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Would Subjecting Women To The Draft Make War Less Likely? Of Course Not


As I noted earlier, the Chiefs of the Army and the Marine Corps told Congress earlier this week that women should be required to register for the draft just like men, especially now that the military is in the process of opening combat roles to women physically able to meet the requirements of those roles. Taking that recommendation to heart, Sarah Feinberg at Rare argues that there could be a side benefit to making women potentially subject to the draft, namely that it might make political and military leaders less likely to take the nation to war to begin with:

As a female Marine who served in Iraq, I appreciate all the brave men along the way who told me that women should not be in the military and should certainly never be in combat. Making the Selective Service equal opportunity allows these men an opportunity to demonstrate their chivalry.

If these noble men don’t want their wife, daughter, or sister sent to an unpopular war, they must volunteer themselves or vigorously oppose the military effort. It certainly changes the debate.

America faces real enemies and our citizens recognize those threats. Sometimes these threats require an expanded military force.

But when young mothers and college girls are sent against their will to serve in a war that cannot attract a volunteer force, our citizens and politicians may reconsider their commitment to that war. And that’s a good thing.

The basic premise of this argument, of course, is that political leaders will somehow be more cautious about taking the nation to war if the possibility exists that it could potentially mean putting the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of young women’s lives as risk than they would be if all they have to worry about is putting the lives of men at risk. It’s also a fairly clever argument because it takes the inherent sexism of those who argue against women serving alongside men in the military and turns it into an argument in favor of a more restrained foreign policy, thus in some ways exposing the absurdity of those who argue against women in the military in general, or combat roles specifically, for everyone to see. As I said in my first post on this topic, if women are able to meet the physical requirements of a combat role then there seems to me to be no reason why they should not be free to compete for those roles in the modern military. Moreover, even if you leave combat roles out of the equation, women have already been fully integrated into the modern military and regularly perform roles that have exposed them to combat and near-combat situations throughout the nation’s most recent military engagements. One need only ask former members of the military such as Jessica Lynch and Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, who served as a helicopter pilot in Iraq, a role that required her to go into combat zones on a regular basis and during which she was severely injured to the point of losing both her legs during a mission that encountered hostile fire. Feinberg’s argument, obviously, is that if future military actions made cases like Lynch’s and Duckworth’s more likely in the future, then military leaders might be less likely to take the nation to war.

While this is an interesting point to ponder, there’s simply no reason to believe that it’s true, or that potentially subjecting women to the draft would have any significant impact on American foreign and military policy.

The first flaw in Feinberg’s argument goes to a point I made in my earlier post, namely that the odds of a draft ever being implemented again in the United States are exceedingly low. The types of conflicts that the nation is likely to fight in the near future are not of the type that would require the kind of mass ground forces that a draft has traditionally been used for, and that is the only type of war that a draft is really well-suited for. Instead, future conflict will likely involve small, discrete forces as well as the use of technology such as drones and other equipment that requires extensive training that isn’t appropriate or possible in a draftee context. Even a basic ground forces solider today makes use of equipment, techniques, and tactics that can’t easily be taught in the amount of time that would be available to train draftees in the middle of an ongoing war. Indeed, when questioned on the matter in the past, military leaders have expressly ruled out the idea of returning to a draftee military for many of the reasons I mention here and also because the professionally trained, volunteer military has worked exceedingly well for the United States for the past forty-odd years. Finally, as a political matter it seems fairly clear that bringing back the draft would be a non-starter absent some kind of extreme national emergency that would likely lead many young men and women to volunteer for service in any case, just as many Americans did in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Given this, and given the fact that none of the nation’s conflicts over the past forty years have come close to making a draft likely, the odds that extending registration to women would act as a significant restraint on foreign policy seem to be somewhere between minimal and non-existent.

What Feinberg’s argument forgets, though, is the fact that we already have evidence to show that the possibility of putting young women at risk in combat or quasi-combat situations has not impact at all on the decision to take the nation to war or engage in military intervention around the world that falls short of war. For decades now, women have been serving in positions in the volunteer military that put them in or near combat situations on a regular basis. They have been injured, killed, and captured as prisoners enough times now that one would think that the nation’s political and military leaders are well aware that their decisions are putting women and men, daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, at risk on a regular basis. Despite this, we’ve seen the nation engage in military action that has often been reckless, ill-advised, and even unjustified and unnecessary several times over the past forty years. Obviously, the potential threat to the America’s female volunteer Marines, soldiers, sailors, and members of the Air Force was not a significant restraint on policy makers in those situations, so there’s no reason to believe that this would change if women were suddenly required to register for the draft.

If the American people want their leaders to be more restrained and rational in their foreign policy decisions, they’re going to have to be more careful about who they elect. A cosmetic change such as requiring women to register for the draft is unlikely to change anything at all.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Hal_10000 says:

    If the American people want their leaders to be more restrained and rational in their foreign policy decisions, they’re going to have to be more careful about who they elect.

    Well, good thing we’ll have a choice this year between a Republican hawk and a … uh … Democratic one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  2. al-Ameda says:

    An answer to a simple question will do:
    Q: Could a female president have made the same poor choice as George W Bush did in 2003, to go to war in Iraq for no reason related to national security? A: Absolutely, yes.

    What kind of choice do you think Sarah Palin would have made? The same with key cabinet member or trusted advisors. Condoleeza Rice (along with Cheney and Rumsfeld) was willing to sell the threat of a possible Iraqi nuclear threat, in order to gin up support for that ill-advised war.

    Gender has nothing to do with making poor decisions about going to war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1

  3. Paul L. says:

    The excuse used in Court (Rostker v. Goldberg) was women can not be drafted because they can not serve in Combat Roles.
    That excuse is no longer valid with Female Army Rangers.

    I am sure that feminists will find another excuse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 12

  4. gVOR08 says:

    How about this? We retain registration and a draft, but applicable only to the immediate families of members of congress and policy level WH and DOD staff, civilian and uniformed.

    I very much fear that we are creating a situation like Britain pre WWI. A smallish “volunteer” force largely made up troops from lower socio-economic status families that our supposed elites can throw around the world with little concern for kickback.

    I put quotes around volunteer to reflect the lack of real choice in a country with restricted civilian employment opportunities for many people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    There is some indication that women actually make better fighter pilots. As for the draft as someone who is 70 years old and drafted in 1968 I really have no objection to the draft.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  6. Bookdragon says:

    @Paul L.: Speaking as a feminist who applied to the Naval Academy back when it first opened to women, you are dead wrong.

    It is not feminists who object to drafting women, it’s the same sort of men who are appalled at the idea of allowing gays to serve.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  7. JKB says:

    If we seek advice from a great war commander. We see that paying what is necessary to get soldiers to volunteer is the recommended path. This would also, ensure that the cost of the war was aligned with the support of the people.

    But the real difficulty was, and will be again, to obtain an adequate number of good soldiers. We tried almost every system known to modem nations, all with more or less success —voluntary enlistments, the draft, and bought substitutes — and I think that all officers of experience will confirm my assertion that the men who voluntarily enlisted at the outbreak of the war were the best, better than the conscript, and far better than the bought substitute. When a regiment is once organized in a State, and mustered into the service of the United States, the officers and men become subject to the same laws of discipline and government as the regular troops. They are in no sense ” militia,” but compose a part of the Army of the United States, only retain their State title for convenience, and yet may be principally recruited from the neighborhood of their original organization. Once organized, the regiment should be kept full by recruits, and when it becomes difficult to obtain more recruits the pay should be raised by Congress, instead of tempting new men by exaggerated bounties. I believe it would have been more economical to have raised the pay of the soldier to thirty or even fifty dollars a month than to have held out the promise of three hundred and even six hundred dollars in the form of bounty. Toward the close of the war, I have often heard the soldiers complain that the “stay-at-home” men got better pay, bounties, and food, than they who were exposed to all the dangers and vicissitudes of the battles and marches at the front. The feeling of the soldier should be that, in every event, the sympathy and preference of his government is for him who fights, rather than for him who is on provost or guard duty to the rear, and, like most men, he measures this by the amount of pay. Of course, the soldier must be trained to obedience, and should be ” content with his wages;” but whoever has commanded an army in the field knows the difference between a willing, contented mass of men, and one that feels a cause of grievance. There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs.

    Memoir of General William T. Sherman, Vol II, pg 387.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  8. Hal_10000 says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I remember reading about how women might tolerate g-forces better. I once spoke to an Air Force General and former fighter pilot who talked about a “pilot body” – short, with a bit of a belly, not too bulked up. Of course, when I asked him if women could do it, he said no. it was the 1980’s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  9. DrDaveT says:

    What Feinberg’s argument forgets, though, is the fact that we already have evidence to show that the possibility of putting young women at risk in combat or quasi-combat situations has no impact at all on the decision to take the nation to war

    Do you really not see any difference between how the public reacts to sending volunteers to war, versus how they would react to sending conscripted women to war?

    I think you underestimate how severe the political backlash would be.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. JKB says:


    But how long are we going to have human pilots in such aircraft? That’s a very expensive asset to send over enemy territory with such a high risk of loss. Pilot training is very costly and increasingly, they can work out of trailer inside the homeland.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. Davebo says:

    There is no draft. There’s never going to be a draft. So the entire premise is pointless.

    But if it makes some feel better to induce females to register for selective service by all means go for it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  12. @DrDaveT:

    In the end I think it’s a distinction without a difference. Theoretically, it is always possible that any military adventure we undertake could result in a draft. Realistically, there is never going to be a draft so it’s somewhat of an academic argument. Feinberg’s argument is, essentially, that putting women in danger would somehow restrain foreign policy, and based on the policies we’ve followed in the decades during which women have become more integrated into the military, it’s clear that the answer is no.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. @Davebo:

    That’s an argument for ending registration for all, which as I said in my first post on this topic is the ideal situation.

    As long as we do have registration, though, there is no reason for it to be restricted to men at this point.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  14. Lynn Eggers says:

    @al-Ameda: “Gender has nothing to do with making poor decisions about going to war.”

    And Margaret Thatcher was not exactly a gentle dove.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  15. Franklin says:

    I was actually thinking that after registering for the draft, women may be even less likely than today to vote for hawks. If that is true, then indirectly it would make war less likely, because the hawks would lose power.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  16. Scott says:

    This is the same argument that the US would not tolerate women coming home in body bags. They clearly do and Americans won’t care as long it is somebody else.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  17. DrDaveT says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Feinberg’s argument is, essentially, that putting women in danger would somehow restrain foreign policy

    No, you’re not listening. His argument is that putting all young women — willing or no, poor or wealthy, black or white — in danger might restrain foreign policy.

    If you insist on believing that mainstream America would feel the same way about sending its debutantes and sorority sisters and elementary school teachers off to war as they currently do about sending female volunteers, I can’t fix that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. Mike says:

    If a repub is in the White House there will be at least a limited war. It makes them think they are tough

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1