's only a matter of time before tens of thousands of soldiers will return from Iraq, their obligations finally complete.

Who will take their place? And, considering Iraq's uncertain future, how many will make the choice to re-enlist?

Brett Donald says he knows what his son will do: "He's made it very clear he does not wanna go back. He said it would take a force greater than God Himself to get him back to go there."

It's hard to imagine the draft would be an easy sell to the public. But there may come a point when we may have to weigh its costs against the costs of coming up short on our commitments in Iraq, and around the world.