The latest fear factor being injected into the presidential election equation is a ghost from our past - the military draft.
For the past several weeks, moms of the soccer and security persuasion, as well as the demographic known as The Youth Vote, have been targeted by an e-mail campaign promising reinstitution of the military draft should President George W. Bush be re-elected.
One e-mail that's been circulating and posted on the Internet says, for example, that there's pending legislation in the House and Senate, (HR 163 and S 89) to reinstate mandatory draft for men and women (ages 18-26) starting June 15, 2005.
Portentously, the e-mailer writes: "The Bush administration is quietly trying to get these bills passed now, while the public's attention is on the elections. The Bush administration plans to begin mandatory draft in the spring of 2005, just after the 2004 presidential election."
Those chilling bullets of doom, though untrue, have gained traction with the help of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland. Both recently have told college audiences that another Bush presidency will mean the draft for young Americans.
"America will reinstate the military draft" if Bush is re-elected, Cleland told an audience at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
"I think that George Bush is certainly going to have a draft if he goes into a second term, and any young person who doesn't want to go to Iraq might think twice about voting for him," Dean said in a speech at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
Get the picture? Now that the draft meme is loose in the land and everyone is nearly hysterical, let's all take a deep breath. No draft. It ain't gonna happen for at least two reasons: Americans don't want it, and the military doesn't need it.
Talk of the draft was born - like most bad rumors these days - of a political liaison. Indeed, the two pieces of legislation mentioned in the scary e-mail both were introduced by Democrats almost two years ago (January 2003) as part of a strategy to discourage support for the Iraq war.
The House version was sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and the Senate version by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C. Neither bill has much support in the Congress, which authorizes a draft, nor is that fact expected to change. Not even Rangel is pushing the bill, according to FactCheck.org, a political fact-checking project of the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
Nearly everyone agrees that we need more troops both in Iraq and to meet future challenges, but Rangel's primary arguments for fairness and equality in the military arena are easily refuted. Contrary to some of Rangel's earlier claims, today's military front lines are not filled disproportionately with minorities.
Defense Department figures show that though there are more blacks in the armed services as a whole (22 percent, compared with 13 percent of all 18-to-44-year-old civilians), the difference is because blacks re-enlist at a higher rate than whites. In a report last year, military analysts found that 36 percent of African American soldiers held support and administrative jobs; 27 percent of workers in the medical and dental fields are black.
"These young men and women are high-school graduates with above average aptitude," the report said, "They are not the 'poor and uneducated.'"
The best arguments against a draft are common-sensical: (1) people who don't want to serve don't serve well; (2) a draft by lottery, which is necessary in order to ensure random selection, would cull the dregs as well as the cream of the nation's youth crop, thus reducing quality; and (3) today's military, on average better educated than the U.S. civilian population (96 percent of enlistees have high school diplomas compared with 75 percent of all in their age group), requires well-trained, professional soldiers.
The question isn't whether to draft, but how to encourage quality individuals to volunteer for military service during wartime. The answer should be obvious to any self-respecting capitalist: money. If we want a professional military - and the Department of Defense and the American people seem to - then we should offer professional wages.
I'm betting most Americans gladly would pay a little extra in taxes (read my lips: no more tax cuts) to ensure our military men and women are justly compensated for a job few of us could or would willingly do.