Women, Grab your Rifles

Senate Armed Services Committee approves bill that would include draft for women

Spc. Erin Elder, an MP assigned to the 57th Military Police Company, turns away from incoming dust during a field exercise in Hawaii. (Staff Sgt. Marcus Fichtl, U.S. Army file photo)
Spc. Erin Elder, an MP assigned to the 57th Military Police Company, turns away from incoming dust during a field exercise in Hawaii. (Staff Sgt. Marcus Fichtl, U.S. Army file photo)
Posted May 13, 2016 at 11:17am

Women would be subject to a military draft under a measure approved Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee.  

There’s no expectation that the U.S. military will return to conscription any time soon. But the Senate plan matches a similar proposal narrowly approved by the House Armed Services Committee last month. The stage is now set for a floor debate about the role of women in the military, first sparked when the Pentagon announced in December that it would open all combat roles to women.  

Since then, the idea of drafting women has come up everywhere — from the presidential campaign trial to popular culture. Sen. Ted Cruz called the idea “nuts.” The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah likened the all-male draft to the “world’s worst night club .”  

The proposed legislation revives a debate that that goes back to World War II, when the idea of conscripting women to make up for a shortage of nurses was raised.  

Among veterans, the issue remains controversial.  

Chase Liston, 41, a Marine Corps veteran from Austin, Tex., said he welcomed the discussion and supported the idea of a draft for women. He said that many in the military perform support roles where gender makes no difference.  

He said about 30 percent of the Marines in his supply unit at Camp Lejeune, N.C., were women, but there was no reason the number couldn’t have been bigger. The work was mostly administrative, he said.  

“It really didn’t have anything to do with whether you could carry an 80-pound pack or not,” he said. “It was whether you could manipulate the numbers in a spreadsheet. It was like a white-collar office job.”  

Some veterans’ groups presented the issue as a question of gender equality.   

“The fight for equality of opportunity and treatment must also include equality in obligation,” said Lauren Augustine, with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.  

But others said such positions discount the original intent of the draft, and that women could not possibly be prepared to protect the country in the event of an extraordinary national emergency.  

“It’s not a women’s issue. It’s a national security issue,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a public policy organization. “If you bring in thousands of people, most of whom are not even going to be qualified to be to trained to defend the country, it is unfair to the women involved and also harmful to national security.”    

Both House and Senate measures would also create a commission to examine whether the military draft is still needed.  

The Senate bill was approved behind closed doors and the recorded votes have not been released. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in February that a draft for women was the “logical conclusion” of the Pentagon decision .  

Cruz was among the bill’s three dissenters.  

“I cannot in good conscience vote to draft our daughters into the military, sending them off to war and forcing them into combat,” Cruz said in a statement. “I will continue my efforts to speak out against the effort to force America’s daughters into combat.”  

The House Armed Services Committee narrowly voted to open the draft to women during its markup last month.  

Women would be subject to the draft starting Jan. 1, 2018, under the House plan.  

California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former active-duty Marine who serves in the reserves, offered a glimpse of both sides of the coming debate when he proposed the House version in April.  

Then, in an odd twist, he voted against it.  

“Right now, the draft is sexist,” Hunter initially said. But he later reversed his stance, saying that he was only floating the idea to spark discussion.  

A draft would involve a “real war” in which draftees would replace infantry and placed directly on the front lines, he said. Their mission: to “rip the enemies’ throats out.”  

Hunter opposes including women in the draft because he does not believe women should be able to serve in the infantry or special operations forces. But as women take over more combat roles, he said it’s necessary to ensure women and men are treated equally.

“Either you’re going to have equality or you’re not,” Hunter said in a brief interview. “There should be a discussion on this and I think every member of Congress should have to vote on it.”

The majority of Democrats on the panel and a few Republicans, including Personnel Subcommittee Chairman Joe Heck, R-Nev., backed universal conscription.  

“While you may be offering this as a ‘gotcha’ amendment, I would suggest there is great merit,” said Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California. She said she was “delighted” to vote for the proposal.  

There will likely be a floor fight over the issue when the full House weighs in.  

Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, has said he prepared to offer an amendment stripping the draft language.  

If that happens, the issue will likely be dropped during the conference process, when the House and Senate will try to work about a version of the legislation that they can both live with.  Then, the largely theoretical debate could take a back seat to more immediate spending decisions.  

President Jimmy Carter asked Congress to consider a draft for women in 1980, but both civilian and military leadership said there was no military need for such a policy. The exclusion was challenged in the courts, prompting a 1981  Supreme Court decision .   

The court found that men and women could be treated differently because the purpose of the registration was to create a pool of possible combat soldiers.  That decision was cited when the issue was raised again in later years.   

While service chiefs have said women should be eligible , the White House is being more cautious about responding to legislative proposals, citing ongoing litigation .  

“The President highly values the service of men and women who comprise our All-Volunteer force and have proven their mettle in our missions worldwide-including operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Because of ongoing litigation on the registration of women, we have no further comment,” National Security Counsel spokesman Myles Caggins said.


Contact Akin at stephanieakin@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.