Representative Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., made his case for a universal draft—with no exemptions for college students—to a packed house of students and media at the ARCO forum last night.
Over the past months, Rangel has become one of the most vocal critics of the impending war with Iraq, advocating a draft without exemptions for all citizens ages 18 to 26—on the grounds that Washington policymakers may rethink their support for war if their own children are “in harm’s way.”
“A renewed draft will help bring greater appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war,” Rangel wrote in a Dec. 31 New York Times op-ed that launched his campaign.
Rangel also advocates reinstituting the draft to raise the issue of class—too many poor people, he says, do too much of the fighting and other service work for the United States.
Throughout his speech yesterday, he emphasized that war or no war, there needs to be more “shared sacrifice” in this country.
Rangel—a 17-term representative from Harlem who was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus—is one of the most powerful members of Congress. He is also the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, which is widely considered the most powerful committee in the House.
Rangel has been delivering his unique pro-draft argument for more than a month now to various audiences.
But for the first time last night he faced a unique conflict in presenting his argument to a college campus, traditionally a hotbed of liberalism—but also a place where Americans would be hardest hit by Rangel’s proposed draft.
And he picked Harvard, which is so liberal that it has been called “the Kremlin by the Charles”—but, on the other hand, is also the traditional educational stomping ground for the children of Washington’s power elite.
Rangel said he was not concerned that the draft might threaten the accomplishments of disadvantaged students who had beat the odds by making it to Harvard.
“They would not be able to get to Harvard if it wasn’t for this great United States of America,” he said. “They should be the first to fight for the opportunity to go to Harvard.”
While he said that he hadn’t planned to win converts from yesterday’s speech, he was surprised at the lack of open dissent.
“I didn’t expect that people would rally and say they support the legislation,” he said.Rangel said in an interview after the speech, “Nobody felt strong enough against what I was saying to say they disagreed with me.”
Politics and Prose
The sharp-tongued representative took the Bush Administration to task in his speech last night for what he called its unilateral foreign policy.
“If this is an international problem, doesn’t it demand an international solution?” he asked.
Rangel also questioned the Bush administration’s cooperation with the U.N. investigation of Iraq, saying that if U.S. officials have intelligence implicating Iraq, they should share it with weapons inspectors.
He also criticized the Administration’s vocal approach in combatting “evil” countries.
“If you really believe that there are people out there who want to hurt you, you don’t start off by insulting them,” Rangel said.
The representative said that the religious subtext to conflict in the Middle East has not been sufficiently understood and addressed.
“Somebody tell me why this is not going to be interpreted in the region as Christians and Jews against Muslims?” he asked.
Rangel also raised the question of why the U.S. should take on Iraq when North Korea and Saudi Arabia are also potentially more pressing foes.
Moreover, Rangel raised the point that he doesn’t think Bush should unilaterally declare war on behalf of the country.
“I’m a member of Congress,” he said. “We declare war.”
In his speech, Rangel quickly moved from political attack to social critique, and emphasized that students should get involved in the debate over war.
“More people should be participating in the debate,” he said. “We cannot sit out this dance.”
One analysis in Sunday’s New York Times suggested that Rangel’s address “could illustrate whether the draft still has the capacity to stir crowds on college campuses.”
Institute of Politics (IOP) Director Dan Glickman, a former representative (D-Kan.), said yesterday that he believes a draft debate could swiftly put an end to political apathy on college campuses.
But some say that unless people feel a draft seems imminent, the war debate will stagnate.
“In some people’s minds, war is fine as long as someone else is fighting it,” Glickman said.
But Rangel hopes to confront that idea head-on with his proposal for a broader draft.
“There’s no question in my mind that every time this comes up, I cannot but help think of my son,” he said.
Rangel is no stranger to war.
He served in Korea from 1948 to 1952, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He said that to even discuss war, the issue of sacrifice must be considered.
“When you talk about war, you have to talk to me about sacrifice,” he said.
Rangel said that his draft proposal was not just in opposition to war, but also to raise the issue of universal national service.
The representative rejected the idea that his draft proposal is strictly a race issue, citing Sen. Ernest Hollings’ (D-S.C.) co-sponsorship of the draft—but Rangel did not hesitate to say his proposal was about class.
“Am I raising the class issue?” he said. “You bet your life I am.”
At the question-and-answer session after the speech, one student brought up a perennial attack on Rangel’s plan—that for many of his poorer friends, going into the military was the best option.
Rangel said the country should be addressing that issue with social programs—not with military service.
“Your folks deserve better than that,” he said.
The View from Harvard
Liberal students on campus received Rangel’s proposal with mixed reviews.
R. Gerard McGeary ’04, president of the Harvard College Democrats, said yesterday he personally agrees with Rangel that war must be approached with caution.
But, McGeary added, he thinks that the armed forces do not increase class division, but rather provide many with opportunity for upward mobility.
“It’s been a way to transcend socio-economic and class divides,” he said.
But Rangel said citizens should not have to resort to the military as a means of advancement.
“I think that’s sad that he would think that in this great nation of ours, that people white or black have to resort to the military as an opportunity to improve their quality of life,” he said in an interview after his speech.
William C.B. Taylor ’04, a member-at-large of the College Democrats and a cadet in the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps, said he supports the draft, calling it an “opportunity” to defend our nation.
“Being drafted is nothing to fear,” he said. “It is a great honor.”
Whether or not the campus anti-war factions support the draft, one thing is clear—Rangel’s positions will bring the war debate back to the forefront of students’ minds.
“It is certainly causing some folks to think about it intellectually,” Glickman said. “It could reignite that debate.”
—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.