In recent years, there’s been a significant political and cultural push to open up combat occupational specialties in the nation’s military to female service members. The rallying cry for equality has not been without critics, of course; many have accused the various branches of yielding to political pressure by easing the physical requirements of some jobs in order to meet society’s demand for a mixed-gender combat force. As the debate continues to rage, one facet of service has remained noticeably untouched, however: the nation’s Selective Service System.
In the United States, nearly all male citizens are required to register with Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday. Once registered, male citizens could find themselves called into involuntary service during a national crisis—a process commonly referred to as a draft. The United States has utilized a draft in a number of modern conflicts, ranging from World War II to Vietnam, making the Global War on Terror something of an exception.
In a crisis requiring a draft, men would be called in a sequence determined by random lottery number and year of birth. Then, they would be examined for mental, physical, and moral fitness by the military before being deferred or exempted from military service or inducted into the Armed Forces,” the Selective Service website states.
In recent years, the issue of women having to register with Selective Service tends to crop up in online debates about gender equality, with some pointing toward wartime casualty statistics as an example of gender inequality favoring women. Throughout history and even today, men are far more likely to die in combat than women, due in no small part to fewer women serving in the military and restrictions on the roles they’re permitted to fill when they do enter service.
These critics often point to female citizens being exempt from a potential draft as an extension of this inequitable system, though these arguments rarely find their way into serious political debate. Now, however, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service has included the possibility of extending Selective Service registration to female citizens as part of a broader assessment of potential changes to the system.
“We want to hear from the American public. What I can tell you, though, as we’ve gone around the country, people have an opinion [on women registering for Selective Service],” said retired Army Brigadier General Joe Heck, who also serves as a Republican congressman representing Nevada. He now serves as the panel chairman for the commission. “There aren’t that many people sitting on the fence. They either say it’s a matter of equality, or they shouldn’t [register] because women hold a special place in U.S. society.”
Heck pointed to the intent behind the draft—to backfill gapped combat jobs in the event of large-scale war—as a reason the law may need to be revisited. In the past, it was only a requirement for men because only men could fill those combat roles. With many of those roles now open to women, Heck contends that the subject warrants discussion, if nothing else.
Heck encourages Americans to read the interim report produced by the commission and to respond. The report, like Heck’s statements on the matter, seems to reflect a divided America:
Because women can volunteer to serve as fighter pilots, as submariners, and in the infantry, many Americans have questioned why qualified women would not be subject to a draft like qualified men. We have heard from others, however, who believe that physical differences between men and women would make it impractical or even dangerous to conscript women to serve in combat roles.
Americans can visit the commission’s website and share their thoughts on the topic here.