The Hard Questions About the Selective Service Have Nothing to Do With Women in Combat


Representative Duncan Hunter’s proposed legislation requiring women to register for the draft is intentionally provocative. It comes in the wake of both the chief of staff of the Army and Marine Corps commandant’s testimonies on women in combat before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A brilliant political move on Hunter’s part, the legislation, which he plans to push for a floor vote — and is likely to vote against himself — would force a needed conversation about women in combat. Specifically, it drives questions regarding issues of both standards and equity associated with opening all combat positions to women — a decision Hunter, a former Marine with multiple combat tours, strongly opposes. His motivation to introduce the legislation is clear from his recent comments: “Let’s see if the American people want their daughters and sisters drafted, if it ever came to that.”

While Hunter intends to be provocative, perhaps he’s not being provocative enough. Perhaps the question isn’t whether or not women should have to register for Selective Service — but whether Selective Service should exist at all.

Some in Congress are boldly raising the conversation. Representatives Mike Coffman, Peter DeFazio, Dana Rohrabacher, and Jared Polis proposed legislation to end Selective Service, with Coffman stating, “either you require registration for men and women, or you do away with the system altogether. And I’ve chosen to do away with the system altogether.” The representatives note two advantages to eliminating Selective Service: a savings of approximately $24 million per year, and — more importantly — the military strength associated with a professionalized volunteer service.

The movement away from the draft and the transition to the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973 brought with it the professionalization of the U.S. military. The key mechanism driving this professionalization was a move away from compulsory labor to a market paradigm for purposes of military recruitment. While more expensive than its predecessor, the system has produced the finest fighting force in the world.

The professionalization of the force has been made possible through the enforcement of high standards. The Pentagon states that only 29 percent of Americans between 17 and 24 — the key recruitment demographic — are qualified for military service based on health, physical performance, and education. High standards and market economics go hand in hand: In the AVF, potential recruits must compete under exacting standards in order to commission or enlist. Opening the pool of eligible candidates for all combat positions to qualified members of the female half of the population increases the level of competition for combat billets. While such increased competition won’t likely result in a combat force where women make up 50 percent of front-line troops, it will drive the quality of competition within the labor market up.

The lynchpin for success, then, is the consistent implementation of high standards — the root of the debate over women in combat. Critics of the decision to open all combat positions to women cite two main concerns: Some focus on cultural impacts, primarily the potential effects on unit cohesion; others focus on the inability of women to compete physically. But both of these concerns can be assuaged by the implementation and enforcement of a single high standard regardless of gender: Removing perceptions of a double standard would increase unit morale, while exacting physical standards ensure that men and women alike are up to the task.

The debate over whether women could even perform in combat units served as a forcing mechanism for the military to clearly define and justify gender-neutral occupation-specific standards for all servicemembers — not just women. While the services arguably should have clearly defined these occupational standards long before the women-in-combat debate, and while the ensuing new standards may now perpetually be tied to the question of women in combat, the services are now in a stronger position than they were previously, armed with the data they need to continue professionalizing the force. After all, with clearly defined occupational standards, men — who make up the overwhelming majority of the current combat force — will have to perform not only to the service standards (such as annual physical fitness tests), but those of their specific Military Occupational Specialty.

If rigorous standards are the baseline by which the U.S. military has become the preeminent fighting force in the world, the existence of a compulsory labor system such as a potential draft is not the answer.

Proponents of the draft rightly highlight the growing divide between the nation and the force that defends it. This civil-military divide has pernicious effects on decisions regarding the use of military force. Others acknowledge that Selective Service is an insurance policy for a major war that goes beyond the capacity of the AVF. But the sobering reality is this: In the post-9/11 era — while the AVF endured extreme stress, while the stop-loss policy was enacted, while the National Guard and Reserve forces deployed at record rates, and while experts raised fears that the pace of deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were “breaking the force” — there was no extended debate in Congress pushing for a draft. While certainly short of total war, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan presented ample opportunities to entertain a legitimate policy debate over the feasibility of calling up a draft. Further, the Department of Defense has made clear with its shift toward the Third Offset Strategy that it intends to face the growing threat of future total wars with great power adversaries by exploiting technological advantages — a strategy that depends on a highly skilled, technologically proficient fighting force; a draft would be detrimental to the success of such a force.

Representative Hunter is concerned that the full inclusion of women in combat positions will affect combat effectiveness. Yet a much larger threat to an effective U.S. military is the influx of conscripts into the force. Let the progress provided by data-driven standards serve as a catalyst for the next iteration of a market revolution in military recruitment and personnel management, and take Selective Service off of the table.


Katherine Kidder is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security with the Military, Veterans, and Society Program.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Liesl Marelli, U.S. Army