Series: The Modern Military Draft
The last American was drafted in 1973, but the country maintains an elaborate infrastructure to re-activate the draft if it's ever needed. However, a lot has changed since the Vietnam War era. As part of the American Homefront project, KPCC reports on the evolving military draft.
The idea of drafting women into the armed forces and forcing them to fight in combat has no precedent in U.S military history.
But as women's roles change within the military, so might the draft.
The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) last month recommended Defense Secretary Ash Carter ask Congress to require women to register for the Selective Service. He has until early next year to address that, along with the question of women in combat roles generally, when he appears before the U.S. Congress.
The last American was drafted in 1973, and the Selective Service went into 'deep freeze' from 1975 until 1981. That's when President Carter revived mandatory registration in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but applied it only to “male persons.”
Robert Goldberg, a young man who believed that gender gap violated his constitutional rights, sued and lost, after appealing the case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Writing for the majority in Rostker v. Goldberg, Justice William Rehnquist said that since the military treats women within its volunteer ranks differently than it treats men — specifically, excluding them from combat roles — that it can also treat them differently when it comes to the draft.
Women's roles in the military are changing
In August, two West Point graduates became the first women to complete the U.S. Army's Ranger School — opening the door for the Department of Defense to drop the “combat exclusion” rule.
"Truly it’s a huge credit for anyone – man or woman – to endure the intense training and curriculum at Ranger School, and to prevail and graduate," Carter said at the time. "Clearly these two soldiers are trailblazers. And after all that’s what it means to be a Ranger. Rangers lead the way."
Days later, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus raised many eyebrows when he said he would open the SEAL program to women soon. The Marine Corps, however, has continued to oppose allowing women in combat.
If Carter opens more combat jobs to women, he will also have to address the question of what happens to the draft.
“I think [Congress] would either be faced with disbanding Selective Service and the requirement to register for the draft, or they would be required for women to sign up,” U.S. Representative Mike Coffman, of Colorado, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told KPCC.
Coffman, a volunteer soldier who served alongside draftees in the Vietnam era, favors getting rid of the draft altogether and introduced legislation to do just that earlier this year.
(Photo: Colonel Aimee L. Kominiak is the Military Director of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. The committee recently recommended that the Secretary of Defense drop the rule excluding women from direct combat career fields.)
Some say we should nix the draft
“This is a very elite military,” Coffman said. “So I don’t see how we can at this point — if there were a draft, if there were a national emergency — that we could suddenly take all these people in and somehow assimilate them into the United States Army.”
Furthermore, he said, the last draft was unfair—the country’s elite found loopholes, like the educational deferment, to get out of service, leaving the working class to serve.
But Julie Lynn, California State Director for the Selective Service, said the administration has made a lot of changes to the way the draft would be implemented.
“We changed how deferments work, you can’t just keep going to school to get out of going into the military,” she said.
And local draft boards — there are more than 2,100 of them in 50 states and six territories — would have to reflect the diversity of their region.
“If a certain community is 80 percent Hispanic, then we want that board to be 80 percent Hispanic also,” she said. “So you’re really policing your own when you ask for an exemption.”
Selective Service System Director Larry Romo, who manages a budget of around $23 million, said the relatively small investment is worth it.
“We’re a very, very, very inexpensive insurance policy,” he said. “You can never say never. Deterrence is important.”
Romo and Lynn both told KPCC they see no problems with requiring women to register as well.
What do draft age women themselves think? KPCC took a very unscientific poll, talking to students on the UCLA campus, and largely, they seemed to agree.
While men referred to being draft as their “worst nightmare,” women largely hadn’t thought about it.
Grace Apostolopoulos, one student who spoke with KPCC, summed it up.
"I think it should be the same for everybody even though I wouldn’t necessarily be nuts about it,” she said. “I think that’s the fairest thing."
What do you think?
KPCC's online polls are not scientific surveys of local or national opinion. Rather, they are designed as a way for our audience members to engage with each other and share their views. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page, facebook.com/kpcc, or in the comments below.
This story is a part of the American Homefront Project — a joint effort of KPCC, KUOW and WUNC, reporting on American military life and veterans.