Worries on Campus

October 6, 2001 | By Siobhan Gorman

Ryan Aaron hadn’t planned to go to college—at least immediately—until the September 11 attacks came along. A senior at U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City, he now says he will attend Oklahoma State University next year. “I did it mainly for my mom. I told her I wasn’t going to go to college, and she made me promise I would.” Aaron and his mother aren’t alone. Young men and their parents have been deluging military recruiters with calls about whether they’ll be swept up and sent off to the Middle East as America wages its war on terrorism.

In the weeks following the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, a lot of misinformation has circulated about the potential for a draft. Aaron’s story reflects two of the big misconceptions. First, despite rumors to the contrary, a military draft appears unlikely for both policy and political reasons. Second, under Selective Service rules established after the Vietnam War, college enrollment doesn’t exempt young men from a draft. (No plans envision the drafting of women.)

The draft rules have changed a lot since Vietnam. Responding to criticisms of elitism, the Selective Service established plans for a lottery system that, besides barring college exemptions, starts with men who are 20 years old and then moves up, one year at a time, to men as old as 25. Medical exemptions would still stand, and conscientious objectors could serve in noncombat positions.

At this point, the armed forces are fully staffed, so there’s no immediate need for a draft. And the war on terrorism, as it’s currently being formulated, is far more dependent on intelligence-gathering than on manpower, said former Army Secretary Louis Caldera. “It’s a come-as-you-are war, because you’ve got to be trained in your military specialty and to work together as a team-a crew,” he said. “Military combat actions are not a place in which you want to throw in greenhorns.”

In the wake of the Vietnam War, mass casualties are politically untenable, said Edwin Dorn, a former undersecretary of Defense who is now dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas (Austin). He put it bluntly: “We don’t need a draft, and the American public does not want a draft.”

If a draft is so unlikely, why all the worrying? Some of it is because of Vietnam-era parents whose sons are in their late teens and early 20s. “You think of it every day,” said Chris Petersen, a family farmer in Clear Lake, Iowa, whose 18-year-old son attends a local community college. “One of my best friends was the last casualty of the Vietnam War. I have real problems with the draft. We do not need another nonwinnable war and a number of American kids killed.”

Draft-eligible young men straddle two generations: Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1981, and the Millennial Generation, which followed Generation X. Historian William Strauss said Generation X tends toward individualism and pragmatism, while Millennials prefer conformity and teamwork. Draft-eligible men may feel pulled in both directions.

The Millennial Generation is coming of age as the GI Generation, which fought World War II, is dying out, Strauss said, and this means that society will nudge the Millennials to fill the GIs’ generational shoes. And these teenagers place a higher value on security, he said, after growing up witnessing the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (in Aaron’s backyard) and the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Interviews with a number of high school students suggest that many would be willing to serve, if convinced it was necessary. Ryan Gardner, a 16-year-old junior at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., put it this way. “I think that I would try to find a way, I guess, to do what I really believe in. If I found myself believing in the fight, then I think it would be right for me to get involved. If I didn’t believe in what we were fighting for, then I would do everything I could to stay out of the armed forces and avoid becoming involved in any type of conflict.”

College students also say they’re conflicted. “It’s one of those not-in-my-backyard things. I wouldn’t want to go, but for national defense reasons, it would be understandable,” said Jim Fingal, an 18-year-old freshman at Harvard University. “I suppose it’s just selfish that I value other people’s sacrifices, but I’m not willing to make that sacrifice myself. At least not at this point in my life.” He said the Vietnam-era draft didn’t make much sense to him because it didn’t use people’s specific skills very well. “This is really going to sound like a Harvard student,” the budding computer scientist apologized. “But the gifts that I have are more suited to things that aren’t fighting.”

Some Muslim students have the opposite take. Until September 11, 20-year-old Shohel Mollah had planned to join the Navy after graduating from college but has decided against it. “If you’re Muslim, they’ll just label you a terrorist,” he said. “They’ll think with me being Muslim, I might leak out sources.” A junior at Georgia State University, Mollah immigrated with his family to the United States from Bangladesh at age 3.

But unless the terms of the war on terrorism change dramatically—such as needing to double or triple the number of troops—policy makers are more likely to consider creating a kind of domestic draft.

Akin to past proposals for mandatory national service, the proposal outlined by Charles Moskos, a military sociology professor at Northwestern University, would require high school graduates to spend some time—maybe six months or a year—working in domestic security fields such as emergency response, airport security, or guarding nuclear power plants if they opted not to serve in the military. Moskos says that the system would be fairer because it could include women. And, he says, it would be cost-effective because it would reduce the expenses involved with providing security.

Caldera, who was chief operating officer for the Corporation for National Service from 1997-98, cautioned against making such a program too rigid. It should not be a full-time requirement, he said, and it should not be limited to domestic security jobs, which are replete with mind-numbing tasks. “You don’t want to waste people’s time, because then there’s a resentment about service,” he said.

Strauss built a case for what he called a National Service Corps. The Baby Boomer Generation—President Bush’s generation—tends to promote policies that impose order on the younger generations, Strauss said. But given the divisiveness of the Vietnam draft, the Baby Boomer leaders would be more likely to require a broader version of service. The Millennial Generation would be quick to answer the call, he said, noting that society is beginning to respond much the way it did in the 1930s, when the Roosevelt Administration established the Civilian Conservation Corps and its cousins. Many members of the Millennial Generation have already been required to do community service in order to get their high school diplomas, and some have attended schools that required uniforms or imposed strict dress codes.

Nearly every young man interviewed for this story backed the National Service Corps idea. “If it’s something they want us to do for our country to keep us safe, then go for it,” said Aaron, the Oklahoma City senior. But there’s a caveat. “There would have to be a good reason to do it,” he added. “If it’s for keeping other people from taking over the country, I’m all for it.”