In order to believe that women should register for the Selective Service System (SSS), which serves to make the US ready for military conscription, one must accept several premises: 1) that the SSS is desirable for the country in the first place, 2) that women should be able to serve a role in the military (in particular, in combat roles) and 3) that these two premises mean that women should register for the SSS.
As to the first premise, a case can be made to abolish the SSS altogether. There are two principal objections to the SSS, one philosophical and one policy-oriented. Service to one’s country is a good and admirable thing, but the SSS goes beyond that. It creates a requirement that a young person, by nature of his existence, owes something (up to his life) to his government. It further allows that government to penalize anyone who does not render unto it what it is owed, not just with denial of many benefits, but also with up to a $250,000 fine and five years in prison. The implication is that, at least in certain circumstances, the government has a higher claim on a young man’s life than he does.
Supporters of registration might respond by stating that a draft could be necessary for the preservation of the country and that those most able have a responsibility to defend it. If a draft were necessary for the protection of the homeland, that might be justification enough for the state laying claim to the lives of its youngest adult citizens, but its necessity is not at all apparent. No draft orders have been issued since 1972. In fact, President Ford actually ended the requirement that men register with the SSS in 1975. There was no requirement until President Carter renewed it in 1980 in response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. The Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were all fought without a draft.
The nature of warfare has changed. While soldiers will be necessary for the foreseeable future, forces of such a large scale as were necessary in past wars are unlikely. Also, the all-volunteer force that the US currently employs is usually seen as superior to a force with draftees because of its better morale and superior training. Finally, in the event that America faces a direct existential threat and needs to go to war to defend itself, I have little doubt that many, many more people will volunteer for military service.
Some might agree that the SSS should be abolished, but argue that as long as it exists, it should treat men and women equally. This is misguided. If one views the SSS as an injustice, expanding it to cover women only makes that injustice affect more people directly. If one views it merely as a non-optimal policy, including women does nothing to make it better.
However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that the SSS is good and proper policy. That still leaves open the question of what role women should serve in the military. Here a distinction needs to be made. Not all military positions are combat roles. Having women in the military is not particularly controversial, and I see no problem with it. However, I remain skeptical of having women in combat roles.
For instance, a recent study by the Marines found that mixed-sex units performed worse than all-male units in 39 of 134 tasks tested. Also, women were far more likely to receive injuries. Women have had a much harder time completing Army Ranger training than men: in the first sex-integrated class of Army Rangers, none of the nineteen women who participated made it past the first phase.
Men, overall, have several physical advantages over women: their blood carries more oxygen, they weigh more, have more muscle mass and stronger bones. Israel is often given as an example of a country that conscripts women, but it actually significantly restricts the role that they can serve in combat.
Perhaps my concerns about women serving in combat are unfounded. Perhaps the military finds no drawback in allowing physically exceptional women to participate in combat. That still doesn’t mean that women should have to be drafted.
While some women are exceptional, as a proportion, significantly fewer women than men have the physical capability of meeting the high standards needed for combat. If a draft were necessary, it would make much more sense to restrict it to the the segment of the population who is best suited for combat. Women would be more likely to be turned away or forced into roles of which they are not as prepared as their male counterparts.
Of course, not all military roles are combat roles. Could women be drafted into those roles? I don’t see the necessity. A draft is only likely to be reinstated in an extreme emergency. If non-combat roles are what is needed in such an emergency, okay, but I have a suspicion that people will be most needed specifically for combat.
Finally, there is something to be said for the cultural distinction between men and women. Women being forced into the military and dying on the battlefield, in all likelihood in a greater proportion than men, would, justifiably or not, demoralize the nation in a way that men dying would not. Also, while I do believe drafting men is a great injustice, I find drafting women to be a greater injustice still.
Even if one sees the draft as a virtuous policy promoting patriotism, I do not see the virtue in extending it to women given the natural physical differences between the sexes. To demand that women must be able to be drafted ignores the historical contributions that women have made during past wars. After all, it isn’t as though the women of America did nothing to help the war effort during WWII.