The Obama administration's recent decision to lift the ban on women in combat has opened the door for a change in the law that currently compels only men between age 18 and 25 to register for a military draft, according to legal experts and military historians.
Never before has the country drafted women into military service, and neither the administration nor Congress is in a hurry to make them register for a future call-up. But, legally, they may have no other choice.
It is constitutional to register only men for a draft, the Supreme Court ruled more than three decades ago, because the reason for registration is to create a pool of potential combat troops should a national emergency demand a rapid increase in the size of the military. Women were excluded from serving in battlefield jobs, so there was no reason to register them for possible conscription into the armed forces, the court held.
Now that front-line infantry, armor, artillery and special operations jobs are open to female volunteers who can meet the physical requirements, it will be difficult for anyone to make a persuasive argument that women should continue to be exempt from registration, said Diane Mazur, a law professor at the University of Florida and a former Air Force officer.
"They're going to have to show that excluding women from the draft actually improves military readiness," Mazur said. "I just don't see how you can make that argument."
Groups that backed the end of the ban on women in combat also support including women in draft registration as a matter of basic citizenship. Women should have the same civic obligations as men, said Greg Jacob, a former Marine Corps officer and policy director for the Service Women's Action Network. "We see registration as another step forward in terms of equality and fairness," Jacob said.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., supports draft registration for women, according to his spokeswoman. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., who heads the House Armed Services Committee, hasn't made up his mind. McKeon said through a spokesman that he's awaiting a Defense Department report due in the coming weeks that will assess the legal impact of lifting the ban women in combat on draft registration.
But if you're worried a draft notice is going to soon be in your mailbox, take a deep breath. There is no looming national crisis that makes a military draft likely.
A draft would be enormously unpopular; a new poll by Quinnipiac University found that American voters firmly oppose a return to conscription. Also, adding women to the mix just doesn't appear to be a high priority for a battle-weary nation nearing the end of more than a decade of war.
The U.S. military has been an all-volunteer force for the past 40 years and women have become an integral part of it. Nearly 15 percent of the 1.4 million troops on active duty are female. More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or other countries in support of the wars. There have been 152 women killed in the fighting.
Americans overwhelmingly support allowing female volunteers to serve in ground combat roles by a 75-25 margin, according to the Quinnipiac poll. But the survey of 1,772 registered voters found them conflicted over mandated military service for women.
On the question of re-establishing a military draft, male and female voters said they were opposed, 65-28, according to the poll. If a draft were called, however, men backed the conscription of women as well as men, by 59-36, the poll said. But 48 percent of the women surveyed said they did not want women to be drafted while 45 percent said they should be.
Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, a California Air National Guard pilot who served three tours in Afghanistan, said excluding women from a draft reinforces a stereotype that they are less capable than men and need to be protected. Not every woman can handle a close combat job, she said, and neither can every man.
But they can contribute in other ways if a crisis demands their service, said Hegar, who received a Purple Heart for wounds she suffered when her Medevac helicopter was shot at during a mission near Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Hegar and three other female service members filed a lawsuit last year challenging the combat ban on the grounds that the policy unfairly blocked them from promotions and other advancements open to men. The suit did not address the question of draft registration for women.
"You can't pick and choose when equality should apply to you," Hegar said. "Making generalized statements like, 'Women are capable of being in combat' or 'Women are incapable of being in combat,' are equally ignorant. People are either competent or they're not competent."
For baby boomers in particular, talk of conscription stirs memories of the social and political upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s caused in large part by the unpopularity of the Vietnam war and the perceived unfairness of the draft. Research published in the late 1970s showed that men from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to fight in Vietnam than men from middle- and high-income families who could avoid being drafted by going to college or finding a slot in a stateside National Guard unit.
"The American people lost confidence in the draft as a means of raising an army when it ceased to require equal sacrifice from everyone that was eligible to serve," said Bernard Rostker, a former director of the Selective Service System and the author of "I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force."
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has made several attempts over the past decade to reinstitute the draft on the grounds that a small fraction of U.S. citizens are bearing a disproportionate burden in fighting the nation's wars. But his bills have gone nowhere.
That hasn't stopped him from trying. Just this month, Rangel introduced another bring-back-the-draft bill that also would require women to register.
"Women have proven that they can do the very same tasks, military and non-military, that men can," Rangel said.
No one has been conscripted into the U.S. military since 1973 when an apprentice plumber from California named Dwight Elliott Stone became the last draftee to be inducted. Stone, now 63 and living in San Francisco, didn't go happily. "I just wanted to do my two years and get the hell out," Stone said. He ended up serving about 17 months, and never had to go overseas.
The rules have been changed to make a future draft more equitable than it was during the Vietnam era. Being a college student is no longer an out; induction can only be postponed until the end of a semester.
Men who don't register with the Selective Service System, an independent federal agency that prepares for a draft, can be charged with a felony and fined up to $250,000. But the Justice Department hasn't prosecuted anyone for that offense since 1986.
There can be other consequences, though. Failing to register can mean the loss of financial aid for college, being refused employment with the federal government, and denied U.S. citizenship.
The Selective Service System maintains a database of nearly 17 million names of potential male draftees, yet the odds of a draft being called are remote, according to national security experts. Volunteers typically are more motivated, more disciplined and more physically fit than draftees. They're also more willing to re-enlist, which creates a more experienced force.
The Pentagon's top brass didn't push for a draft in 2005 when recruiting efforts slumped and they needed more troops for the expanding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University. Instead, it hired contractors by the thousands, called up reservists, and used an arcane rule known as "stop-loss" to extend, involuntarily, by months the tours of active-duty troops, said Bacevich, a retired Army colonel.
With formation of the all-volunteer force under way, President Gerald Ford ended the peacetime draft registration process in 1975. But after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan a few years later, World War III suddenly seemed possible, and President Jimmy Carter ordered a return to registration as a show of resolve. Carter, ever the progressive politician, added a twist. He wanted young women, not just young men, to sign up.
But Congress and certainly the country weren't ready for such a seismic cultural shift, and lawmakers refused to allow the registration of women.
Elaine Eidson, a mother of three sons and a daughter from Haleyville, Ala., spoke for what she described as the country's "silent majority" in testimony she gave in March 1980 to a House subcommittee that quickly shelved Carter's proposal. "This I will not stand for, nor will the American people stand for it," said Eidson, a member of the conservative Eagle Forum, according to the hearing record. "You cannot draft our women."
The Supreme Court's ruling came a year later and validated Congress' rejection of Carter's plan. The case that triggered the decision took a circuitous route to the high court. It was originally filed in federal court in Philadelphia during the waning days of the Vietnam War by a young medical school student named Robert Goldberg. He challenged the constitutionality of the Military Selective Service Act on the grounds that it discriminated against men by excluding women from draft registration. While Goldberg was subject to the draft, his number was never called.
When Ford ended draft registration, Goldberg's case languished. Carter's decision to revive the process gave it new life. A district court ruled in favor of Goldberg, finding that the Selective Service Act unconstitutionally discriminated between men and women.
The federal government appealed and the Supreme Court reversed the lower court. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that Congress "acted well within its constitutional authority to raise and regulate armies and navies when it authorized the registration of men and not women."
Goldberg is now 59 and a doctor living and practicing near San Francisco. He said there is a "delicious irony" in the Pentagon's decision to end the ban on women in combat nearly 40 years after he challenged the idea that women couldn't cope with the rigors of military service.
"As a 20-year-old, I wasn't trying to make history," Goldberg said. "All I was trying to do was to see that the Selective Service System be declared unconstitutional by one means or another. It seemed patently obvious to me that a woman could do a job as well as I could."
Selective Service: http://www.sss.gov
Service Women's Action Network: http://servicewomen.org