WASHINGTON, D.C. (Christian Examiner) – Women may soon have to register with the Selective Service System – the military draft – if Congress alters regulations about who is eligible for call up during a time of war.
On Tuesday, the Army and Marine Corps' highest ranking officers both said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the integration of women in the military that they favored the change, especially since the restriction on women serving in forward combat units was lifted in 2013. The military has also announced it will soon open all combat roles to women – even, presumably, special operations.
More than 9,000 women have already received the Combat Action Badge, a citation given to soldiers not assigned to combat roles but who have been in theater in an area of imminent danger. More than 1,000 women have also been killed or wounded in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq since the War on Terror began.
Asked by Sen. Claire McCaskill [D-Mo.] if women should be subject to the draft, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told the Senate panel it was his "personal view, based on this lifting of restrictions for [combat roles], that every American physically qualified should register for the draft."
"Now that the restrictions that exempted women from [combat roles] don't exist, then you're a citizen of a United States," Neller said. "It doesn't mean you're going to serve, but you go register."
That sentiment was echoed by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who said "all qualified, eligible men and women," between the ages of 18 and 26, should be required to register for the draft.
The politicians testifying, however, avoided a direct answer to the question. Navy Sec. Ray Mabus told the committee that there "should be a national debate" about the issue, but he sensed requiring women to register for the draft will "open up more recruiting" and increase the number of women interested in the Marine Corps.
Acting Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy also said women registering for the draft should be part of the national debate. His answer drew a swift response from Sen. John McCain [R-Ariz.], who said, "You were asked your opinion."
Murphy then quietly offered a one word reply, "Yes."
The military draft ended by presidential order in 1975 as the Vietnam War drew to a close and for a few years no American had to register for it through the Selective Service System. The crisis with Iran in 1980 raised the possibility of war in Southwest Asia and the system was reactivated by President Jimmy Carter. At the time, Carter requested both men and women be required to register. However, when Congress provided funding for the Selective Service System, it did so only for males to be registered.
That decision was soon challenged by several men who believed their Fifth Amendment due process rights were violated because women were not required to register – an act, they said, of gender discrimination. A lower court sided with the men.
When the case, Rostker v. Goldberg, finally reached the Supreme Court in 1981, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in a 6-3 decision that, since women were excluded from combat roles by military policy, there was no purpose in Congress authorizing their mandatory participation in the Selective Service System. The high court also held that the raising of armies – of whatever type – was solely under the "broad and sweeping" authority of Congress.
It is Congress that will now again deal with the issue of women and the military draft.
The purpose of the hearing Feb. 2 was not to discuss the draft, but rather to discuss full integration of women into the military. Currently, only 8 percent of U.S. Marine officers and enlisted personnel are female.
The Marine Corps has already conducted a $36 million study on the effectiveness of women in combat. That study – comprised of 300 men and 100 women volunteers – showed women were injured twice as often as men in combat-related tasks, that they found most combat-related tasks difficult to perform (including the removal of casualties under fire), and that they were generally less proficient in combat arms.
The Marine Corps then requested that some combat roles remain closed to women. However, the results of the study, as well as the request, fell on deaf ears at the highest levels. "I came to a different conclusion," Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said at the time.
Carter then ordered all combat roles open to women.
Murphy said in his opening statement that even with the challenges experienced by women in combat roles – unit cohesion, small numbers of female volunteers, higher attrition and injury rates among them – they can be overcome to "increase our overall readiness, thereby making us more combat effective."
Neller said the Marine Corps would continue to look for ways women could be integrated into combat roles that protect unit cohesion and the success of fighting units.
"Marines follow orders. In response to Secretary of Defense Carter's decision in December 2015, the Marine Corps is stepping out smartly to facilitate the integration of all qualified Marines into previously closed MOS's [Military Occupation Specialties]," Neller said.
Sen. McCain, chairman of the committee, expressed concerned that the military was being more political than practical and was not taking the time to assess the implementation plans for women in combat.
"I'm concerned the department [Department of Defense] has gone about things backward," McCain said. "This consequential decision was made and mandated before the military services could study its implications, and before any implementation plans were devised to address the serious challenges raised in studies."
Sen. Joni Ernst [R-Iowa], the only female veteran on the committee, said her concern was that the military not lower standards for women soldiers in order to meet quotas.
"We need to ensure we don't set men or women up for failure," she said. "We need to ensure that we're taking into account the impact this could have on women's health."