Women should register with Selective Service, for equality and national security

Women should register with Selective Service, for equality and national security
© Getty Images

In 2016, Congress created the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service to promote a greater ethos of service in the United States. This ethos would include the notion of service to America above self. The commission also would develop ideas to inspire more Americans to serve.  

The members of the commission recently rendered its interim report, and the final report is due in March 2020. Congress charged the commission with two specific tasks. First, to review the Selective Service System, which requires all males ages 18 to 25 to register for possible conscription into the U.S. armed forces if Congress and the president deem conscription necessary. An important part of this review is to determine whether women should be required to register, potentially subjecting them to conscription into the armed forces.  

ADVERTISEMENT

Second, the commission was to examine and recommend ways to increase participation in military, national and public service as a means to strengthen our nation. The commission is exploring whether the government should require all Americans to serve in some capacity, as part of their civic duty, as well as what the length of that service should be. Although the commission proposes that “all Americans” serve in some capacity, it focuses on the 18- to 25-year-old cohort.

No matter what it ultimately recommends, the commission’s recommendations no doubt will be fraught with debate over political, legal, constitutional, social, national security and financial issues.

The political and social issues of requiring women to register with Selective Service will involve debates about equality — equality of opportunity versus the equality of sacrifice and risk. Since 2015, all military occupations, including combat roles, have been open to women. This historic change was consistent with broader social trends. Such expanded equality of opportunity has caused some to argue for women to be required to register with Selective Service, and possible conscription, thus creating an equality of risk and sacrifice among men and women.  

Inevitably, however, the more “traditional role” of women in our society also will enter the dialogue. It is likely that a clear recommendation by the commission to include women in the Selective Service System would be strenuously objected to, and perhaps even involve court action. A recommendation not to require the registration of women, but to continue the registration of men, likely would be similarly contentious.  

Moreover, if the commission recommends that women not be required to register, it is likely that some will argue the apparent inequality relative to men, based on gender discrimination, justifies terminating the Selective Service System altogether. From a national security perspective, the idea of eliminating the system is a slippery slope. The most recent National Defense Strategy identifies China and Russia as primary threats. War with either one might require mass mobilization, and the United States never has been able to achieve a mass mobilization without conscription. Abandoning the Selective Service System would take us one step further away from a timely response to a major threat and might embolden a potential adversary.

ADVERTISEMENT

The commission’s second task — to examine and recommend ways to increase participation in military, national and public service — is a complex challenge. It implies equivalency of all types of service. While public service of any type is commendable, all the ways of fulfilling that service definitely are not equal, in terms of risk. Military service is the only category that requires an individual to write a blank check to the American people that could be payable with life or limb and to surrender many individual liberties, such as freedom of speech.  

The commission might recommend service at one of three levels:

  • Universal access, where enough resources are committed so that anyone who wanted to serve could;

  • Universal expectation, meaning that a year of military, national or public service is expected of all (with the implication of “all” meaning all 18- to 25-year-olds); and

  • Universal obligation, where “all” Americans are required to serve but have a choice of how to satisfy that obligation.  

The universal obligation option often is introduced when military conscription is recommended in the spirit of equal sacrifice — which I already have dismissed because, while Teach For America, for example, is a worthy program, it does not require as a staple of employment the risk of life and limb.

Further, universal obligation, although noble in concept, is subject to several major problems in implementation. First, a nation already $22 trillion in debt, with even more huge annual budget deficits in its future, may find it difficult to put several million additional people on its payroll.  Second, who would decide, and by what criteria, who goes to the infantry and who goes to the Peace Corps? Bear in mind that the Supreme Court has affirmed the right of the federal government to compel military service, but a universal obligation beyond military service might trigger a third issue — compelling other than military service by the government probably is illegal (unconstitutional) under the 13th Amendment, which prohibits involuntary servitude.  Courts likely would be asked to rule on this question.

The final issue focuses on the commission’s statement that it is considering possible ways in which universal service could be implemented for America’s young people. America’s young people justifiably may object to being singled out for obligatory civics training recommended by older generations. Indeed, a powerful argument could be made that older Americans are as much in need of such training as any young person. Older generations unilaterally judging younger generations, and ignoring their own shortcomings, seldom has led to progress, cooperation and mutual respect.

Without doubt, the commission has difficult recommendations to make as part of its mandate. I would urge the commissioners to recommend that both men and women be required to register with the Selective Service System, and that the system be retained in the interests of equality and national security. I also would urge the commissioners to support forms of public service that maximize universal access and limited universal expectation. I would hope that the commission would reject universally obligated service because of financial, social, legal and national security issues.  

Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 after more than 35 years of service. A graduate of the U.S. Army War College and Harvard’s National and International Security Program, he  testified to the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.