CHICAGO — If war in the Persian Gulf leads to a resumption of the draft, the fate of millions of young Americans may be decided not in the Mideast, but the Midwest.
Within hours of a call-up, a secretly located data processing center near Chicago could begin spewing overnight Mailgram draft notices across the nation. Fearing sabotage, officials decline to reveal the exact site of that computer.
"In 24 to 72 hours we could have our (first) induction orders in the mail," explained Air Force Lt. Col. Ronald Meilstrup, deputy director of the Selective Service System's regional headquarters in Illinois.
No one has been drafted in the United States since 1972, and there's clearly no groundswell for reviving the draft even now, despite suggestions made at recent congressional hearings. Reinstituting it would require action by both houses of Congress and the signature of the President, a process likely to provoke heated debate.
Still, the Persian Gulf crisis has raised new questions not only about military preparedness but also the fairness of an all-volunteer force in which minorities and the poor could do most of fighting--and dying. If a draft is approved, officials say they now have an "equal opportunity" system at the ready that could fill training camps with 100,000 civilians in barely a month.
"We function something like an insurance policy for the nation," said Glenn Ford, operations officer for the regional draft headquarters in Denver. "(We're) expected to open up the draft mechanism overnight in the event of a national emergency. Administrative offices have been pre-identified, local boards appointed and trained."
Indeed, ever since the standby draft was created in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-81, a few thousand military reservists and civilian volunteers have been preparing for the potential reactivation of the draft.
A few National Guard and Reserve units in each state are assigned to Selective Service duties, much as other units would train for the infantry or air patrol. As part of their regular, one-weekend-a-month service obligations, the Selective Service units drill on the finer points of how to set up and operate headquarters and field offices. Periodically, they also supervise refresher courses for local draft boards, which are five-member panels of presidential appointees dispersed by the dozens across each state.
"They have role-plays where there are actual incidents that would be similar to what they would go through in a real-life scenario," said John Cumicek, a banker who also serves as the state Selective Service director in Wisconsin. "They actually have a (simulated) board meeting and make some decisions."
Although commonly referred to as draft boards, the panels would really have little say in who would be called.
Gone are the days when national draft officials set regional and state-by-state quotas, or when the whims and prejudices of local board members could dictate who was drafted and who was not. Much of the flexibility has been bred out of a system that was widely criticized during the Vietnam War for enabling large numbers of middle- and upper-class whites to escape military service.
Under current law, men must register for the standby draft when they turn 18, and the data are fed into the nationwide computer. Women are exempt. The data bank currently has the names of 15 million draft-eligible young men on file, including 4 million in California alone.
If the draft were reactivated, the age group with primary vulnerability would be 20-year-olds. First, a lottery would be held to determine draft priorities by birth date, such as May 12 or June 16. Then, following the dictates of that lottery, the Chicago-area computer would spit out draft notices to 20-year-olds. Next would come 21-year-olds, then 22-year-olds, and on up to 25-year-olds. Last in line would be 18- and 19-year-olds.
Perhaps in keeping with the no-nonsense atmosphere of the new draft, induction notices would be as dry as the mouths of the shocked young men who open them: There would be no salutation of "Greetings," as draft notices of another era once began. They would simply say "Order to report for induction" and include a travel voucher to the nearest induction center. Draftees would be given 10 days to report.
Local boards would be limited to granting deferments--and even that power has been severely curbed. Draftees could still argue hardship, conscientious objector or ministerial claims to the boards, but student or job-related deferments--the most popular ways to delay or evade military service in the old days--have been eliminated.