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The Push To Include Women In The Draft Draws Polarizing Opinions


The United States hasn't drafted anyone since 1973. That's when the armed forces shifted to an all-voluntary military in the wake of the Vietnam War. But all men ages 18 to 25 are still required by law to register with the Selective Service system, which keeps a list of all those eligible to serve in case of a national emergency. Now there's a push to include women, as well. The Senate Armed Services Committee included the provision in its most recent defense policy bill, a move that has led to strong arguments for those in favor and against. Joining us now to talk about the draft is Amy Rutenberg. She is an associate professor of history at Iowa State University. Welcome to the program.

AMY RUTENBERG: Hello. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a pleasure to have you. Help us understand the historical significance of the draft. What role has it played up until now?

RUTENBERG: Well, for those who have been born in the last several decades, it honestly hasn't played much of a role. But in the decades prior to that, the draft has been used during every major war that the United States has fought between the revolution and the Vietnam War, even when the United States was technically at peace, as a way to keep the military large and yet nimble enough to handle emergencies around the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that there's a big difference, of course, in requiring registration - which is what this would be doing - and actually drafting women into war. But, you know, women do have a history of serving in the military. And they began officially integrating into some combat roles in 2016. So many people argue that it's time for them to be included in the registration requirements, right?

RUTENBERG: Yes. And, in fact, women served in some combat roles prior to 2016. It's just that all roles were opened to women in 2016. They had been serving in combat roles prior to that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraq and other places.

RUTENBERG: Yeah, exactly. Going back as far as the Gulf War. Yes, so women have served with and in the United States military in a variety of capacities, actually going back to the beginning of the United States. But since the transfer to the all-volunteer force in 1973, womanpower became a lot more important because women were a large constituency of people who could actually fill uniforms. And when you need people to volunteer, then certainly, opening the pool to more volunteers will be helpful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, there's something else going on here, too, though, which is, you know, the left and the right are also united in opposition to this, which is interesting considering what has happened in the past over the draft. Feminists on the left say they think women already pay a high price in American society. And some people on the right say we shouldn't be sending our daughters and wives to war. What do you make of those arguments?

RUTENBERG: Well, it's interesting because those arguments aren't new. Interestingly, the selective service and the draft has always been an issue that has defied partisan divide. However, I think that now is a moment where it is harder to make those arguments because the justification that the Supreme Court used in 1981 to exclude women from selective service registration was that women could not be used in combat positions. But that's no longer true. And at the same time, because of the reality of post-second-wave feminism lives - the fact that so many women are wage-earners, that the expectation isn't necessarily that women will stay home and raise children - the notions of specifically defined gender roles have changed over the years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you wrote a piece about this recently, which you say the argument isn't really about women but about registration itself now. What did you mean by that?

RUTENBERG: I believe strongly that the situation as it currently exists is untenable. It is clearly discriminatory for an all-male registration to exclude women. However, I think the bigger question is, what is the role of selective service? And is that agency and that particular action of registration from anyone required in the modern moment?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a good question. What is - where did you land on that?

RUTENBERG: I landed with I have not seen evidence that it necessarily is. There was a congressional commission that released its report last year, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service, discussing why selective service is still necessary. But the deep history, even within the report, tended to end around 1973. The question now is that we are no longer keeping records on paper. There is no real method of enforcement of registration. I wonder and have not really seen evidence that the system functions in the way it's meant to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, if this passes, how do you think it would alter the civilian-military relationship in the U.S. in the future?

RUTENBERG: I'm not convinced that it would particularly alter the civil-military relationship for the simple reason that, just like with men currently, the women who register and do what they are supposed to do upon turning 18 would check the box, would do the thing and probably not think about it anymore, just as the men today don't particularly think about it after they've done it. And realistically, we don't know what percentage of the young American male population is in compliance with the law, and I imagine that would be the same with women.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you think should happen? I mean, do you think it should just all be scrapped?

RUTENBERG: I can't say. I think the idea of a pool of people who can be mobilized if necessary - and, hopefully, it would never be necessary - makes sense from a defense readiness point of view. But if there is going to be a system, it needs to be a system with the resources and the ability to actually work as it's intended to. And if the system as it exists can't do that, then whether women register or not isn't going to make a large difference.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Amy Rutenberg, associate professor of history at Iowa State University. Thank you so much.

RUTENBERG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.