By: Clara Guthrie
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have proposed a revolutionary reconfiguration of the federal military draft that is aimed at including women in the Selective Service System, according to a release from POLITICO. As the law stands now, all American men must register for the service when they turn 18, although the draft has not actually been enacted in more than 40 years since the Vietnam War. Refusing or failing to register can lead to fines, being denied student financial aid or federal jobs, and even prison time.
In the new proposal – authored by Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed of Rhode Island – the language regarding who must enlist at 18 would be expanded to include “all Americans,” not just men.
The conversation around including women in the draft has picked up speed and garnered national attention in the past few years. In June, the National Coalition for Men brought a case to the Supreme Court that challenged the male-only draft, calling it unconstitutional. While the Court declined to hear the case, three Justices—Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh—did release a public statement on the topic. The statement argued that the exclusions of women from the draft made little sense when considering how much the military has changed in the past four decades since the Supreme Court first held up the original policy. The tone of the statement was unsure about whether the draft meets the standard of “exceedingly persuasive justification” to discriminate on the basis of gender. The Justices also noted the monumental 2015 decision from the Pentagon to open all military combat roles to women as further evidence.
This hot-topic issue most recently entered Capitol Hill in 2016. At the time, the Senate voted to have the decision become part of the annual defense policy bill; the House Armed Services Committee adopted a similar provision, but eventually scrapped it. As a compromise, an independent commission was formed to study the draft and the pressing question of what role gender plays in it. In March of 2020, the commission published its final report, which backed the idea of requiring women to register for Selective Service.
However, another distinctive school of thought advocates for the abolition of the draft altogether, as opposed to requiring all young people to register regardless of gender. As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote in his recent piece, Women don’t register for the draft, and men shouldn’t either, “Selective Service has outlived its usefulness. It should be consigned to history. […] Congress shouldn’t just end male-only draft registration. It should end draft registration, period.” Jacoby goes on to argue that the draft is an outdated practice and that an all-volunteer army is far more effective: “Compared with draftees, [those who volunteer for service] work harder, serve longer, perform better, and are more likely to regard their service as a calling, not a compulsion. Their commitment and skill are reflected in the consistent No. 1 ranking of the military as the most trusted institution in America.” This final point is supported by a 2019 Gallup Poll that found that Americans trust the U.S. military more than any other public institution.
But, of course, there are legitimate issues posed by relying on a solely volunteer force. The All-Volunteer Force Forum (AVF Forum) is a network of military personnel and citizens alike who support some sort of draft being reinstated in order to combat the civil-military gap (a disconnect in views between military and non-military individuals). The AVF Forum cites issues including unsustainable recruiting techniques, a lack of socioeconomic and geographic diversity in the armed forces, and an inability to draw from the largest pool of possible candidates as all being exacerbated by a reliance on volunteerism.
In April, The AVF Forum held a conference to discuss potential amendments to the draft which do not include the complete dissolution of the institution. One solution is as follows:
“The conscription of only 5 to 10 percent of the force from the top 10 percent income tax bracket, [presented] by Marine Corps veteran and author Elliot Ackerman. The logic being that those within reach of the levers of power would be more inclined to limit military involvement if their own children faced drafting and deployment.”
No clear solution was reached at The AVF Forum conference, as the complicated debate continues to rage.
While it is unclear where exactly President Biden stands on the matter, he did share a clarifying quote at the Military Officers Association of America candidate forum in September of 2020 before he assumed the presidency. “The United States does not need a larger military, and we don’t need a draft at this time. […] I would, however, ensure that women are also eligible to register for the Selective Service System so that men and women are treated equally in the event of future conflicts,” said Biden.
The original proposition by the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to be considered during committee markup this week. However, there will be no official floor action on the bill until at least later this year.
If the legislation eventually passes, the measure would only go into effect one year after approval.