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Should Women Register for the Draft?

A House committee approved an amendment to draft women for military service. What impact might that have?

By Kate Wheeling


Marine Corps recruits go through close combat training at the United States Marine Corps recruit depot June 23, 2004, in Parris Island, South Carolina. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee approved an annual Defense authorization bill containing an amendment that would require women to register for the draft. The amendment narrowly passed on a 32–30 vote—indicative of the contention surrounding the expansion of women’s roles in the military.

Since 1940, male citizens of a certain age have been forced to register with the Selective Service System. The amendment, which was proposed by California Representative Duncan Hunter, comes at a time when the military is prepping to integrate women into all front-line, combat positions. Should the measure pass the full House and Senate in the coming months, women may be required by law to register with the Selective Service.

Practically speaking, a draft requirement doesn’t mean much for women. The military has been an all-volunteer force for more than four decades, ever since it became clear during the Vietnam War that draft odds were not applied equally to all American men — low-income males who couldn’t defer by pursuing a college education were more likely to go to war. That draft inequality fueled public backlash, and in the 1970s the Selective Service ended the draft. Though men still have to register with the Selective Service, no president since has ordered a draft, and it seems unlikely a draft will be necessary for any conflicts in the near future. Today’s all-volunteer military, though not without it’s drawbacks, is better educated and trained than their generational forebears.

The successful integration of women in traditionally male-dominated combat roles was largely dependent on military leaders.

But if that were to change, what would gender-neutral compulsory military service look like? For answers, Americans can turn to Poland and Israel, both of which for some time have been conscripting women for combat.

The Israeli Defense Forces have allowed women in combat positions since 1995. Today, more than one-third of the IDF’s compulsory service is made up of women. In Poland, only women with nursing or veterinary degrees are required to register for compulsory service, and women make up only about one percent of the country’s military force.

According to a report from the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence, research on the IDF shows that “during service Commanders have recognised that female combatants often exhibit superior skills in areas such as discipline and motivation, maintaining alertness, shooting abilities, managing tasks in an organized manner, and displaying knowledge and professionalism in the use of weapons.” The same report found that the successful integration of women in traditionally male-dominated combat roles was largely dependent on military leaders. “If the Commander was to express belief in [women ’s] ability and considered them to be equal to their male counterparts, then they would eventually become ‘one of the gang,’” the authors wrote.

Gender-neutral compulsory service in Israel may indirectly influence soldiers’ experience with post-traumatic stress. The IDF boasts notoriously low rates of post-traumatic stress disorder after combat — as low as 1.5 percent by some counts. Of course, given the military culture’s tendency to dissuade soldiers from seeking help, prevalence rates of psychological trauma after warfare are likely to be underestimated. Still, those estimates fall well below the 10 to 20 percent of United States veterans diagnosed with the disorder.

It’s this universality of military service that would benefit Israeli soldiers, according to Arieh Shalev, a psychiatry professor at New York University’s School of Medicine. “The fact that males and females are drafted in Israel, it really influences what the attitude is about being at war and serving in the military,” he says. “It’s making the military service everyone’s experience.”

In the U.S.’s all-volunteer force, only a small subset of our relatively large population is tasked with participating in a war. Some soldiers, returning to a country full of citizens who can’t relate to their experiences, can feel a supreme sense of isolation. But in Israel, the shared military (and sometimes combat) experience can help soldiers cope. It can also benefit society at large; soldiers may bring their experiences in a mixed-gender military to the civilian world, helping to create a more gender-equal society.

“The military service in Israel starts at the age of 18,” Shalev says. “It’s a formative period. It builds your personality, and then you separate from the military and you’ve earned something in terms of your ability to negotiate those different gender roles.”

However, Shalev notes, “the equality comes out of necessity, because the country’s been surrounded by potential enemies and the resources are limited.” Whereas in the U.S. and much of Europe, with all-volunteer forces, an entire generation of men has grown up without the expectation to serve — a luxury many Israeli soldiers would appreciate.

Right now, the U.S. has the military manpower it needs without compulsory service, so the decision to include women in the draft would be mostly symbolic. The largest effects could be felt by the 150-plus employees of the Selective Service, who would suddenly have to deal with twice the number of registrants.