WASHINGTON — New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel opposed the U.S. congressional resolution supporting war in Iraq. He lost. So now he wants to draft young people into the coming conflict to ensure that Americans “shoulder the burden of the war equally.”

Alas, conscription wouldn’t do that. It would, however, make a less effective military, one less able to win the war.

Restarting conscription is bizarre on its face. America currently deploys the most powerful and effective military on earth. The All-Volunteer Force combines extraordinary high-tech weapons with extraordinary soldiers, professionals who are substantially brighter and better educated than their draft-era counterparts.

Today people want to serve, not evade service, so the military can be picky. In the 2001 financial year, nine of 10 U.S. Army and Navy recruits possessed high school diplomas; high graduates accounted for 96 percent of Marine and 99 percent of Air Force enlistees.

In contrast to its draft days, the military takes virtually no one without at least a graduate equivalency diploma and scoring in the top three of five mental categories of the Armed Forces Qualification Test. Real equality would require lowering the military’s standards.

Equally important, the AVF is staffed by soldiers who want to be there. A draft military cannot let the discontented leave, with predictable consequences. Discipline, performance and readiness would all suffer if today’s servicemen were just counting the days till their involuntary terms ended.

Some draft advocates, like Rangel, spin the virtues of a “citizen soldier.” But 4 million young people turn 18 every year, while the military inducts fewer than 200,000 new recruits. A draft that took 5 percent of those eligible would be far more arbitrary than today’s volunteer system.

True, many conscription supporters, including Charles Moskos of Northwestern and Jeffrey Smith, one-time general counsel to both the CIA and Senate Armed Services Committee, suggest instituting mandatory national service. Those not drafted would be forced into the Peace Corps or some domestic equivalent to emptying bed pans, shelving library books, filing government paperwork or, experience suggests, handing out political fliers.

But what kind of free society conscripts people to perform social work? And sacrifices their liberty for what would be the government’s biggest pork-barrel project ever?

The worst lie told by conscription advocates is that the AVF is an underclass military. For instance, charges Rangel: “A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent.”

A draft that takes 5 percent of 18-year-olds wouldn’t offer equality. Children of the influential would still game the system. Moreover, conscription won’t alter the composition of the career force, since blacks (but not Hispanics) also re-enlist in greater numbers. In any case, today’s overrepresentation is modest.

And while there may be few sons or daughters of Wall Street in uniform, there are few sons or daughters of the ghetto. In fact, those in the bottom academic third aren’t even eligible to serve. The military is overwhelmingly a middle-class force.

Surveys find that the socioeconomic status of servicemen’s families tends toward the middle. Soldiers actually read at higher levels than do their civilian counterparts and are equally capable of going to college. It is a force that represents America.

The belief that the U.S. is rushing into war because no one knows anyone in the military is a desperate attempt to hide the fact that Rangel’s own Democratic Party has offered no effective opposition to the administration’s policies. With the callup of tens of thousands of reservists so far — and an estimated 265,000 likely to be activated for service in any Iraqi war — the impact has been felt across the nation. Indeed, reservists come from all professions and tend to be well-established in their communities.

The AVF actually makes it quite easy for critics of administration policy to make their case: Simply convince potential recruits that a war with Iraq is bad policy. Conscription allows an administration, like that of President Lyndon Johnson, to maintain the troop flow despite spreading criticism of a war.

A volunteer military allows 18-year-olds to shut down any war by simply refusing to sign up.

Rangel has been in Washington too long: forcing people to fight a war is a curious means of opposing that war. Especially when a draft would lower the quality and effectiveness of the military, making it harder to win that war.

The most obvious reason to maintain the AVF is practical: It’s the best way to raise the finest military. But the most important reason to reject a draft is principle.

What sets American society apart from totalitarian hellholes like Iraq is its dedication to individual liberty. Conscription sacrifices the very value that we are supposed to be defending.

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