A draft is being proposed by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), who opposed the congressional resolution supporting war in Iraq.  He lost, so now he wants to conscript young people into the coming conflict to ensure that Americans “shoulder the burden of the war equally.”

Reinstituting conscription is bizarre on its face.  America currently deploys the most powerful and effective military on earth.  The all-volunteer force (AVF) combines extraordinary high-tech weapons with dedicated soldiers, professionals who are substantially brighter and better educated than their draft-era counterparts were.  In 2001, nine out of ten Army and Navy recruits possessed high-school diplomas; high-school 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 who does not have at least a GED and does not score in the top three of five mental categories on 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.  Discipline, performance, and readiness would all suffer if today’s servicemen were just counting the days until their involuntary terms ended.

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

True, many conscription supporters, including Charles Moskos of Northwestern University and Jeffrey Smith, one-time general counsel to both the CIA and the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggest instituting mandatory national service, where those not drafted would be forced into the Peace Corps (or some domestic equivalent) to empty bed pans, shelve library books, file government paperwork, or, experience suggests, hand out political flyers.  But what kind of free society conscripts citizens to perform social work and sacrifices their liberty for what would be the government’s biggest pork-barrel project ever?

At least serving in the military serves the commonweal.  Teaching literacy to poor kids is noble, but it is an act of charity, not a patriotic act.  Many other “national service” jobs are not even personally enriching, however.  And threatening to jail someone unless he picks up litter in a park is a frivolous abuse of government power and a bizarre way to promote love of country.

The worst lie told by conscription advocates about the AVF is that it is an underclass military.  For instance, Rangel claims that “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.”

If he believes that conscripting five percent of 18-year-olds would magically create equality, he also probably believes that he owns the Brooklyn Bridge.  Children of the elite would still game the system.  Moreover, conscription will not alter the composition of the career force.  Since blacks (but not Hispanics) are more likely than whites to make the military a career, they would remain overrepresented.

Surveys find that the socioeconomic status of servicemen’s families tends toward the middle.  Soldiers actually read at higher levels than their civilian counterparts do and are equally capable of going to college.  The AVF is a force that does represent America.  Conscription would bring in more young people who feel alienated from the country, something not likely to “bring a greater appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war.”

The belief that the United States 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 Bush administration’s policies.  With the call-up of tens of thousands of reservists—and with an estimated 265,000 more likely to be activated in the event of a war in Iraq—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 the President’s actions to make their case: Simply convince potential recruits that a war with Iraq is bad policy.  Conscription allows an administration, like that of Lyndon Johnson, to maintain the flow of troops despite growing criticism of a war.  A volunteer military allows 18-year-olds to shut down any war by simply refusing to sign up.

Charles Rangel has been in Wash-ing-ton 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.  Now, on the eve of conflict, is the worst time for Washington to roil the military and society with another grand social-engineering scheme.

The most obvious reason to maintain the AVF is practical: It is the best way to raise the finest military.  The most important reason to reject a draft, however, is moral.  What sets America apart from totalitarian hellholes such as Iraq is her dedication to individual liberty; conscription sacrifices the very value that we are supposed to be defending.