HONOLULU — The prospect of a war on two fronts against North Korea and Iraq in addition to the battle against terror and the new campaign for homeland security has sparked calls for a return to the U.S. military draft.

Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, introduced a bill last week that would revive conscription, which has been dormant since 1973. Rangel, an African American, asserted that U.S. President George W. Bush’s war plans would require sacrifices “and those sacrifices need to be shared.”

Rangel was supported by Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and an African American who contended that blacks would bear the blunt of front-line fighting, while whites from the middle class would escape hazardous duty.

If the Rangel proposal goes forward, it is certain to stir enormous controversy, as memories of the corrupted draft of the Vietnam era cannot be ignored. At that time, of the 26.8 million men of military age, 10.8 million served through enlistment or the draft. Nearly 16 million escaped through the lottery, hardship, physical or mental defects, and student deferment. Of these, 570,000 were draft offenders.

Bush, his senior political advisers, and the nation’s military leaders have come out against the draft. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters this week: “There is no need for it at all. The disadvantages of using compulsion to bring into the armed forces the men and women needed are notable.”

Pentagon officials said African Americans made up 25 percent of the military personnel deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1991. Blacks who died in combat or non-combat situations represented 15 percent of the casualties. Whites, who made up 66 percent of the U.S. forces there accounted for 78 percent of the deaths. Hispanics, who were 5 percent of the forces, accounted for 4 percent of the deaths, and Asian Americans, less than 2 percent of the force, made up less than 1 percent of the deaths.

Today, advocates of the draft overlook an undeniable fact: Conscription is inherently unfair unless all able-bodied men are drafted, no matter how they are selected. If one young man goes on winter maneuvers in Alaska and trains in the California desert in the summer, while another young man goes to college and fraternity parties, the system is unfair. It makes no difference how the draftee was chosen, by lottery, at random, or by birth date. (Women are not legally subject to the draft.)

In that case, say those who are pushing for draft, all young men of military age should be drafted and those who don’t serve in the armed forces can join the Peace Corps or perform a wide variety of community services.

Such compulsory service bangs up against the 13th Amendment to the constitution, which prohibits “involuntary servitude.” The constitution authorizes Congress “to raise and support armies” but not to compel other service. The 13th Amendment was adopted at the end of the Civil War to preclude a return to slavery.

Proponents of a draft overlook other arguments against it. Some argue that U.S. military forces are stretched thin and have too many assignments today. That may be true. In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the U.S. had 2 million men and women in the armed forces. Today, there are 1.4 million, or one-third less, to cope with greater responsibilities.

Reviving the draft would not resolve that shortcoming. If the nation wants or needs a larger military force, Congress should authorize it and restore the draft only if not enough volunteers step forward.

Moreover, reviving the draft would not provide soldiers for hostilities with North Korea and Iraq as it would take a year to induct, equip, train and ship the new soldiers to combat units. It is the Reserves and National Guard already in place that must pick up the slack.

Proposals like that of Rangel and Conyers come perilously close to arguing for a race-based armed force. Unless all young men are to be drafted, racial quotas would be set for whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others in proportion to their ratio in the U.S. population. Surely the vast majority of Americans would reject that assault on civil rights.

Advocates of the draft contend that young men should be compelled to serve in the armed forces to teach them patriotism and their civil obligations. But that is the realm of the parents, the school, and perhaps the church, not the drill sergeant on the rifle range.

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