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Charles Paige / Jan. 29, 2019

Women and Selective Service Registration

Questions regarding when and how women serve in the military are still prevalent.

The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service is halfway through its congressionally mandated review of, among other things, the Selective Service System. The commission released a report that didn’t offer much in the way of concrete recommendations (those are not required until commissioners conclude their work in March 2020), but it (re)raised some points worth pondering.

The requirement for men to register with the Selective Service System has been in place in various forms (usually tied to an actual draft) since the Army failed to meet recruiting goals during the early days of World War I. Both Selective Service registration and the draft were dropped in 1973 in the wake of Vietnam, but when the former was restarted in 1980, Jimmy Carter proposed requiring women to participate. He was rebuffed by Congress. In 2016, the House voted against language approved in the Senate — supported by both conservative hawks and liberal feminists — that would have required women to register. That legislative tussle was prompted by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter changing Department of Defense policy to open to women all military positions and assignments, including those in ground combat units.

Most commentators start from the position that IF combat roles are open to women — in the name of equal opportunity — THEN women should be required to register — in the name of equal obligation. While that’s a logically sound argument, requiring women to register even if the combat exclusion were to be reinstated is also a plausible — and arguably the preferable — course of action.

Conservative opposition to expanding registration to females usually centers on the general appropriateness of women serving in combat, with the argument being that no civilized nation would require its mothers/daughters/sisters to fight. However, these arguments oversimplify the relationship between registration and the draft. While registration would expedite the process of drafting individuals into the military (at least in theory) should that policy be resurrected, it doesn’t necessarily follow that thousands of females will end up fighting “in the trenches.”

Selective Service registration does not necessarily mean that anyone — male or female — will be drafted. It’s hard to envision a Congress and society as divided as today’s being able to reach consensus on such a controversial issue short of World War III breaking out, in which case women in combat may be the lesser of the evils. And even a gender-agnostic draft does not ipso facto equate to women bearing the brunt of bayonet charges. The “it’s not civilized” case just doesn’t hold much water in the Selective Service debate.

The reality is that there are plenty of roles that don’t presuppose ground combat that the U.S. military simply could not fill without including women and in which women’s physiological capabilities are not a limitation, such as the nurses FDR proposed adding to the draft near the end of WWII. Perhaps more importantly, there are not enough males who are mentally (have a high-school diploma or GED and can pass the entrance test), morally (no criminal history), and physically (not obese; no disqualifying conditions or medications) fit to serve. Given the necessity of including women in the military in some capacity, requiring them to register is a prudent and logical policy — if you accept the premise that registration contributes to military readiness in break-glass-in-case-of-emergency scenarios. That’s a topic for another day, as is the broader question of national service, which the commission is also analyzing.

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