Women and the Draft

The Pentagon’s recent decision to abolish most restrictions on women serving in combat leads conservative commentator Dave Carter to worry that women will now be subject to the military draft:

It was 22 or 23 years ago, I think, that I wrote in the Air Force Times a cautionary article on the combat exclusion that prohibited women from joining front line combat units. My concern then, as now, was that lifting the combat exclusion would removed the only remaining barrier to our daughters, wives, moms, and sisters being eligible for a military draft….

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Rostker v. Goldberg, that the requirement for males to sign up for Selective Service was constitutional precisely because women were excluded from serving in front line combat units. “The court ruled that the Selective Service process is designed to assemble combat-ready people, and right now women are excluded from combat arms,” said Professor Anne Coughlin, of the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville. “Therefore,” she said, “they can’t participate in the very thing that the draft is for.” But that was then. Now, retired Colonel Peter Mansoor, a former US Army brigade commander and veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq, currently a professor of military history at Ohio State, says, “If women are acceptable to serve in combat, they are acceptable to serve whether they volunteer or not. You can’t have the frosting on the cake and not the cake underneath….”

It speaks volumes that the party of young men who once gleefully burned their draft cards has degenerated into the party of old men who declare their daughters and granddaughters eligible for the draft. But to do so in Orwellian tones of, “…moving forward with a plan to eliminate all gender-based barriers to service,” adds injury to insult….

Personally, one of the reasons I spent 20 years in uniform and volunteered to go to very unpleasant places was so that my daughter, my sisters, my mother and grandmothers might never have to taste the bitter cup of life under such inhumane and inhuman conditions. It seems now that my service in that regard might have been squandered.

Carter’s military service is admirable. But his logic in this post is far from compelling. The obvious way to avoid drafting women is to not have a draft at all. For reasons I summarized here, conscription reduces the quality of the military, is economically inefficient, and makes it more likely that military commanders will squander lives in wartime. In addition, it is a form of forced labor that severely infringes on individual liberty. Carter is absolutely right that we should not force women to “taste the bitter cup of life under such inhumane and inhuman conditions.” We shouldn’t force men either.

Furthermore, opening up combat positions to women increases the potential pool of volunteers for the military, and thereby actually reduces the likelihood that we will ever need a draft. Perhaps only a very small percentage of women will have both the ability and the desire to serve in combat. But in a nation of 300 million people, that very small percentage might still amount to a significant number of troops in absolute terms.

I can imagine hypothetical cases where having a draft may be justified because it is the only way to avoid conquest by a totalitarian enemy that will impose even greater violations of liberty than the draft itself. In the real world, however, abjuring the draft both promotes freedom and improves the quality of the military.

In the highly unlikely event that such an extreme case were to arise, I don’t see the justice of limiting the draft to men. It is true that female draftees might face terrible risks. But that’s also true of men. Male POWs have been raped, tortured, and otherwise abused by our enemies, just as women have. Think of John McCain’s experiences in the Hanoi Hilton.

It may well be that a much smaller percentage of women than men have the physical strength and endurance needed for some combat jobs. But when a draft is justified at all, that statistical variation is no reason to exclude those women who do meet the required physical standards. If members of a particular racial or ethnic group are, on average, smaller and weaker than members of other groups, that is no justification for categorically excluding all members of that group from draft eligibility. The same point applies to women.

UPDATE: In the original version of this post, I accidentally failed to include a link to the post by Dave Carter to which I am responding. I have now corrected that mistake.

UPDATE #2: A commenter asks whether I support abolition of today’s male-only system of selective service registration. Indeed, I do. Since I oppose the draft, I also oppose mandatory draft registration. In the highly unlikely event that a draft will ever be justified in the foreseeable future, I believe registration should apply to men and women equally.