Is it "fair and just" to exclude women from registering for the draft?

    In 1968, I was a sophomore at the University of California at Irvine with a student deferment and a B+ grade average.  I thought I was pretty well immune to the draft.  Besides, NROTC had turned me down for officer training due to poor eyesight and had refused to give me a waiver despite a 99th percentile score on the mental fitness examination.  And someone had once told me that flat feet (I had fallen arches) were an automatic disqualification.
    Then came the Tet Offensive.  The war in Vietnam was becoming uglier and the military needed more conscripts.  Unable to supply the sharply increased quota of men under existing guidelines, the Orange County, California, Draft Board, with whom I had registered, decided to eliminate student deferments for everyone who did not have a "war essential major."  My major was Social Science and within weeks I received a notice that I had been reclassified to I-A.
    The rules had suddenly changed and I and my fellow classmates found ourselves struggling with our consciences.  Some decided to resist and others went to Canada but I, being the son of a career Navy non-commissioned officer, did not have those options.  The playing field had been unfairly tilted against me and there wasn't much I could do about it.
    My solution to the dilemma was to enlist.  To my complete and utter surprise, they took me - coke bottle lenses, flat feet, and all.  At 5'11" and less than 140 pounds, I wasn't much to look at physically.  However, my drill sergeant had a talent for pounding round pegs like me into square holes and he made a soldier out of me and others that were in even worse shape than I was.  Surely if the Army could make a man out of me, it could do the same with anyone - including women.
    Rachel Stein had kicked my ass in the 6th grade and shattered any notions I had of male superiority and invincibility.  Why was Rachel Stein exempt from the draft?  Slogging through the jungle, I couldn't help but think that she really belonged here more than I did.  Besides, the Army had sent me to Panama where the chances of being shot were not huge and I could see no reason why a woman could not do my job.  I became a staunch advocate of equal rights for women not so much out of any sloppy liberal sentiment as from pragmatism and personal experience.
    After earning an Honorable Discharge and getting an early out to go back to college, I heard an announcement on the radio that the Selective Service System was looking for volunteers to serve on local draft boards.  I applied and was approved despite having clearly voiced my decidedly dissident views to the officer-in-charge.  I thought I could better bring about change from within.  But now, 20 years later, I am still struggling to bring about some of those changes and have never heard anyone give a satisfactory explanation as to why women don't have to register for the draft.
    The draft is currently inactive.  With the demise of the Cold War, it is unlikely that Congress will deviate from its policy of having an all-volunteer Army.  But it keeps the Selective Service System around as an insurance policy - just in case a lot of warm bodies should be needed in a hurry.
    To my mind equal rights involves more than getting a piece of the pie - if it is to be lasting it must entail an equal share of the obligations.  No Orwellian feat of logic could justify making some more equal than others in a democracy such as ours.
    In order to get a better grasp of the issue, we need to study the history of conscription, the role of women in combat, and how women came to be excluded from the requirement of registering for the draft in the United States.  The exclusion is total.  A woman who volunteers to register with the Selective Service System will not be permitted to do so.
    Conscription, i.e. compulsory enrollment in a country's armed forces, is probably as old as civilization itself.  We know for a fact that the Egyptian Old Kingdom (27th century BC) used a draft to flesh out its armies.
    Variations of conscription were used by Prussia, Switzerland, Russia, and several other European nations to supply soldiers for the conflicts that ravaged the continent during the 17th and 18th centuries.  The first comprehensive nationwide system was started by the French Republic and expanded by Napoleon after he ascended the throne in 1803.  Following the devastating defeat at Waterloo in 1815 it was discontinued, but was reinstated a few years later with significant restrictions.
    In 1807 Prussia inaugurated a system of conscription that was soon emulated by many European nations.  The Prussians got around limitations dictated by Napoleon concerning the strength of their army by calling up the permitted number of men (42,000), training them rigorously for a short period of time, then placing them on inactive status so as to be able to call up a new contingent.  In this way they were able to build a powerful reserve force while not openly defying Napoleon.
    During the Civil War, Congress responded to the need for huge armies by passing draft legislation.  However, this first attempt at a conscription system was so obviously unfair (men with enough money could pay a fee to have someone else take their place) that it sparked riots in New York and other large Northern cities.  It was dismantled following the South's surrender and was not needed again until the advent of the First World War.
    In 1873 Japan abandoned hereditary militarism for a conscript system.  Despite its elitist samurai tradition, Japan adopted the spirit behind the mass citizen army in a more wholehearted manner than any of the Western nations.  About 150,000 males were called up for training each year.  The conscripts served a two year term and were made to feel that it was an honor to serve.  By the dawn of World War II, most officers came from humble origins and could claim greater affinity with the enlisted men.  The conscript army during this period was viewed as a living symbol of upward social mobility by impoverished peasants, who served in and supported it with fanatical devotion.
    Both Britain and the Soviet Union found it necessary to draft women during World War II.  At the end of the war, Britain had 19 percent of its males and two percent of its females serving under arms.  While the majority of female conscripts in the Soviet army served in regular combat units, their English female counterparts did not.
    On September 16, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act into law, establishing the first peacetime draft in U.S. history and placing it firmly under civilian control.  As World War II began to produce more and more carnage, a critical shortage of trained nurses developed.  In his state-of-the-union-address on January 6, 1945, Roosevelt proposed that the law be amended by Congress "to provide for the induction of nurses into the Armed Forces."  A 1945 opinion poll showed that 78 percent of Americans believed that there was a shortage of nurses in the military and 72 percent favored drafting women.  The House of Representatives passed HR 2277 by a vote of 347-42 calling for the draft of nurses and the bill received a favorable report from the Senate Military Affairs Committee where a provision exempting married women was struck out.  The American Nurse Association and the National Nursing Council gave the bill their full support and also supported passage of a National Service Act that would make all women subject to the draft.  But with the surrender of Germany in May, the urgency diminished and the legislation died quietly.  As the Second World War ended with the surrender of Japan, the draft was permitted to expire, but was revived less than two years later at the beginning of the Cold War.
    From 1948 until 1973, the draft was used to fill positions in the military for which there were not enough volunteers.  Protest against U.S. involvement in the War in Vietnam sparked resistance to the draft in the late 1960's, persuading Congress to create an all-volunteer military beginning in 1973.
    The registration requirement was suspended in April 1975, but was resumed again in 1980 when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan.  Although President Carter pleaded with Congress to change the law to include women, Congress chose not to act upon his request.
    There have been several court cases over the years concerning the role of women in the military, but there has yet to be a case which directly challenges the constitutionality of laws excluding women from combat arms.  In the case of Frontiero vs. Richardson, the court rejected the notion that "man is, or should be, woman's protector or defender," which was found in actuality to put women not on a pedestal as was alleged, but rather in a cage.  In Satty vs. Nashville Gas Company, the decision stated that gender should not be used to determine who was capable of performing the duties of a soldier.  The Supreme Court ruled in the case of Schlesinger vs. Ballard that excluding women from combat does not permit them to gain the experience required for promotion within the military because leadership training that can solely be acquired in combat is usually needed to qualify for high-level positions.
    In May 1995 the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Natick, Massachusetts, began a 24 week training study to determine if women could develop the strength and endurance to perform duties normally assigned to men.  At the start, less than 25 percent of the 41 women studied were capable of performing the tasks.  But after following a regimen of jogging, weight lifting, and similar rigorous exercise which included running two miles with a 75-pound rucksack and performing squats while holding a barbell on their shoulders, over 75 percent passed.  Nationally certified trainers oversaw the conditioning.  All but one of the women were civilian volunteers.  None had previously exercised regularly and several had recently given birth to children.  The conclusions of this study were later confirmed when a similar study conducted by the Ministry of Defence in Britain produced similar results.  The British study also noted that operational performance was greatly enhanced in groups "if both sexes are involved."
    But studies cannot produce actual combat conditions.  Therein lies the objection of many experts that has effectively prevented women from assuming men's roles in combat arms (artillery, armor, and infantry).  However, their misogynistic judgments are refuted by the historical evidence.
    In October of 1778 Deborah Samson of Plymouth, Massachusetts, disguised herself as a young man and enlisted for the duration of the Revolutionary War as Robert Shirtliffe.  During three years of service, she was wounded twice - suffering a sword cut on the side of the head and (four months later) a shot through the shoulder.  Had she not come down with a brain fever, her true sexual identity might have never been disclosed.  A physician discovered her charade and she was discharged from the service with a sum of money sufficient to pay her travel expenses home.  Years later, during the presidency of George Washington, Congress granted her a pension, in addition to a parcel of land, acknowledging her services to the country as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, in part due to efforts on her behalf by Paul Revere.
    When the United States went to war with Mexico in 1846, Elizabeth Newcom enlisted in Company D of the Missouri Volunteer Infantry as Bill Newcom.  She marched 600 miles from Missouri to Pueblo, Colorado, before being discovered and discharged.
    During the Civil War, women provided care and nursing to Union and Confederate soldiers in field hospitals.  In 1866 Dr. Mary Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
    Twenty nurses died as a result of the Spanish-American War.  Of the 21,480 Army nurses who served during World War I, more than 400 died in the line of duty.
    In 1915 Madame Arno organized a regiment of Parisian women to fight the Germans.  A number of women served the French forces as military pilots during World War I.  Emilienne Moreau was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the British Red Cross Medal and the St. John Ambulance Society Medal for outstanding bravery during the Battle of Loos in which she killed two snipers.  In 1940 she would again fight for France, earning a second Croix de Guerre.
    Elaine Mordeaux, a leader of French resistance forces, staged a successful attack against the 101st Panzers.  Her unit, a third of whom were women, disabled almost one hundred trucks and tanks, assisting the allied invasion of Normandy by delaying the advance of the panzer division to the coast.
    Odette Sansom, a French widow with three daughters, became an operative in the French Section of British Special Operations and organized a resistance unit in Auxerre.  Following capture by the Germans, she was sent to a concentration camp.  A subsequent escape attempt resulted in solitary confinement on reduced rations for more than a year before she was liberated in April 1945.  Her extraordinary bravery earned her the George Cross.
    Ho Te Que, adjutant of the 44th Rangers as well as the mother of seven children, led Vietnamese troops successfully against the Viet Cong in the Delta Region.  She died in battle in 1965.
    Wang Yunmei, now a robust 90 year old great-grandmother, enlisted in the Women's Detatchment of the Chinese Red Army at the age of 20.  Barely five feet tall, she went to battle with a newborn baby strapped to her back.  In a recent interview with Los Angeles Times staff writer Ching-Ching Ni, Wang reminesced, "I thought to myself, what is there to fear?  If I die, my daughter cannot survive, If she dies I won't want to live.  Let's live together and die together."
   The official U.S. Army website has an article about two women MPs who hoofed it with the infantry in Afghanistan, carrying weapons and full packs.  It's the same old story.  Men advance in their careers while the most that women can hope to achieve is an official pat on the head.  When it comes to soldiering, women are still being treated like second class citizens.
    In the first week of the Second Gulf War, U.S. Marine Lieutenant Jennifer Hackwith, executive officer of "Hellbent Charlie Company," of the 7th Engineer Support Battalion was traveling in a convoy towards an airfield in northeastern Iraq when her unit came under assault by small arms and rocket fire.  Some of the women in her command drove five ton trucks while others manned the .50 caliber machine guns mounted on turrets that guarded the convoy.  According to Hackwith, fighting is part of the job.  When the four-year veteran was asked by a reporter how it felt to be a fighting Marine, she instantly replied, "It rocks!"

    Section 1(c) of the Military Selective Service Act, proclaims "that in a free society the obligations and privileges of serving in the armed forces and the reserve components thereof should be shared generally, in accordance with a system of selection which is fair and just, and which is consistent with the maintenance of an effective national economy."  As of August 16, 2000, more than 43,257,793 young men have registered with Selective Service since it was reorganized in 1980.  By doing so, they demonstrated their willingness to serve their country.  That women were not accorded the same privilege is indeed an injustice.  Now that war has been declared on terrorism and President Bush is committing ground forces, perhaps Congress will reform the Selective Service System to make it more equitable by ending gender discrimination.
    It is possible in Afghanistan for women to be treated like beasts of burden precisely because gender ignorance has been codified into law.  We pride ourselves on being democratic, but when it comes to the draft, we aren't much better than the Taliban.
    Registration can be as simple as answering a few questions on a website or dropping a postcard in the mail.  The possibility of ever being called to serve is remote.  Considering the importance of maintaining a high standard of national defense, I personally do not think it is too much to ask of a young person, male or female.  There is (or should be) a price paid for citizenship and enjoying our hard won freedoms.  True equality demands that there be no free rides.   Besides, should the world suddenly go to hell in a hand basket and the worst possible scenario come to pass, it may be of comfort to note that U.S. military forces are provided with unisex body bags that know no gender.

This article was taken from Chapter 9 of Bushwhacked by Fred Dungan.  To get the complete story click here.


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This page last modified on December 2, 2006.