Steve Sachs Duke


Thursday, November 13, 2003


Selective Quotation: Thursday's Harvard Crimson contains some of the most surprising news I'd seen in a while: that the Pentagon is planning to revive the draft. In the lead editorial, headlined Draft Strategy, Not Youth, the editors announce:

For the first time in decades, the Pentagon has begun to lay the groundwork for a potential return of the draft--at least according to a page discovered last week on the Defense Department’s web site...

The obscure Defense Department page, which has since been deleted [Google cache here --ed.], was an announcement of an effort to recruit new members to fill the many vacant seats on community draft boards nationwide--boards that have sat by idly with no function since the end of the Vietnam War. "Serve Your Community and the Nation," the announcement urged, "If a military draft becomes necessary, approximately 2,000 Local and Appeal Boards throughout America would decide which young men... receive deferments, postponements or exemptions from military service."

The editors go on to link the "Pentagon's actions" to "the glaring urgency of the situation in Iraq"; with the troop levels in Iraq so "grossly inadequate," the military was clearly preparing to start calling lottery numbers and shipping our youth to Baghdad.

The reason the editorial surprised me--well, one reason--was that the only people in Washington who've expressed any interest in the draft are Democrats, such as Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.). Their proposal was publicly belittled in January by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. ("We're not going to reimplement a draft. There is no need for it at all.") In fact, as is typical for Rumsfeld, his remarks were so harsh that he was subsequently forced to apologize. I was also surprised because reinstating the draft would take an act of Congress, which is pretty much impossible to imagine.

So I checked it out, and called Dan Amon, a public affairs specialist with the Selective Service (703-605-4100). It turns out that the current system of local boards was established in 1979, and many individuals had volunteered for 20-year terms. As a result, the military faced a number of vacancies at the turn of the century, which it's tried in the intervening years to fill. The same thing was reported by the Associated Press, which notes that "hiring replacements has been going on for several years."

Although the Selective Service System wasn't responsible for placing the ad, the site in question ( contains links to a number of different volunteer opportunities, like the Red Cross and the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Whoever posted the notice undoubtedly wanted to help out by circulating the application to volunteer.

But that's not how it looked to freelancer Dave Lindorff, who started the media furor with a Nov. 3 piece in Salon entitled "Oiling up the draft machine?" On "an obscure federal Website devoted to the war on terrorism," Lindorff reports, "the Bush administration quietly began a public campaign to bring the draft boards back to life." Lindorff portrays the draft as the natural response to troop requirements in Iraq, as well as potential future conflicts in Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Although he cites the Pentagon's complete denial that a draft is on the way, Lindorff replaces their language with his own, far more suspicious, formulation: "Recognizing that even the mention of a draft in the months before an election might be politically explosive, the Pentagon last week was adamant that the drive to staff up the draft boards is not a portent of things to come." (Question: isn't this a statement of fact, that the military recognizes the political explosiveness of a pre-election draft? And if Lindorff didn't get a quote from the Pentagon mentioning the election, isn't he just lying?)

Lindorff's piece is a study in how to generate ominous clouds of doubt from even the most mind-numbingly obvious set of facts. For instance, he emphasizes the uniqueness of the recruitment drive, writing that "Not since the early days of the Reagan administration in 1981 has the Defense Department made a push to fill all 10,350 draft board positions and 11,070 appeals board slots." Hmm, that must mean that the administration is really serious about restarting the draft, huh? Or maybe it just means that they only started filling the boards in 1979. No wonder they haven't needed to fill them since Reagan--most people serve for 20-year terms!

Why does the 20-year statistic never appear in Lindorff's article? Since Lindorff obviously spoke to Amon (incorporating a bland quote as the last line of the story), I can't imagine he heard anything different from what Amon told me. Or maybe Lindorff just decided to leave out that snippet of inconvenient information. Far be it from me to accuse Lindorff of political bias--but then again, I've never begun an essay by asking "Is George W. Bush another Hitler?" (His answer: "George Bush is not Hitler. Yet.")

After the publication of Lindorff's article, the pseudo-story was picked up by the Guardian (natch), the Toronto Star (reinterviewing Lindorff's sources without attribution), the Age (Australia), the Oregonian, the Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator (no link), the Chicago Daily Herald, and PBS's "NOW" with Bill Moyers, before the AP finally stepped in to settle the dispute. (The Crimson, alas, jumped in three days later.) The draft myth has also got a strong Internet following--see here, here, here--and has even inspired a truly awful poem on Counterpunch (yes, the same publication where Lindorff's Bush-Hitler piece appeared).

It's a sad testimony to the current state of mass media, when an Internet rumor spread by politically-motivated journalists can become accepted fact without even the slightest suspicion. It's like a game of telephone; errors are passed from story to story without anyone checking to see where they came from. (Many of the print articles followed the Guardian to the letter, reporting that the boards were 84 percent vacant instead of 84 percent full.) It's especially sad when one phone call could have clarified the entire thing. For crying out loud, people! One phone call!

It also testifies to the growing influence of a perpetual-conspiracy mindset, in which the government's next move can only be revealed on an "obscure federal Web site." To someone like Lindorff, American military policy is always better represented by random pages on semi-official PR websites than by explicit and repeated statements from everyone who occupies any position of authority. The fact that the page was deleted must mean that the story was true, not that the website's operators realized it was being grossly misinterpreted and decided to take it down. (Question: if the Bush administration needs to fill the draft boards before moving forward with its evil plan, wouldn't taking down the page mean that the campaign is over?)

I've written about this conspiracy mentality before, but it's frustrating to see it so widespread. It reminds me of the Guardian's "Wolfowitz said it's about oil" fiasco; reporters heard a story that confirmed their political worldviews, and they ran with it without pausing to find out whether it was true. Newspapers have vast resources and teams of dedicated reporters; they should never be missing facts available to anyone with an Internet connection and a telephone. But no one has time to make the call before rushing to publication--especially when the story's as juicy as a return to the draft.

UPDATE: See post above.




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