Headshot of a man

PT talks to U.S. Congressman Pete Stark—co-sponsor with Rep. Charles Rangel of a House bill to reinstate the military draft—about concepts of citizenship, military recruiting and the prospective effects of a universal draft on foreign policy decisions.

Policy Today magazine cover
February 1, 2006

PT: What are the main consequences of our commitment to all-volunteer armed forces?

Stark: The fact that our all-volunteer army consists mostly of low-income Americans from rural and inner-city communities has a huge effect on our country. With most Americans and members of Congress not having family members, friends or neighbors fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, I believe that it is much easier for them to support going to war. Unfortunately, 99% of members of Congress do not have children fighting in either Iraq or Afghanistan. As a result, most are all too ready to commit American troops.

I believe that this situation undermines the concept of citizenship. There is no sense of shared sacrifice when only a few low-income citizens fight this country's wars, while the majority of American citizens carry on with their lives uninterrupted. The message is that the cost of being a citizen in this country is higher if you are poor. There is something un-American about that picture.

PT: We hear a lot about the army recruiting less and less-qualified candidates. Who should the army recruit?

Stark: Overall, our military personnel policy is a mess. A recent Government Accountability Office study found that 19% of the Defense Department's occupational specialties were consistently overfilled and 41% were consistently under-filled. To put this in perspective, the GAO found that the military has too many people in the military band, but not enough qualified personnel to remove improvised explosive devices (IED) that have been killing many of our soldiers in Iraq.

PT: Are there policy consequences when there are fewer and fewer veterans in the federal government?

Stark: The answer to this is not clear. Many veterans in Congress voted for the Iraq War resolution and many did not. So I don't think that being a veteran is directly correlated to a politician's decision to support this country going to war.

However, I do think veteran status provides politicians with a better understanding of
the consequences of war. In particular, Senator McCain's position against the Bush administ-ration's policy of torturing prisoners was definitely influenced by his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

PT: What should be done to address the issue overall?

Stark: Before the United States resolves its military personnel policy, it has to examine the type of foreign policy it wants to follow. The current Bush Administration's failed foreign policy of using unilateral military force as a first resort requires a very large military. The fact that the U.S. military does not have enough troops to execute the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and is having a difficult time recruiting new soldiers clearly shows that this foreign policy approach is not sustainable over the long term unless there is a universal draft.

Pete Stark represents the East Bay area and California's 13th Congressional District. A senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, Congressman Stark served in the U.S. Air Force and holds a B.A. in engineering from M.I.T. and an MBA from UC Berkeley.