Guest Editorials, Opinion

Female draft debate should reopen issue of involuntary service

A move in Congress to require young women to register for the draft as young men are required to do has riled conservatives like Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. The issue is, for the moment at least, a theoretical one. America hasn’t drafted anyone in half a century, relying entirely on a volunteer military since 1973.

But men ages 18 to 25 still are required by federal law to register for the draft — so that if military conscription is ever reimplemented, the government will know where to find them. That somewhat chilling dynamic, once controversial, has long ago fallen under the public’s outrage radar. The latest controversy over potential female draft registration has the potential to reignite debate over the entire concept of draft registration. And it should.

The pending Senate National Defense Authorization Act would require women to register for the draft as men do. It was recently approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Five Republicans on the committee opposed it.

“I voted against forcing women to enter the draft, and here’s why,” Hawley tweeted, as if he was about to offer some cogent explanation of why men should face the possibility of a draft but women shouldn’t. Then, alas, he didn’t.

“American women have heroically served in and alongside our fighting forces since our nation’s founding,” Hawley wrote. True. But he offered no rationale for his contention that it’s “one thing to allow American women to choose this service, but it’s quite another to force it upon our daughters, sisters and wives.” He just states that as if it’s a given — even as he presumably continues to support forcing it upon America’s sons, brothers and husbands.

Today’s high-tech military has countless roles for which upper-body strength is irrelevant. Is Hawley suggesting women aren’t biologically capable of, say, co-piloting a Black Hawk helicopter through a war zone and being tough enough to survive after getting shot down and losing both legs? Tell that to Iraq War veteran and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

One reason the draft fell out of active use is that, as imposed during the Vietnam War, it was a study in racist and classist injustice. The millions of young men who were able to avoid going to war (including future presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump) did so by enrolling in college or pulling other strings that weren’t available to young men with fewer resources.

Beyond that inequity is a simple question of principle: If the public doesn’t support a war enough to muster an all-volunteer military to fight it, should it be fought? No war in history answers that question better than Vietnam did.

If in 2021 America doesn’t have the stomach for drafting women, maybe it shouldn’t stomach drafting men, either.

This editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last Thursday. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.