Selective Service

Earlier this year, I read a YA novel called Front Lines, which imagines what World War 2 might have been like if women had been drafted. While women served in World War 2, the reality was that they did not carry guns and largely filled roles that kept them far away from the front lines. In this book, women are drafted and taken into combat positions, just like the men who serve alongside them. It was a fascinating exploration of what might have been.

American women have never been subject to a draft of any kind. At moments, it’s been considered, most specifically for nurses more than anyone else (legislation was drafted at Franklin Roosevelt’s request, but didn’t make it past the senate by the time the war ended in Europe).

Yesterday, a friend posted an article for me on Facebook about how the Senate has approved a bill that would require women to register for the draft. Since I’m writing a book on women’s military integration since World War 2, it’s a prospect that fascinates me in light of the history behind such a change. But what does it mean?

It is correct that the new legislation, if passed by both houses, would require women to register for the draft. We’ve been requiring the same thing of young men when they turn 18 for the better part of the last 75 years (there was a break in the middle). According to current law, all men ages 18 to 25 must register for Selective Service. If Congress ever decided to enact a military draft, the registration through Selective Service would give the foundation for actually calling up citizens to serve.

The draft sounds scary to many because we hear “draft” and automatically assume that means “combat.” It’s not a given, but it’s a reasonable assumption. Consequently, the idea of “draft” and “women” calls to mind visions of sending busloads of school girls to the front lines, armed with weapons of some kind. (Personally, I tend to take that image from Saving Private Ryan of troops coming off the boats on the Normandy Beaches at D-Day and replace all the male faces with female ones.)


Imagine women’s face on the men’s: this is probably what many of us associate when we hear “women” and “combat”

While there’s a longer history to the draft, the nutshell version is that the draft ran basically from World War 2 to the end of the Vietnam War in 1973. Just because there’s a draft, however, doesn’t mean that all draft calls are created equal. Draft numbers rose in World War 2, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War because of active military engagements. In the years between (1948 to 1950, 1953-1963), draft numbers were pretty small, and would have involved very little combat (postwar occupation of Germany or Japan, for example – not much direct combat there).

Even after the draft ended in 1973, men were still required to register with the Selective Service until 1975. Registration ended that year….only to be revived in 1980 in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Goodbye, detente…..hello Cold War fears. You can thank President Carter, actually, because he was the one who brought back registration.

…and registration has been on the table ever since, without a requirement for women to do so. Not that this went unchallenged, of course: in 1980, a man sued the government saying it violated his equal rights to have a male-only military registration process. However, in 1981, the Supreme Court said in its decision on Rostker v. Goldberg that since women couldn’t be in combat, they couldn’t be drafted and it didn’t violate men’s due process under the 5th amendment to the Constitution.

But now, things are different. Combat exclusions are gone. Gender is no longer the primary determinant of where and how someone can serve. The new rationale the Senate is acting on is this: if women can participate in any way the armed forces feel they are best equipped to serve, then they should not be exempt from registration for the draft.

Given that, if as a nation we require young men to register for the draft in order to serve their nation (should need arise), then it is fair and appropriate to ask women to register as well. There is no reason why women should not register, particularly since we have more than a century of evidence (arguably more – let’s not forget Molly Pitcher and women who fought as men in the Civil War) that women are capable of serving their country too. It is also worth remembering that military officials do try to put personnel where they will most benefit the institution: not all men are suited for combat, just like not all women will be suited for combat.

Certainly, there are larger underlying issues at stake. Combat barriers may be gone, but that doesn’t mean women are yet fully integrated or recognized as equals in national defense. Requiring any citizen to register for a draft – especially when we have not had a draft for almost half a century – is in itself a little questionable. Since the Cold War ended, our nation has participated in many conflicts, but never to the extent with which a draft would be needed.

But these are deeper issues to consider and analyze, much like the work that must be done to continue to ensure that women are equal partners in defense. Subjecting women to Selective Service registration will not make women equals in national defense, but it will eliminate one more barrier for perceiving them as such.


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