The Draft: Missing in the Inadequate Debate Over the Ongoing Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Conspicuously absent from the minimal public debate over our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the taboo subject of reinstating the draft in this country. As the U.S. extends its military presence in Afghanistan for another ten years, increases military forces in Iraq as "advisers and trainers," and expands airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, we can anticipate more casualties on an indefinite basis in an expanded war zone.

Remarkably, all this is happening without a declaration of war and the absence of our Congressional representatives who are on their extended vacation and unwilling to hold an overdue debate on this critical matter. Pressure seems to be building toward a long-term military presence, war without end, in the Middle East with potential growing involvement of neighboring countries.

The decision to continue and expand these wars should not be made by political leaders far from the action, who too often themselves have not been to war and typically are two generations removed from those who actually fight the wars. As we learned only too well in Vietnam, we need broad public support for any war that we take on.

As a physician, veteran of the Korean War, and a citizen concerned about our ongoing military misadventures under the guise of helping to stabilize and bring democracy to these countries, it seems to me that we need to bring the subject of the draft to the forefront.

The draft in modern times was instituted in 1940 with passage of the Selective Training and Service Act. It continued until 1973 as a way to fill vacancies in the armed forces. Although we moved to an all-volunteer force in 1973, Selective Service registration for men 18-25 years of age is still on the books but loosely enforced. Since 2003, a few legislators have considered one or another way to reinstate the draft in order to build military capacity to meet the nation's needs and provide more fairness to those who serve in the military. As we expand our wars, the all-volunteer policy requires increasing re-deployments and frequent extension of active duty status to enlistees.

Raising the subject of the draft will almost certainly generate broad public opposition but also ignite, intensify, and broaden a long overdue national debate about what should come next for our future role in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Continued war in these countries, with predictable mission creep and no end game in sight, raises many issues, including health, the economy, politics, and our social structure.

The numbers of dead and wounded U.S. troops in each of these wars are appalling: almost 4,500 and more than 2,300 dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. It is estimated that more than 100,000 troops have been wounded in the Iraq war. Many thousands of returning troops are dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and we are seeing a record number of military suicides -- 18 per day -- especially among troops deployed multiple times. Also important to count are the hundreds of thousands of dead, injured and displaced Iraqi and Afghan civilians in the war zones that we euphemistically call "collateral damage" in the wars.

In terms of the economy, untold resources continue to be diverted to the war effort, including to private contractors, that detract from needed investment in our own infrastructure here at home, where we could be increasing jobs in the public sector. As we know, we had at least 100,000 privately funded mercenary and security troops in Iraq at the height of the war, more than the number of U.S. troops on the ground. Despite the abuses of some of these private security contractors, such as Blackwater in Iraq, we still have a shadow army that makes money from our wars, much of it in the dark and largely unaccountable.

From a political standpoint, what real progress have we made in building a more stable government in either Iraq or Afghanistan after all these years? Iraq continues its sectarian conflict despite the "more inclusive" government in Baghdad. The Kurds would like to break away, and the Iraq army is not committed to fight for its country. In Afghanistan, as is well recounted in Jake Tapper's recent book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, the government in Kabul has little authority in much of the country where tribal warfare continues among overlords, as it has for centuries. He documents how much of our work and money directed to provincial reconstruction team (PRT) projects (such as building roads or improving water supplies) have gone unfinished amidst corruption and ambushes by "insurgents" who live there. The Afghan government is in continued crisis amidst ongoing bickering and dispute over its recent presidential election. Since the end of 2001, the U.S. has spent more than $100 billion in reconstruction projects in that country.

National polls show that a majority of Americans disapprove of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one example, an Associated Press-GfK poll in August 2014 found that three in four Americans supported the withdrawal of U.S. troops from both countries and believe that history will judge the two wars as failures. According to an extensive survey of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, reported in April 2014 by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 53 percent felt that the Afghanistan war was worth fighting, while just 44 percent felt that way about the Iraq war. Only 40 percent felt that their fellow Americans have appreciated their service in Iraq vs. just 34 percent for those who served in Afghanistan.

So who and how should we decide, at this time when the Middle East is heating up again in continued turmoil, about whether or not to continue these wars? We know that many citizens are legitimately horrified at the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their defiance of U.S. power and its attempt to lure us into a ground war. That could lead some to think that more U.S. ground troops may need to be re-deployed in Iraq. But we have to consider that our original reasons for these wars were wrong, that the politics in these two countries are still unstable as they wage their own civil or sectarian wars, and that we need broad public support for us to be involved at all and to define what we mean by success in the long run.

We need an intense public debate about the issues before we commit to these wars without apparent end. Adding a potential draft to the equation will ignite the kind of debate we need and provide an opportunity for all Americans to become involved in this decision -- much better than listening to the generals in the Pentagon and to those related to the military-industrial complex who profit from all this bloodshed.

John Geyman, M.D. is Professor Emeritus of Family Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine.