As the gap between the capacity of America's armed forces and the demands of current deployment widens, the likelihood of a reinstatement of a compulsory draft grows. Indeed, reports are already circulating that a "special skills" draft is on the table specifically for people with computer and foreign language abilities.
The Selective Service countered these allegations with a statement on its Web site stating that it is merely fulfilling its role and hasn't ramped up in anticipation of a coming draft.
"Selective Service is not getting ready to conduct a draft for the U.S. Armed Forces - either with a special skills or regular draft," the statement says. Perhaps. But it's also true that the Bush Administration's military goals cannot be met without forced conscription.
Consider these facts: Twenty-one of the U.S. Army's 33 regular combat brigades are now on active duty in the "hot" zones of Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and the Balkans. That's 63 per cent of the Army's fighting force - all without factoring in additional troops elsewhere around the globe.
This is a huge overextension. History has proven that long-term military operations can only be sustained if you have twice as many soldiers waiting in the pipeline as are stationed out in the field. By that rule of thumb, the regular military is now 125,000 soldiers short - a gap the Bush administration has temporarily plugged by calling 150,000 Army Reserve and National Guard troops into active service.
There are 135,000 troops stationed in Iraq, just under half of them National Guard and reservists. But to maintain that number, another 22,000 have already been sent there and brought home dead, wounded or medically unfit for service. Since the invasion of Iraq there have been more military casualties than in all the years since the end of the Vietnam war combined. The human well is drying up.
Enlistment rates in the regular armed forces and the National Guard have dropped precipitously, and according to a poll conducted by the military newspaper Stars And Stripes, a whopping 49 per cent of soldiers stationed in Iraq say they don't intend to re-enlist - despite the Army's offer of a $10,000 bonus.
The fact is that quiet preparations for the return of the draft have been underway for some time.
Strategic objective 1.2 of the 2004 plan commits the Selective Service System to being fully operational within 75 days of "an authorized return to conscription." Strategic objective 1.3 then mandates that the SSS "be operationally ready to furnish untrained manpower within DOD timelines."
There's also a big chunk of funding this year to run what's called an "area office prototype exercise" that will "test the activation process from SSS lottery input to the issuance of first Armed Forces examination orders."
Strategic objective 2.2 is all about bumping up the Selective Service System's high school registrar program to put volunteer registrars in at least 85 per cent of the nation's high schools, up from 65 per cent in 1998.
In the school arena, the Bush administration has already pulled a fast one. Buried deep in the 670 pages of the No Child Left Behind Act is a provision requiring that public high schools give military recruiters access to facilities and also contact information for every student - or else face a cutoff of federal aid.
The job of approving a draft officially belongs to both the president and Congress, working together to pass new legislation, and officially it can only happen if the country is at war. But given the examples of the last three years, these safeguards are hard to call firm and reassuring.
First, as far as the Bush administration is concerned, the nation is at war in every respect. The White House is supported by Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. While it is certain that any presidential decision to reactivate the draft would be hotly debated in Congress, it is by no means clear that it could be effectively blocked, especially with prominent Democrats such as Representative Charlie Rangel and Senator Hillary Clinton on record as supporting the possibility of some kind of conscription.
Of course, the Selective Service System doesn't call it a "draft." In its lexicon of acronyms it's a "registrant integrated processing system": RIPS, for short. The acronym's horrible irony - Rest In Peace - seems to have been lost on the bureaucrats.