As state and local officials across the country scramble to find additional public health workers to staff their over-burdened hospitals, the need for talented public servants has never been clearer. While this chaos began to unfold in late March, a little-known federal agency called the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service released its final report to Congress. The Commission, established by Congress in 2017, was tasked with one central question: whether the United States should retain the ability to draft Americans into the military in the case of a national emergency—and whether women should be included in a such a draft.
After months of research and engagement with the American public, the Commission—where one of us served on staff—came to a clear decision: If the United States finds itself in a crisis necessitating a mobilization of the American people, it must be able to call on the talents of the entire population, men and women alike. More than just a question of equal citizenship, we believe this recommendation to be a national security imperative. As the current public health crisis presages, emergencies of the 21st century will require a diverse set of expertise and capabilities, demanding participation and buy-in from all Americans.
The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service was established shortly after the opening of combat arms positions in the military to women in 2015; former congressman Duncan Hunter Jr., who has since been convicted of misusing campaign funds, proposed an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill to force a vote on the registration of women for the draft, in an attempt to roll back the inclusion of women in combat roles. Hunter’s gambit backfired, as many members supported the move to expand draft registration. Rather than reach a decision, however, Congress punted—empowering a bipartisan commission to develop recommendations on the sustained need for draft registration through the Selective Service System, and the potential expansion of registration to women.
Over the course of two years, the Commission conducted wide-ranging research on mobilization and opportunities for both volunteer and mandatory service while traveling the country to engage with groups of Americans. Commissioners visited “22 states in all nine census regions, plus the District of Columbia; consulted hundreds of experts and stakeholders” and held “14 public hearings to vet a range of specific policy options before deliberating and deciding upon the final recommendations.” On its most central issue—the question of draft registration—the Commission heard a range of passionate views on both sides.
In defense of the status quo male-only draft registration, advocates argued that the expansion of registration to women would unfairly put women at physical risk, and that the inclusion of women would threaten women’s “fundamental roles” as wives and mothers in society. Other groups opposed the addition of women in Selective Service registration as part of their overall opposition to conscription military service in general. Beyond these ‘normative’ views, objecting to the registration of women for moral reasons, the most substantial argument in opposition to extending registration highlighted the physical differences between men and women, pointing to a 2015 Marine Corps study that found that teams including female service members performed worse on combat-related tasks and experienced higher injury rates than all-male teams. This same study, however, nonetheless found that mixed-gender teams were still able to complete all required tasks. The study also overlooked many of the unique capabilities that women can bring to military organizations, beyond simply physical performance.
As the Commission ultimately decided, the inclusion of women in draft registration is not only necessary under constitutional law—as argued by West Point professor Max Marguiles in a detailed essay—but supports the continued defense of the country in an increasingly complex threat environment. In its report, the Commission determined that it was well past time to extend the draft registration requirement to all Americans. Even before the Supreme Court upheld all-male registration in 1981, advocacy groups noted in a brief to the Court that ”until women assume their equal share of societal obligations…they will retain their inferior status.” The current restriction of Selective Service registration to men is fundamentally based on the decision of the Supreme Court in Rostker v. Goldberg, in which the court ruled that, because women were at that time banned from serving in combat roles, and the draft was supposedly intended to fill combat positions, women could not be included. That basis for Rostker was likely rendered invalid in 2015 when the Department of Defense opened combat roles to women; the formal entry of women into military combat roles meant the government would need a new compelling interest to justify women’s exclusion from draft registration in the context of discrimination jurisprudence.
Moreover, nothing in the Military Selective Service Act as written limits the Selective Service to filling combat units; in a national mobilization, the draft could be used to staff any and all elements of the military. As law professor Jill Hasday argued in her testimony to the Commission, within the court’s current interpretation of sex discrimination under the 14th Amendment, stereotypes about the differences between men and women could not be used to alone justify the exclusion of all women from the draft. On this line of argument, federal courts began ruling that male-only draft registration was unconstitutional in 2019; so far, higher courts have refrained from ruling further on these cases to allow the Commission to finish its work.
Beyond the legal justification for including women, however, expanded registration represents an essential step toward strengthening the national security of the United States. While opening draft registration communicates that women are equal and valued citizens, and contributors to the country’s defense, including women in draft registration also provides the military access to a wider range of talents, knowledge, and abilities in the case of a national emergency. In addition to gaining access to a wider pool, female service members possess unique skills and abilities that benefit all military units. The past 18 years of conflict have proven that women are crucial members of America’s uniformed force; extending draft registration to women not only institutionalizes their place in American national security but recognizes their past and present contributions.
Across the military, women are already serving successfully in ground combat roles, and interest in combat arms from female members has exceeded the services’ expectations. As of late 2019, “more than 1,200 women [had] been accessed into infantry, armor and field artillery [in the Army] and gender-integrated infantry and armor units [were] currently deployed.” While women remain a minority in the military overall, and specifically in combat arms branches, they are serving in combat arms units as leaders and have achieved notable milestones since integration began, including the graduation of 44 women from Army Ranger School, the graduation of the first woman from the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course, and the successful completion by a woman of the Army Special Forces Qualification Course.
As noted, though, a military draft in today’s context would likely be necessary to meet personnel needs across a range of specialties other than combat arms—such as health care professionals or electronics experts. Today’s military increasingly requires the participation of individuals with advanced technical skill sets, which are held by men and women alike. Already, women are earning college degrees at higher rates than men; by removing the current gender limitations on Selective Service registration, the country would gain access to a significantly greater pool of talents and capabilities in a time of crisis. As civil-military expert Jason Dempsey told the Commission, the argument for expanding draft registration is about
fully utilizing the talent and potential of American citizens to meet the challenges of a changing, yet continually dangerous, world. America is simply stronger when we all engage in the obligations of citizenship.
Women also bring specific, unique contributions that can prove essential for the military’s missions. Throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, female-led Culture Support Teams enabled special operations units to interact with and gain information from local women in conflict areas. And gender-diverse teams have repeatedly proven their value to national security in America’s recent wars; the Athena Leadership Project, for instance, researches and reports how gender-diverse teams support national security—making it all the more important to give female Americans an equal opportunity to contribute to and participate in the country’s defense.
The need for diverse skillsets and capabilities is becoming even more apparent given the need for a whole-of-society response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ability to leverage the capabilities of all Americans better prepares the United States for the full range of crises that may face the country. As defense scholar Kori Schake wrote to the Commission, “it’s insulting to suggest America’s mothers and wives and daughters couldn’t contribute, whether the need were rebuilding levees after a natural disaster or repelling an invasion from our shores.” By expanding draft registration to women as soon as possible, Congress would strengthen the national security of the United States by allowing the president to leverage the full range of talent and skills available during a national mobilization—and would affirm the nation’s fundamental belief in a common defense by signaling that men and women are equally valued for their contributions in defending the nation.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.