By MARSHA MERCER
The last draftees opened the momentous letters in 1972: “You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.”
Since then, generations of young men have registered with the Selective Service System, starting when they turn 18 through age 25. It’s the law. Young women can’t register for the draft even if they want to.
A consensus is growing that it’s time, finally, for women to register. Equality demands it.
With all jobs in the military – including combat -- now open to women, it’s unfair to conscript only men in a national emergency.
The Obama administration has not yet decided about changing policy, but two top generals said they personally believe women should register.
“Senator, I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the Army, said Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Gen. Robert B. Neller , the Marine Corps commandant, agreed.
“I do too,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who had asked the generals’ opinion. She suggested that if women were required to register, more might see the military as a career option.
The all-volunteer force relies on a relatively small group. Only one in four young Americans 18 to 24 can qualify for the military; three in four fail to meet education or physical standards or have disqualifying criminal records.
“To shrink that pool deprives us of a lot of talent,” Neller said.
Whether the Pentagon’s decision to open 220,000 jobs to women could hurt the military is a concern in some quarters. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., fears standards will be lowered if women fail rigorous training programs. For example, 29 female Marine officers have attempted, but not passed, the infantry officer course.
“I don’t see how we can guarantee that in the future, these standards will not be diminished,” Wicker said.
While most people hope the draft will never again be needed, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a Korean war combat veteran in the Army, favors reinstating it. Others on Capitol Hill favor abolishing the Selective Service and registration altogether. Congress has been cool to both.
President Bill Clinton, who worked to avoid the draft as a young man, in 1995 called the Selective Service a “relatively low-cost insurance policy.” The idea is to deter threats and show that the United States has the means and will to defend itself.
Whether women should be conscripted, though, has long been debated. Near the end of World War II, when nearly 400,000 women enlisted in the military, a nurse shortage prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to call for a bill to draft nurses. The House approved but the Senate balked. The war ended, making the subject moot.
After Vietnam, peacetime draft registration stopped. On Feb. 8, 1980, President Jimmy Carter, reacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, announced that he was sending Congress a plan to register men -- and women -- for the draft, should one become necessary.
“There is no distinction possible, on the basis of ability or performance, that would allow me to exclude women from an obligation to register,” Carter said. He stressed that women were not in units likely to experience close combat – and he had no intention of changing that policy.
Congress restarted registration – for men only.
A case challenging the exclusion of women went to the Supreme Court. In Rostker v. Goldberg, the court upheld the policy, saying it did not violate the Due Process Clause. With women restricted from combat, men and women were not “similarly situated” with regard to registration, the court ruled.
Other cases challenging men-only registration are currently making their way through the courts.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter expects Congress to decide whether women should register for the draft.
“It goes back to the need to think generations ahead,” he said Wednesday. The best military in the future will need to “reach into the largest pool of people.”
Resistance to registering women for the draft likely will come from both the left and the right.
“Of course, the idea of parity probably sounds great until you’re putting your daughter on a bus to boot camp,” Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, wrote on the group’s site.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama tried to have it both ways. He favored registering women for military service, he said, although, “I don’t agree with the draft.”
But it never hurts to be prepared and to share the burden of service.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.