Rep. Charlie Rangel's trial balloon, put aloft to see whether there's any sentiment in the new Democratic Congress to reinstate the military draft, was aimed at Baghdad but the balloon, fully deflated, landed somewhere between Capitol Hill and Bowie.
Mr. Rangel insists he's serious, but Nancy Pelosi, the speaker to be, says no, he's not. All good ol' Charlie is trying to do, she says, is to make a point that blacks and Hispanics are carrying a disproportionate burden in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the war effort should be "a shared sacrifice" and his legislation is "his way of making a point."
Mrs. Pelosi's pointed rebuke is her way to tell him to sit down and be quiet, and, in the new spirit of no more ugly partisanship, to tell the Republicans to drop dead already. "We want to take the country in a new direction," she says, "not just for privileged America."
No one is angry at Charlie; the Democrats understand that the draft is his hobby horse and he occasionally takes it out for a canter, if not a gallop, and everyone understands that nobody, not the Democrats and not the Republicans, wants to open that king-size can of worms. Nobody wants to deal with the consequences of bringing back the draft, which would almost certainly mean drafting young women as well as young men.
Before the ink was dry on a new conscription law lawyers would find a Nancy boy or two to file a suit alleging unconstitutional discrimination, and it's difficult to see how the courts could find otherwise. The congressional bans on women in combat have been cleverly finessed by the Pentagon bureaucrats, many of whom have never heard the sound of enemy guns and think it's perfectly all right to dispatch young women, collected from the mean streets of Harlem and Newark and the hills and hollows of West Virginia and the lonely stretches of New Mexico desert, to fight the nation's wars. If a disproportionate number of them die, well, that's just the consequence of being poor, uneducated and easy to command (and often the wrong color).
Mr. Rangel's disgust is misplaced. Anger at the disproportionate share of sacrifice overlooks the fact that this is a volunteer army and the soldiers are where they want to be. Mr. Rangel may be right that a lot of mamas don't want their boys to grow up to be soldiers in Baghdad, but it's also true that a lot of mamas don't want their boys to grow up to be congressmen.
What he and his colleagues ought to be steamed about is the abuse of women by the military, by putting them in harm's way in direct defiance of congressional mandate. The Pentagon accomplishes this with fraudulent descriptions of how and where women serve. Sometimes the Pentagon bureaucrats don't even try to hide their malfeasance.
President Bush, who has said on several occasions that he opposes women in combat, drew a loophole big and plain when the editors of this newspaper asked him for the commander in chief's view in an interview last year. "There's no change of policy as far as I'm concerned," he said. "No women in combat." Then the curve ball: "Having said that, let me explain, we've got to make sure we define combat properly: We've got women flying choppers and women flying fighters, which I'm perfectly content with."
The Pentagon proudly cited how this loophole is exploited in a Defense Department press release about that time. "They told me when I checked into my squadron they didn't care if I were male or female, as long as I could carry a 50-caliber [weapon]," said a lady crew chief on a helicopter gunship in Afghanistan. "I didn't expect a vacation out here."
The Pentagon bureaucrats, like the politicians who are nominally in charge, mostly imagine that combat is a video game, only with more bells, whistles and flashing colored lights. "Shock and awe," you might say. And it's not the politicians' daughters who will return from war with missing arms and legs.
Women can perform many tasks of war well, some of them better than men can. Women have served with distinction in all our wars. But fighting men is not one of them, and every general and admiral, every grunt and swabbie, knows it. So do the politicians. But the pols eager to send a woman to do a man's job are not so eager to deal with a draft of young women for military service. The politicians of both parties agree with Mrs. Pelosi that Charlie Rangel has quit preachin' and gone to meddlin'.