Charles B. Rangel (D-NY), representative of the 15th Congressional District in New York City, recently became chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Shortly after the 110th Congress convened, Rangel introduced HR 393, “To require all persons in the United States between the ages of 18 and 42 to perform national service, either as a member of the uniformed services or in civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security….” He has spoken against what he calls “unfair erosion of the principle of shared sacrifice which has been totally absent in the prosecution of this [Iraq] war.”
Rangel is a decorated war veteran who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star during combat in Korea as a sergeant in the 2nd Infantry Division. Long a believer in universal public service, Rangel recently answered our questions about his proposed reinstatement of the draft.
When you served in the U.S. Army, were you drafted or did you volunteer?
R: I volunteered and served four years, one year of that in Korea.
Was your military service a benefit?
R: Well, our outfit had 90 percent casualties, and I survived, so I think God was a benefit to me. I never would have enlisted if I’d thought I would go through the nightmare of the Chinese attack on November 30, 1950.
Have the recent U.S. military experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq prompted you to reintroduce the draft?
R: In part. I truly believe that every youngster, man and woman, should have some type of mandatory public national service. I think especially during the time of this era of terrorism that we need responsible people at our airports, at our seaports, our hospitals, our schools, and that they can be trained to be the eyes of the community. We need an educated lay community to recognize the possibilities of another terrorist attack.
How would this kind of service benefit the nation in other ways?
R: We don’t have the type of education mandate in our country that we should. I think by associating educational benefits with the entire community that you give kids an opportunity to extend their education academically—and therefore have a more competitive country. And, of course, only in times of war would the draft be related to military excursions. I believe that if the country truly believes that war is necessary, it means every American should believe that we are endangered. And that’s not just a matter of the Saddam Husseins, and the oil, and whether there are weapons of mass destruction, and connections with 9/11.
Why is “endangered” so important?
R: If people have no concern about who’s being exposed to danger, about who’s being shot up, about who’s coming home crippled, who’s being killed—if they have no personal regard for that, then the temptations to go into these excursions are greater than if every individual in the Congress, in the White House, in the Pentagon believes that everyone should make a sacrifice. I think it is so terribly unfair to say that those who are receiving bonuses for enlisting are doing it because of patriotism—implying that the rest of the country and the rest of the young people aren’t patriotic. The president has never made an appeal to patriotism, to ask people to enlist. Never, but never!
Does that mean a draft army would be more effective to fight a war on terror?
R: Yes. Not in Iraq. In the United States.
Should women be drafted?
R: Everybody from 18 up to age 42, including women, with no exemptions. If you haven’t finished high school, you got until 19 to do it. Or you just go in, and if there are no mental or physical handicaps, it’s everyone. It’s universal, no exemptions.
The draft has been pretty divisive, historically speaking. Do you anticipate that again?
R: Not more divisive than this war.
Under your bill, would there be some leeway in choosing which kind of service you perform? Whether you worked at a port, say, or went into the Army?
R: That’d be for the Pentagon to decide. I guess it would be where people are most needed.
Do you think the recent changes we’ve seen in the nature of warfare, shifting toward insurgencies, would make a difference in how effective a draft army would be?
R: It cannot be less effective than the National Guard, the Reservists and the volunteers. This is a new warfare entirely.
Would a draft army be more expensive or less expensive to maintain than a volunteer army?
R: It’s much more expensive, but it’s nothing compared to the $400 billion that we’re investing in Iraq. It’s expensive, but compared to what? When you take a look at the fact that half the people over there are contractors for backup services, it doesn’t amount to anything comparable to the money we’re spending in Iraq. Also, I really don’t think that saying there’s an inequity should be compared in dollars and cents. It should be judged by the effectiveness of the program.
When you say effectiveness, do you mean effectiveness for the military?
R: Yes. It’s poppycock that you don’t get professionals through drafting. It’s absolutely ridiculous to say that. It’s an insult to the veterans of Vietnam and World War II.
What about effectiveness for the larger society?
R: For society, it makes patriots. There’s nobody that’s left the military that didn’t have some kind things to say about what a positive difference it made in their lives. There’s a sense of patriotism when you know that no matter how little you’re doing, you’re doing it for the country. Having that American patch on your shoulder, and standing up and saying, “Miss, can I help you?”—I mean, if we’d had these people available in Hurricane Katrina, how many lives would have been saved? This is public service, this is “I love my country, what can I do to help?”
Given your broad definition of public service, with a draft that is not solely designed to staff up the armed services, would you anticipate less resistance to the draft than there has been in the past?
R: Well, I have a lot of Republican support for the universal draft concept. But they have political problems with the military part because they think that this is an embarrassment to the administration. Which, in part, it is.
Would a draft embarrass the administration?
R: I am saying, in my true, honest opinion, you cannot—cannot!—support this war and honestly not support the draft. If you support this war, you have to believe that our nation is in danger. And if it is, nobody should be exempt from making some sacrifice to protect our great country. I mean that with all my heart.
Aside from the resistance of some politicians who feel that a draft would be an embarrassment to the administration, what obstacles do you foresee in getting this bill enacted?
R: Three things: The war, the war, the war. This one here. No one wants their kids to be sent up as fodder in a surge! I’d have no problems with getting this bill passed if we weren’t at war.
Do you agree with the current assessments that our military is stretched too thin, and bordering on being broken?
R: Yes. Not only do I agree, everyone in America agrees. I mean, we’re not just talking about 21,000 recruits, we’re not talking about 21,000 volunteers. We’re talking about running veteran soldiers through combat over and over and over again. There’s a breaking point.
Is that inherently unfair?
R: It is unfair. But if your ox is not being gored, it’s “Let’s go fight and I’ll hold your coat.” You know, “We’ve got to teach these people a lesson, but your boy—oh hell no, not my son! Your son, but not my son.”
Do you believe that you have a chance at getting this bill enacted?
R: Not as long as the Iraq War is going on. But they’re going to have to really say that the only reason that the bill doesn’t make sense is that they don’t want anyone they know to get hurt.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.