Women in combat raises questions about draft


Within the last several weeks, the U.S. Secretary of Defense lifted a long-observed ban keeping military women out of some combat positions.

That decision has reopened a debate about whether women should have to register for the draft. In the U.S., male citizens must register within 30 days of their 18th birthdays and immigrant males 18-25 must also register with the Selective Service System. If the president declares a national crisis and the volunteer military force is not large enough, Congress can authorize the drafting of men to fill the ranks as needed.

Women have not had to add their names to the rolls, although the idea of their doing so is not new. There was discussion during World War II about the need for nurses and whether women should be drafted, but volunteers stepped up and met the need. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court upheld the male-only draft registration because, it said, women were barred from certain combat positions.

Now, they are no longer barred. So the question has come up again.

An admittedly small and definitely unscientific poll conducted by this newspaper found that when asked, “Given the recent ruling by the Pentagon, do you think women should have to register for the draft as men do?” area residents first wanted to discuss whether women should be in combat.

Some people worried that women would not be able to “pull their weight” or, more literally, the weight of a wounded comrade, in the heat of battle. Some were concerned that pregnancies would diminish the fighting ranks at critical moments. Others voiced concern that the continuation of the human race could be at risk if too many women were killed in battle. “Who will raise the kids?” one responder said.

We think whether or not women should be in combat has nothing to do with whether or not they should be required to register for the draft. Just because most men who were drafted into Korea and Vietnam — the last conflicts in which the draft was active — were drafted into combat positions doesn’t mean that in some future crisis, women would also be sent to the front lines.

There will be many, many jobs that will have to be filled if a crisis occurs. Women and men, alike, may find themselves having to do unfamiliar things in unfamiliar places. And draftees would be trained. All military recruits go through basic training and job skills training. Asking women to be ready to respond to a national crisis is not a bad idea. Rosie the riveter did just as much to win World War II as any soldier in any trench.

So we say, of course, women should be required to register for selective service if men are required to do so.

But, we wonder why there continues to be a draft at all:

• The draft rolls exist because the Constitution gives the government the right to field an army. But it’s been more than 40 years since the government had to use a draft to field a military force. Warfare has changed in those four decades. Attacks on the U.S. don’t and won’t come from marching ranks of men with weapons in hand.

Attacks come from commercial airliners flown into skyscrapers, rogue soldiers who shoot up their bases, and members of small terrorist cells who don’t mind dying themselves while they kill co-workers and clients. The first responders in most of these cases haven’t been, and probably in the future won’t be, combat military men — or women. They are people who have chosen to be firefighters, police officers, paramedics.

They have volunteered for their jobs, just as others have volunteered to serve in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.

• Registering is a way for the government to know who’s where, in case they have to call up recruits in a hurry. But the government already knows. Each of us is registered with the government from the time we get our Social Security cards. If we’re working, the government knows where we are. We’re either working for the government or we’re paying into the Social Security system. If we’re not working, the unemployment office and other aid agencies know where we are. Forty years ago, it may have made sense to have selective service information in a filing cabinet in the selective service office. But we now live in the computer age. Information is available everywhere at the click of a button. Separate registrations are superfluous.

• Many top military officials are opposed to a draft. They know that, in general, people who volunteer to fight make better fighters than those who are forced to fight.

We posit that the whole idea of a draft — of men or women — is archaic.

Now we return to our initial question: Should women be required to register for selective service?

No — and neither should men.