When President Jimmy Carter urged Congress in 1980 to revive a lapsed national requirement to register for possible conscription into the military, he said it should apply to everyone, regardless of gender. Congress disagreed, and for the last four decades only males in the U.S. and men overseas who are U.S. citizens have been required, between ages 18 and 25, to register with the Selective Service System.
Now a congressionally mandated commission says the time is right for women as well as men to sign up for a possible revival of the military draft, which has been mothballed since the U.S. military became volunteer-only in 1973.
After dozens of hearings across the country in 42 cities and 22 states over the past two years, the 11-member, bipartisan National Commission on Military, National and Public Service on Wednesday revealed 49 findings in its final report. Finding number 49: "The Commission recommends that Congress amend the Military Selective Service Act (MSSA) to eliminate male-only registration and expand draft eligibility to all individuals of the applicable age cohort."
"A qualified and capable force means we must extend the registration requirement to all Americans, men and women," Debra Wada, the panel's vice chair for military service, said in a conference call with reporters. "By leveraging the skills, abilities and talents of all Americans, regardless of gender, qualified men and women alike will be able to fill any and all personnel needs."
The recommendation that women register for possible obligatory military service comes five years after then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter opened all positions in the armed forces to women, including combat duty.
Congress had previously refused to expand the Selective Service sign-up requirement to women on the grounds that a draft would be primarily to fill combat positions in which women at that time were ineligible to serve.
The rescinding of the policy excluding women from combat positions prompted a debate in Congress over extending the Selective Service registration requirement to women. Rather than putting the question to a vote, in 2017 the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., formed the commission to examine the question and issue recommendations to Congress.
"This is not a report that should sit on the shelf — this is a call to action," Reed said on Wednesday. "It focuses on insuring that our military and public sectors can attract and retain the talent necessary to defend and support the nation."
Yet neither Reed nor five other lawmakers who spoke without taking questions during a conference call mentioned the report's call for expanding the Selective Service sign-up requirement to women. Action by Congress would be needed to modify the Selective Service Act if it were to include women.
Public support for such a change has divided sharply along gender lines. In a 2016 Rasmussen poll, 61% of men favored extending draft registration to everyone in the 18-to-25 age cohort, while only 38% of women supported doing so.
There are more than 224,000 women on active duty in the U.S. military, making up close to 19% of the armed forces' 1.2 million active duty members. According to the commission, more than 2,900 of those women have served in Army combat positions since 2016.
"It's insulting to suggest America's mothers and wives and daughters couldn't contribute, whether the need were rebuilding levees after a natural disaster or repelling an invasion from our shores," Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told the panel. "America's daughters should be slotted into service as their physical and emotional suitability proves capable of, just like America's sons."
Beyond advocating for equal treatment of women and men in the draft sign-up, the commission points out that U.S. population growth rate is at its lowest point in more than 80 years and that seven out of ten Americans of draft age, both male and female, are unfit for military service.
"Roughly doubling the pool from which the Nation might obtain conscripts," the commission writes, "would improve military readiness by raising the quality of those who might serve, as some women would be more qualified to serve than some men."
In a 2017 report to Congress, the Department of Defense concluded that women could vastly expand the number of potential draftees. "Were Congress and the President to authorize the registration of women, the current cohort of about 11 million women in the primary age rage of 18-25 would need to be registered in short order," the Pentagon study notes. "Annually thereafter, the inclusion of females would almost double the number of registrants."
Nine groups of anti-war activists panned the blue ribbon commission's recommendation that everyone of draft age sign up with the Selective Service. "Making contingency plans for a draft that would include women would be an
exercise in self-delusion by the Selective Service System and military planners," the groups write in a statement. "Even more women than men would resist if the government tried to draft them."
Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by The National Coalition for Men, an advocacy group, challenging the male-only Selective Service registration.
A federal district court judge in Texas last year ruled that requiring only males to register violated the Constitution. "If there ever was a time to discuss 'the place of women in the Armed Services,' " wrote Senior Judge Gray Miller of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, "that time has passed."