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Sunday, October 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist
Rangel makes his point: It's different when it's your kid


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So it appears no American kid will be receiving that dread letter anytime soon.

You know the one. It brings greetings from Uncle Sam along with the news that whatever you had planned for the next few years, you'd better cancel it. Not going to happen. The draft is not coming back. Not that there was ever much chance it would.

Still, even the specter of the possibility of the ghost of a chance was apparently enough to keep some of us up nights, walking the floors. So there was a palpable sigh of relief this week as a bill that would have reinstated mandatory military service was defeated in the House of Representatives by a vote of 402 to 2. Among those who voted against the bill was its sponsor, Charles Rangel, Democrat from New York. Rangel had introduced the measure as a way of making a point. But more about that in a moment.

For now, suffice to say the bill has taken on a life of its own in the 22 months since Rangel came out for restoration of the draft. Rumors that such a restoration is imminent have flooded Internet chat rooms and kept college campuses buzzing. It probably doesn't help that news media are full of reports depicting a military stretched to the breaking point by its commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The chatter has grown so loud that President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have felt compelled to assure the nation they contemplate no return to the draft. This week's rather abrupt vote — it took some procedural legerdemain to bring the measure to the floor — was an attempt to close the discussion once and for all.

But restoration of the draft was never the point. Rangel's opposition to the then-impending invasion of Iraq was. As he put it in a December 2002 essay in the New York Times, "if those calling for war knew that their children were likely to be required to serve — and to be placed in harm's way — there would be more caution and a greater willingness to work with the international community in dealing with Iraq."

In other words, it's different when it's your kid.

That's essentially the same point Michael Moore makes in "Fahrenheit 9/11" when he buttonholes members of Congress to see if they'll ask their kids to enlist. Some sprint away, one looks at Moore as if the filmmaker had just offered him a snort of anthrax.

Small wonder. Moore tells us that, of 535 members of Congress, only one has a child serving with the military in Iraq.

Nor is it only the offspring of Congress who are underrepresented in the nation's armed forces. Last year, the New York Times crunched the numbers and found that the military bears little resemblance to the nation it protects. Its members are drawn disproportionately from the working class — the affluent and the poor tend not to serve. The military is also disproportionately black. Twenty-two percent of enlisted personnel are African American, versus about 13 percent of the nation at large. Finally, the percentage of personnel from the Northeast and Midwest has fallen while the percentage of those from the South and West is way up.

Point being, we do not shoulder this burden equally. I don't say that to condemn anybody — or to make an argument for or against the draft — but only to observe that it's easier to make war an abstract when those who are fighting and dying are not from your family or your block. Maybe you see things differently when someone you love might have to go into harm's way.

Rangel's bill never had a chance of passage. There is no political will to re-instate the draft and no consensus on the need to do so. But that wasn't what he was after. Rather, he wanted us to look at the carnage that was then about to unfold and ask one sobering question.

"What if it were my kid?"

To the degree anyone has been forced to ponder that thought, I consider Rangel's bill an overwhelming success.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: lpitts@herald.com

Copyright 2004, The Miami Herald

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