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America is at war. But we have no universal draft. The Army is a volunteer one, having been formed around a core of career soldiers and young people who joined up to acquire a career.

The National Guard is somewhat different. Many people were using it as a source of additional family income. Nearly all of them never expected to get into a full-scale war.

Lacking a draft, this minuscule Army -- drawn largely from rural sources -- is charged with defending all the rest of us. President Bush has made it quite clear he will not introduce the draft, making it even clearer that the rest of us shall not be required to share the burden of defending America.

I am appalled not only because of what I just wrote, but because we are passing up an opportunity to benefit the minds and bodies of our young people.

In World War II, of which I am a veteran, only 17 weeks were required to turn a pimply-faced 18-year-old boy into a man. For myself and many others who went through it, it was the most beneficial experience of our lives.

Once we are at peace, both men and women should be required to serve two years. After basic training, the draftee could learn a skill or trade and be assigned to public service. No one would be permitted to go to college unless he or she has completed their two years.

Exemptions, of course, should be granted for mentally or physically disabled youth or those in medical training. We should also consider launching a program that would be the equivalent of the GI Bill of Rights, which followed World War II. That bill provided veterans with the opportunity to go to college at government expense.

Failure to place the obligation of military service on all Americans leaves us very vulnerable in a score of frightening scenarios.

For example, a volunteer Army would know how to use military weapons. But the rest of us would not. What would happen if this militarily trained minority fell under the influence of a megalomaniac out to overthrow our democracy? The Second Amendment will not save us; it will be like firing a peashooter against a tank.

We are already witnessing a drop-off in new enlistments. In the light of this fact, we are approaching a crisis. Those who are bleeding may no longer find cheerleading a suitable substitute for participation.

It will not take long for it to sink in, that those who are at home cheering on the boys over there are the primary beneficiaries of the income tax cuts.

Instituting the draft as I suggest will not only unite us but it will benefit the nation physically, mentally and economically. We can expect opposition from the usual suspects, but the war at hand and the ensuing peace leave no further option.

Edward S. Spector, a retired attorney, lives in the Town of Tonawanda.