Army And Marine Chiefs: Women Should Be Required To Register For Draft Just Like Men

The Army Chief of Staff and Commandant of the Marine Corps told Congress that women should be required to register for the draft just like men are.

Military Women

Earlier this week, top officers in the Army and the Marine Corps told members of a Congressional Committee that mandatory registration for the draft, which has been in effect for men when they reach their eighteenth birthday for more than thirty years now, should be expanded to include women:

The top officers in the Army and Marine Corps testified on Tuesday that they believe it is time for women to register for future military drafts, following the Pentagon’s recent decision to open all jobs in combat units to female service members.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the Army, and Gen. Robert B. Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, both said they were in favor of the change during an occasionally contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the full integration of women in the military. The generals, both infantry officers, offered their opinions in response to a question from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who said that she also is in favor of the change.

“Senator, I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft,” said Milley, echoing the remarks of Neller.

After the hearing, Neller added in an short interview that any young American as a rite of passage should have to register for Selective Service.

“Now that the restrictions that exempted women from [combat jobs] don’t exist, then you’re a citizen of a United States,” Neller said. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to serve, but you go register.”

The comments are a first in the Defense Department. Previously, senior defense officials have said only that the issue would need to be researched following Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s historic decision in December to open all jobs in the military to women without exception.

Carter’s action allows women for the first time to apply for a variety of physically punishing positions, including Army and Marine Corps infantryman, as well as Special Operations jobs, including Navy SEAL and Green Beret. The Defense Department plans to begin implementing associated changes in training and evaluation by April 1.


On the surface, there doesn’t seem to me to be any substantive objection to the position that Generals Miller and Neller are taking here. Even leaving aside the issue of whether or not all combat positions should be open to women if they can meet the same physical requirements as men, and I think they should, women have been playing other non-combat and quasi-combat roles in the military for decades now. Women served as nurses and in other positions in near-combat areas during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, for example. There were women who flew air missions over hostile territory during the Persian Gulf War, as well as women who have been performing roles formerly performed only by men in all branches of the military for some time now. During the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan, the roles performed by women by necessity put them even closer to combat situations than they had been in the past to the point where they were as likely to be required to fire a weapon, or face the possibility of being killed or wounded, as any man they served alongside. Putting women in combat positions would obviously increase that risk, but not substantially, and if the women in question are physically able to do the job then there’s no rational reason to exclude them from consideration for the position.

Since women already play an integral role in the military, and will continue to do so in the future, it only makes sense that they should be required to meet the same requirements as men when it comes to registration for a potential draft. In reality, of course, the odds that the nation would ever be in a position where a military draft was likely seem to be somewhere between slim and none. The volunteer military has functioned exceedingly well for the past forty years or more since the draft was eliminated, and military leadership has repeatedly said in response to questions from Congress that they see no reason why a draft should be reimposed. For one thing, the nature of the military has changed so significantly in the past forty years that taking in draftees and training them the way we did in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam simply wouldn’t work in a military where even operating the equipment a soldier uses takes months if not years of training rather than the weeks of basic training that a draftee received in the past. A draftee army uses soldiers as human fodder, whereas the volunteer military we have depends on soldiers who are well trained on highly technical equipment. That’s simply not possible with draftees. Beyond those practical concerns, the moral and political arguments against a draft remain as powerful as they were when they were voiced forty years ago by people such as the libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who was one of the loudest voices against conscription during the Vietnam Era and was appointed to a committee to study conversion to an all-volunteer military by President Nixon. Friedman and others who were around at the time explain his role in the elimination of the draft in this short video.:

Ideally, I agree with Cato’s Christopher Preble that we should just eliminate draft registration entirely:

The entire draft architecture is anachronistic and unnecessary. We’ve operated with an all-volunteer force for decades; no one, regardless of gender, expects that they’ll be drafted; and the wars that we fight don’t depend upon conscription. Future wars aren’t likely to, either.

Selective service was instituted during World War I, but America’s first peacetime draft, the Selective Service Act of 1940, was enacted as much of Europe and parts of Asia descended into the maelstrom of another world war. Many Americans wanted desperately to stay out, but also understood the need to prepare for it. All told, around 10 million men were drafted during World War II, but the act expired after the war ended.


Selective service started up again in the late 1940s, but notably did not include President Harry Truman’s call for universal military training. Selecting some men via the draft provided the military with the troops it needed to prosecute the wars in Korea and Vietnam. But the idea of forcingall men to serve during peacetime never took hold because the requirements of those wars never called for 10 million-plus men to fight them. The selective nature of the draft exposed the system to charges of unfairness, particularly with respect to exemptions given during the Vietnam era for those able to ride out the war as college students, but it still made more sense than the alternative: compelling every man to serve in a military that didn’t need them.

Compulsory service is even less essential today. America’s wars of the post-conscription era have been fought by far smaller forces, and our mixed track record in those conflicts hasn’t been a function of the number of available troops. Rather, the inability to achieve decisive victory in places like Iraq and Afghanistan reflects the inherent difficulty of nation-building, and our body politic’s understandable weariness with open-ended and costly missions in distant lands. Although in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, there’s beenan uptick in public support for deployment of additional ground troops to combat the Islamic State, having a draft, with one or both sexes, is unlikely to make the public more supportive of large-scale, decades-long wars.

Meanwhile, a draft would likely reduce the military’s fighting effectiveness. Today’s force is uniquely capable precisely because it is comprised entirely of volunteers, men and women who choose to join the military for a variety of reasons, including the desire to serve their country, but also because of the exceptional opportunities and benefits available to those in uniform. Overall compensation for troops is more than competitive relative to their comparably skilled peers, and Americans are willing to invest in their professional development because we are confident that many of them will remain in service long enough for our investment to be worthwhile. By contrast, draftees of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s weren’t expected to stick around after their obligation expired, and thus received minimal training. A conscripted military might be larger, but it wouldn’t be better.

I appreciate the sentiment argued for years by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) — himself a Korean War combat veteran — that a draft would “compel the public to think twice before they make a commitment to send their loved ones into harm’s way.” But the idea that the all-volunteer military explains Washington’s propensity to go to war, or that a draft would force policymakers to rethink their interventionist impulses, overlooks the fact that few, if any, of our conflicts in the first two decades of the post-conscription era could be considered protracted ground wars, and likewise cannot explain why other countries around the world with volunteer militaries are far less war-prone than we.

Leaving all of that aside, though, the possibility still exists that a draft could be reimposed someday, albeit most likely only in an extreme national emergency, and the law requires young men to register with Selective Service to account for that possibility. As long as that is a possibility, and given the fact that women already perform roles formerly open only to men at all levels of the military, there is no rational reason why women should not be required to register with Selective Service just as men are. 

Update: In a subsequent post, I address an argument that suggests that making women subject to the draft would somehow act as a restraint on an adventurous, interventionist foreign policy.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. PD Shaw says:

    Of course there is a rational reason, men and women are physically different from each other. Not to say that all men are inherently better than all women for the types of deployments a draft would call for, but as a class they are statistically different.

  2. @PD Shaw:

    That’s not an argument against not requiring registration, women could be drafted to fill non-combat positions that would otherwise be filled by men. Thus freeing up more men for combat. Theoretically.

  3. Kari Q says:

    If we continue registration, of course women should be registered as well as men. But there seems no rational argument for requiring people to register for a draft that we all agree isn’t coming back.

  4. The draft registration is a relic of the past. It’s long past due to get rid of it and acknowledge that the volunteer military we have today is superior in effectiveness to a conscript force. Plus, any politician that re-institutes the draft would be voted out or recalled at the next possible moment.

  5. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I agree. Either Selective Service should be eliminated entirely, or it should apply equally to everyone.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    @Doug: There will be men who aren’t optimal for combat positions. 99.9% of females have less upper body muscle mass than the average male. Link. Its going to be more efficient to fill positions from a random drawing of males than of both males and females.

  7. @PD Shaw:

    Again, what rational basis is there for not treating men and women equally when it comes to registration? You’re talking about potential implementation of a draft, which, absent an extreme national emergency, is exceedingly unlikely. The only thing registration requires today is the filling out of a form, either at the Post Office or online.

  8. Tyrell says:

    Two thoughts about the “draft”. It is from an age that had wars fought with huge armies. That is a thing of the past.
    Most parents would not stand for their daughters being drafted and sent into combat at the front line.
    I think back to the time of Vietnam. US troops there. So they have this lottery type thing that drew a number for each day of the year, 1 – 365. I got a high number, like 290 something, which meant no chance of being drafted. By then Nixon was phasing out the draft anyway and reducing troop numbers in Vietnam. (“Vietnamization”). Kind of like Obama did in Iraq.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Tyrell: Well, maybe if families won’t stand for “their daughters being drafted and sent into combat at the front line”, we’ll be more cautious about getting into wars, hmmm?

    On the other hand, if we HAVE to have wars, the best people to send are the young and foolish males. In fact, one might say it’s the other way around: historically wars occurring because it gives teenage guys something to do to prove themselves.

    Am reminded of the books Northshore and Southshore by Sheri S. Tepper. One of the characters, seeing war as a possibility and trying to avoid it, asks at the very beginning: “what good are dead young men?” And then, at the end of the story, after she has seen the fanaticism and idealism and what it has led to, says bitterly: “the good of dead young men is that they are dead.”

  10. Slugger says:

    The Israelis have women serve in the military. During WW II the Russians had lots of women serve including in front-line combat roles. Someone ought to look at the records of military actions by women rather than just give us their opinions from the comfort of their armchairs.

  11. Bookdragon says:

    @Slugger: Amen. Even way back when I was draft age, I argued that women should register too. I’ve studied martial arts since I was 12 and I know that upper body strength is far from a determining factor in hand to hand combat. In modern combat, it’s even less of a factor.

  12. sam says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Of course there is a rational reason, men and women are physically different from each other

    PD, I have to say I’m surprised at that argument coming from you. X is drafted does not imply X is going into a combat arm.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Registering for the draft is about the implications of the draft. If you hadn’t used the word “rational,” I would not have written anything. The purpose of the draft is to involuntarily enlist people to kill the enemy when the volunteer military is inadequate. It is completely rational to select a pool of people that would best serve that function, understanding that anytime you draw a random sample of people you will end up with some people not fit for the purpose.

    If there is no additional cost from requiring women to enlist, which I doubt that would be one thing. But if the draft is brought into effect, the additional screening cost is a factor. The reason for including women is egalitarianism, not reason.

  14. ernieyeball says:

    @grumpy realist:.. “the good of dead young men is that they are dead.”


  15. JKB says:

    This is registration for the Selective Service. Having women register has nothing to do with whether they should be drafted in significant numbers in an emergency, even if men are. Nor do draftees have to be placed in combat jobs. The majority of the military are no longer infantry but rather have jobs in the rear with the gear directing munitions and providing intelligence and logistics support to the combat troops.

    But there are very costly penalties imposed upon men who do not register for Selective Service. They are denied jobs, benefits, etc. There is no justification for imposing the risk of those penalties on men and not on women. It is sexist and sexual discrimination.

  16. DrDaveT says:

    @PD Shaw:

    The purpose of the draft is to involuntarily enlist people to kill the enemy when the volunteer military is inadequate. It is completely rational to select a pool of people that would best serve that function

    Are you seriously claiming that women are physically incapable of pushing buttons, piloting UAVs, interpreting intelligence photographs, pumping gas, cleaning aircraft, policing debris from airfields, carrying litters, driving vehicles, inventorying spare parts, changing tires, …

    If we are in a war where we need to arm everyone with rifles and heavy packs and march them to the front, we’ll be desperate enough to include the kids and the grannies too. Until then, most military jobs — even the ones that can be done with very little training — do not require a great deal of upper-body strength.

  17. bill says:

    seeing as there hasn’t been a draft since what, ‘nam- it’s merely philosophical at this stage. plus we let drones do the work these days, i mean the flying ones. so unless some country has the nads to actually try to attack us here then we won’t ever need a draft. we’re that lucky to live across the oceans from the rest of the savages- and who could mess with us in this hemisphere… the south of us is a bunch of leftwing misfits who can’t even run their backwards countries….aside from into the ground.
    and canada is essentially north north America.

    yes, women are different- that’s why there’s men’s sports and women’s sports…and in most places- separate rest rooms.

  18. Tim says:

    Having women in combat roles and having a mandatory draft sign-up for women is a huge plus for men and a huge deterrent to future wars. If you go to a lot of the articles on this subject and read the comments, you’ll find many men and women that are staunchly against having their daughters in combat. What does this mean? Well, first it means that they’re hypocrites from a culturally misandric generation that can’t die off soon enough. It also means far fewer wars because America’s daughters will have to face capture, rape, beheading, blown off limbs and the suicide rates and mental disorders men are left with post combat – something America’s sons have always been expected to endure – lest they be labeled cowards and summarily tossed in prison.

    “Allowing women into combat roles” is idiotic. They should be forced into combat roles through orders just as men are. Men aren’t “allowed into combat roles”. They’re ordered to their deaths at the command of the commander in chief – which may very soon be a woman.

  19. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist:

    In fact, one might say it’s the other way around: historically wars occurring because it gives teenage guys something to do to prove themselves.

    Wars occur because old men (and old women) decide there will be wars.

  20. PD Shaw says:

    @sam: The primary purpose of the draft is for combat positions, those have been the most difficult to fill through volunteers. When mobilizing for war even noncombat positions are stocked with combat-trained men who can be rotated into combat if the need arises.

    We’re dealing with classes here, not individuals. Right now, the draft registration is limited to the class of males ages 18 to 26. You can enlarge the class by changing the age, or removing the gender requirement, but the enlarged class will include more people that fall below the minimal physical standards and are relatively less physically strong than the previous class.

  21. JRM says:

    Lets be honest about the USA and wars. We claim to be a war averse country but we actually are very dependent on the Military for our economy and typically are in war every 10 yrs in major combat since our inception. Our Military Industrial Complex and the Hawks in Congress are always wanting us to be involved militarily to keep us strong in the world militarily and economically. I think it is a good idea to keep up a selective service system in place in case we ever need to have wholesale call ups of young people to fight for the country. Yes women should be included in the registration but given the option of opting out of combat arms positions.

  22. Robin Cohen says:

    Perhaps if the wars in which we have been involved were in defense of our interests rather than in in that of other nations there would be more support for involving more women . The Vietnam War was pointless yet we engaged and lost thousands of soldiers. I am all for defending the US. Going all out for Afghanistan or Iraq when their own people don’t want to fight is ludicrous. No American,male or female, should fight for countries that will not use all of it’s resources to fight for itself. We are still the go to country for defense against warmongers like ISIS and that has to stop.
    We should defend this country first and other countries only as a last resort if all other options fail.

  23. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: But the young men are the ones gullible enough and idealistic enough to believe “for God and Country!”

    Heck, it’s not just the young men. It’s that if you want to keep your population going, you need to keep the young women around much more than the young men. Hence the tendency to use up the young men.

  24. Wee Liam says:

    @Kari Q:

    Not even after we attack Russia?

  25. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist: So then it’s their fault old men and women exploit their youth, and a good thing they die?

    Please tell me the inference I’ve drawn is mistaken.

  26. Robin Cohen says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Tell the Army and Marine Chiefs to get stuffed. I am tired of fighting other countries’ wars while there own people run away and hide.