It’s time women were required to register for the draft. There’s no longer a reason to exclude them, even if such a move is, at this point, merely symbolic.
The topic came out of a Senate hearing on women in combat. Gen. Robert B. Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, declared: “every American who’s physically qualified should register for the draft.”
With Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and acting Secretary of the Army Patrick J. Murphy in agreement and urging Congress to engage in what should be a “national debate,” the subject is on the table.
As it should be.
The discussion of requiring women to register for the draft is the logical outcome of recent efforts to open all military jobs, including front-line combat roles, to women. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter made it clear that women would finally be able to serve as “Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
So why shouldn’t women also register for the draft?
Carter has been less declarative on the draft issue. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who asked the question of the generals, happens to be in favor of having women register.
Today’s system requires all men ages 18 to 26 living in the United States to register for the draft with the federal government’s Selective Service System. It is a ritual that has evoked a range of emotions from men over time, particularly during the Vietnam War when young men carefully calculated their chances of staying out of the military. The draft ended in 1973 and from 1975 to 1980 men were not required to register with the Selective Service. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter reinstated it.
Women were exempt from draft registration for good reason, as demonstrated in a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which Justice William Rehnquist pointed out that the purpose of a draft is to fill combat jobs. At the time, women were expressly prohibited from those jobs and so Rehnquist reasoned that it was constitutionally permissible to have only men register for the draft.
With women now eligible for those roles, Rehnquist’s distinction is gone.
With no draft in place, registering is largely symbolic of the obligation to serve the nation if the need arises. But symbolism is important. Times have changed and so should the rules sparing women from registering for military service.