Over 30 years ago that pleasant little salutation was perhaps the last word young American men wanted to hear. It was the Selective Service's way of letting them know they'd just been drafted into the military.
Most of them probably would have preferred a paternity suit.
At that time, America was entangled in a war in Vietnam. A war many - if not most - Americans felt wasn't worth the cost in young lives, in financial resources, and in the damage to the national psyche. A war that our government had a harder and harder time selling to the public as the body counts mounted, for little discernible gain or purpose.
No wonder the draft was about as popular as a Maine beach in January. Eighteen-year-old kids - those who didn't have rich fathers - were being sent off to possibly die for a cause that was nebulous at best. The soldiers who deployed fought hard and served bravely, and many tragically failed to come back. And given the pattern of deceptiveness displayed by our government at the time (a pattern that continues to this day), an increasing chorus of people - many of them veterans - began to ask "What exactly are we accomplishing here?"
As public opposition to the war hardened, the government finally backed down from shipping off young men to Vietnam against their will. The all-volunteer military took over.
Our military was now staffed by Americans who wanted to be there. This was good for morale and good for our military readiness. And our armed forces have been made up of volunteers ever since. They've distinguished themselves marvelously - in the first Gulf War, in Somalia, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and now in Iraq. The government policies that sent them overseas might have been horribly misguided in some cases, but there's no doubt that our troops have done the job asked of them.
Now we're beginning to hear early rumblings that this all-volunteer force might change. Several political figures, notably Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.) have broached the subject of bringing back the draft.
Well, this operation in Iraq hasn't turned out to be quite the cakewalk many people in the Bush administration advertised it would be. Our troops in Iraq have been overextended and kept away from their families far longer than they've bargained for. It doesn't matter how gung-ho a soldier one might be, long-term separation from one's familiar environment exacts an enormous physical and emotional toll. And it doesn't matter what one thinks of the moral propriety of President Bush's actions against Iraq, the young men and women doing the actual work need relief. They need their lives back.
But, is it a good idea to bring back the draft?
Well, maybe. It all depends on how a draft would be implemented.
Historically, most wars are entered into by the privileged members of societies (through their governments), while the poorer classes are conscripted to perform the dirty work on the battlefield.
America has been no exception to this. The Civil War was widely referred to as "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight", as wealthier families often paid proxies to stand in for them when the draft notice arrived (in both the North and South).
More recently, of course, the Vietnam War was rife with the affluent scions of prominent families who pulled every string possible to get out of the draft, even though many "supported" the war. Many of these couch warriors currently occupy high-ranking positions in our present government, including Vice President Dick Cheney and the Commander-In-Chief, George W. Bush himself.
It's easy to send other people's children off to war when you don't have to worry about your own. In that vein, a military draft can serve as a great equalizer - a loophole-free draft that does not provide special exemptions for college students, married people, or politicians' sons. If you're 18 and healthy, you're in the pool. No exceptions. And the same standards should apply within the military - no National Guard champagne units for John Ashcroft's offspring.
That's pretty much what Representative Rangel has in mind. His rationale is that a broad-based draft would force us, as a nation, to more deeply question the motives and goals of our government when it's banging the war drums.
It's hard to believe that the run-up to the Iraq operation would have progressed as swiftly and debate-free as it did if our senators and congressmen (not to mention the media covering them) would have had to risk their own children's lives in the process. When Howard Dean first spoke out against the Iraq war, he was treated like a wild aberration - highlighting the almost complete lack of debate within our legislative body on the issue.
This isn't healthy. Not if we claim to be a free, open democracy. Let's leave the rubber-stamping to the Chinese and the Iranians. Who knows what might have been avoided if we'd had a thorough, honest, factual debate on Iraq before we plunged in?
Of course, no American should be forced to take part in a war he finds morally offensive, so any draft should still contain a provision for conscientious objectors. There are a million ways one can serve his country without donning fatigues. Some might point out that we'd see a rash of CO's with such an outlet - but if we do, then that would simply mean that a majority of Americans don't believe this war is morally grounded, and provide our politicians with a painless way to disengage. (Those who support the war but fake CO status to dodge the draft, of course, are hypocrites of the first order.) I guess we'd quickly find out how "popular" this war really is.
If we wind up with a Vietnam-type deferment process that spares the children of oil executives, then no, that won't work, and would only exacerbate the divisions within the country. But a truly airtight draft that exposes EVERYBODY is more than defensible.
But we, as a nation, should go beyond that. Let's aim for a foreign policy that makes military drafts unnecessary, if not wars.
That's when we'll know freedom, liberty and democracy have triumphed.