BOSTON — No law has been signed to revive the draft, and the president, the Pentagon and the presumed Democratic presidential nominee all oppose forced military service. Yet as fatalities in Iraq increase and as troops see their tours extended, there is a growing concern across the country that a draft may be in the offing.
At summer barbecues, kids' baseball tournaments and worksites, conversations focus on whether a new generation will be called to mandatory military duty. Parents, grandparents and others are wondering how long America can rely on volunteers and reservists to supply a strong defense.
"I have thought about this a great deal," said Barbara Nicosia, who works in a bookstore south of Boston and is the mother of a 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.
"I have a strong memory of the draft during Vietnam, and I don't like where they are going with this," she said. "I just don't like it."
Ann Stenbeck, a stay-at-home mother in Cohasset, Mass., has sons who are 14 and 11. Stenbeck said it was impossible not to think about the possibility that her boys could be subject to a new draft.
"We don't want it," she said flatly. "Even if they say they will make it a universal draft, when was 'universal' ever universal? So do we have any faith that it would be this time? No. Shouldn't we be talking about military downsizing -- or having one area of conflict at a time?"
America ended its lottery draft, based on birthdates, at the close of the Vietnam War 31 years ago. The system was rife with inequities, with money and social privilege helping many young men engineer an escape from military service. Others avoided the draft by continuing their education in college; some went so far as to have doctors attest to invented medical or psychological conditions.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) maintains that an all-volunteer military is just as unfair. The Korean War veteran has introduced legislation to mandate two years of military or civilian service for all young Americans. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), a World War II veteran, is sponsoring a similar bill.
"A military draft has already been taking place, a draft of those in disadvantaged areas who -- for economic reasons -- must join the service," Rangel said. A shortage of jobs and the prospect of post-military educational benefits lure poor young men and women into enlisting, he said.
The Rangel and Hollings bills would make 18- to 26-year-olds eligible for the draft, with almost no exemptions. Those unfit for military service because to health or other impairments would perform community service.
The measures have little support on Capitol Hill. In an interview, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- a former Navy fighter pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war -- said unequivocally: "I don't think the country is ready for a return to the draft."
But University of Maine law school professor Don Zillman, an expert on conscription, said the buzz about the draft may be well-founded.
"I think we are stretched about as far as we can go," he said. "You are overextending the people who are in the military, and new ones are not flocking. What are you going to do?"
Congress may not rush to endorse a resumption of the draft in an election year, Zillman said. "But if you have one or two major terrorist attacks or some major military action overseas, Congress can change very quickly," he said. "It's easy to dismiss talk about the draft as paranoid fantasy, but I don't think so."
Speculation about a return to the draft rose recently when the Selective Service Agency began seeking volunteers to serve on 1,980 draft boards throughout the country. The agency with which males legally must register when they turn 18 -- although most do not -- said it simply was getting ready "to manage a draft if and when the president and Congress so direct."
That national conversation is being reflected in the cities and towns of Massachusetts -- a proudly patriotic state that trumpets its status as the birthplace of the American Revolution, yet so liberal that it was the only state in 1972 to vote for George S. McGovern, the antiwar Democratic presidential nominee.
Ed Connors, 64, runs a sports training center in Norwell, Mass., midway between Boston and Cape Cod. On any day, the place is filled with teenage athletes striving to improve themselves for school teams, not the military.
"It seems like what we have now is working, voluntary enlistment," said Connors. "We're getting people who want to go into the service."
Connors said he was too young to fight in Korea, and by the time Vietnam rolled around, he was married and in college. Half his classmates went to that war, he said: Drafted.
"I would hope we would not have to go back to that," said the grandfather of four teenagers, all potentially eligible for a draft. "I think we should slow things down, cut the need. I definitely can't picture sending my grandkids."