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We Already Do It: The Debate for Women in Selective Service

In 1981, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Rostker v. Goldberg that Congress had a reasonable basis to exclude women from the draft because combat positions were off-limits to women–an exclusion based on the prevailing belief that women simply couldn’t hack it. Then, in February 2019, a federal court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to require only men to register for the draft. The law hasn’t changed, but the facts have. “In the nearly four decades since Rostker… women’s opportunities in the military have expanded dramatically,” U.S. District Judge Gray Miller, who ruled on the case, said. “In 2013, the Department of Defense officially lifted the ban on women in combat. In 2015, the Department of Defense lifted all gender-based restrictions. Thus, women are now eligible for all military service roles, including combat positions.” However, President Donald Trump’s administration appealed ruling, calling the potential calling of women to conscripted service “problematic.”

As a woman and as a Soldier, I was surprised by the White House’s appeal, and the immediate backlash this ruling provoked. Women are not only eligible, but are already actively serving at every level in combat arms branches and attending special courses like the U.S. Army Ranger and Sapper Schools. In 2015, Army Major Lisa Jaster and Captains Shay Haver and Kristen Greist were the first three women to graduate from the Army’s grueling and elite Ranger School, and as of April 2018, ten more women have completed the course. Captains Haver and Greist became the Army’s first female infantry officers, and First Lt. Marina Hierl broke the same barrier in the Marine Corps last year. More than 9,000 female troops have earned Combat Action Badges during modern combat operations, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds more have earned valor awards, including the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest valor award. Sixty-three women are currently serving on active duty as Generals and Admirals. We are already here.

Practically, Miller’s ruling does nothing to change the draft registration process, and the Selective Service System still registers only men. This has not stopped the public from taking to social media to voice their displeasure. Comments have largely centered on the stigma of women in combat and the emotional appeals of concerned mothers and fathers. “I could not bear to send my daughter off to fight,” they write. This is understandable, but logically fallacious, implying that the lives of our country’s daughters are somehow more valuable—or perhaps less disposable—than those of our sons. I don’t think the mother of a drafted son would be any less concerned or heartbroken than the mother of a drafted daughter. There is no difference in tragedy between the loss of a male service member and the loss of a female service member.  No parent in this country has received a folded flag and thought “at least it it wasn’t my daughter.”

Is patriotism gendered? Are men better Americans?  To believe that men can be counted upon to stand up and accept a sacrifice in a time of national crisis but women are not should be morally abhorrent to anyone who professes feminism or gender equality. Those who demand equal rights also must assume equal responsibilities. In her 1970 manifesto, What Would it be Like if Women Win, one of the best-known American feminists, Gloria Steinem, advocated the abolition of sexist laws and practices, specifically including selective service. Steinem was considered among the most radical women’s activists of the era, yet now her common-sense essay sounds positively moderate. She wrote, “men will have to give up ruling-class privileges, but in return they will no longer be the only ones to support the family, get drafted, and bear the strain of power and responsibility.”

Somehow, though, the reality of female conscription as an inherently feminist idea has been lost on many third-wave feminists. One woman’s comment on NPR’s coverage of the decision sneered, “want me to register for the draft? Give me free birth control and healthcare.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that it shows a deep and ugly underlying sense of entitlement. It might as well read, “want me to show willingness to serve in an emergency? Buy my loyalty with benefits first” (benefits which, ironically, I have earned through my military service). Have we really strayed this far from John F. Kennedy’s assertion that we should “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?”  The country would be unimaginably poorer if every disenfranchised group shared this commenter’s thinking. No other group has held their patriotism hostage, demanding a ransom of greater benefits or liberties. The Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, Women’s Air Service Pilots, Hello Girls, Navajo Code Talkers, Nisei Soldiers—all served honorably and with great distinction, despite struggling under far greater injustices and social pressures than anyone in our current society can even fathom.

It is important to note that a war so massive as to require a draft (which is unlikely, given that our current all-volunteer force has been fighting multiple-front conflicts without any dramatic recruiting crises) would not merely be pulling conscripts to fill front-line combat slots. Currently, only 29% of 17-24 year-olds physically qualify for military service. If we exclude women from that, we are down to around 15% of eligible military-aged Americans to backfill undermanned military jobs—and there are plenty of jobs to go around. There seems to be some vast misconception that every female conscript would be slapped with a rifle and ruck and shipped out to the Ranger Regiment. That is simply not true, nor is it even possible.  Even if combat arms were still closed to women, females could flood the ranks as draftees. Assessments for the Army like the Occupational Physical Aptitude Test and the new gender-neutral Army Combat Fitness Test ensure that only those capable of meeting the physical requirements of a specific job are placed in that job—requirements that, notably, not every man is capable of meeting, either. Obviously, there are combat branches within the United States Army, but the rest fall under the banners of combat support (such as Signal, Engineers, Chemical, etc.) and combat service support, such as logistics, acquisitions, finance, human resources, transportation, and so on. It takes a tremendous amount of resources and personnel behind every infantryman, tanker, and pilot.  While there are women filling those combat roles, there are also thousands of women filling equally vital support roles across the military. Combat arms are the tip of the spear, but a spear tip on its own does not a lethal fighting force make.

Posters from the Second World War often urged women to join the fight either through military or home front service, thus freeing more men to take up combat roles. Perhaps the most famous image of female empowerment in the 20th century is the bright yellow poster of a flexing riveter, cheerfully proclaiming “We Can Do It!” But that is simply not the case for women in the military. It’s not that we can do it. We do It. We have been doing it. We have been doing it since Deborah Sampson first donned the uniform of the Continental Army in 1782.  It’s true, not every female draftee would make a good servicewoman, any more than every male draftee is a good serviceman.  It isn’t logical or fair though, to hold female conscripts to higher standards than their male counterparts. Frankly, all-male conscripted forces (the only conscripted forces in American history) are less reliable than professional troops, but that is why they are only called upon in desperate times. However, the idea that the only women capable of serving are already doing so is degrading and flatly false. I pray that we never need a draft again, but should the nation call, her daughters are ready and willing to answer.

Note: This article was first published February 28, 2019. It has been updated to reflect the appeal of Judge Miller’s ruling.

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