The political and military fallout from lifting the ban on women serving in combat roles continues, with the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Chief of Staff of the Army averring at a congressional hearing that 18-year-old women, like 18-year old men, should now be required to register for the draft. At the GOP debate Saturday, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie agreed: fair is fair.
In a 1981 Supreme Court case that upheld requiring men but not women to register for the draft, Justice William Rehnquist noted that the purpose of a draft was to provide troops for combat, from which women were banned, and that therefore Congress was committing no constitutional violation by requiring men but not women to register.
Rehnquist’s ruling for a Court divided 6-3 had the aroma of a truffle laboriously hunted to deliver a result in favor of a traditionalist view of the military as against the modern claims of equal rights. Kick out the ban on women in combat, as the Obama administration has, and the question of the draft does indeed look different, not only to service chiefs but to Republican presidential aspirants.
The problem is that by now, we are at the point of arguing over how many imaginary draftees can dance on the head of a grenade pin. There is no draft. The circumstances in which a draft might come back are all but unimaginable. And so the simplest solution to the registration question, one that has the virtue of reconciling the claims of justice with real-world practice, would be to get rid of registration for the draft altogether.
When the draft ended in 1973, so did registration shortly thereafter, but not substantial skepticism about the ability of an all-volunteer force to meet the nation’s military needs. The possibility of returning to a draft remained alive to senior policymakers for many years. In fact, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, President Carter reinstated registration as a signal of American resolve. My personal Cold War includes the dubious honor of having been in the first wave of registrants on Monday, July 21, 1980, for those born in January, February and March 1960.
And so registration has continued for 35 years. The only thing that has really changed in that time is more or less everything we know about the military.
The all-volunteer force (AVF) works. In fact, it has produced one of the most fearsome warfighting machines in history. Its ethos calls for battlefield excellence in service to country and comrades in arms, and it delivers.
The military has been able to do so while accommodating the requirements of a society steeped in the spirit of democracy and equality under law, a spirit that might seem at odds with military hierarchy and demand for obedience to orders from superiors. Yet the principle of civilian control of the military is so entrenched within its ranks that one can glean no trace of Bonapartist sentiment or any claim that superiority at arms entails a claim to greater political authority. Americans as a whole respond in kind. Gallup and other polls consistently register the U.S. military as by far the most trusted institution in the country.
Critics wondered if those who enlisted in a volunteer force would really be up to the task, or whether they would simply be grabbing the only job they could get or enlisting for the education benefits. The past 15 years have put that canard to rest; no one enlisting between 2002 and today did so with anything but the expectation of deployment someplace challenging and dangerous.
The last thing such a military wants or needs is a cadre of members who would rather be elsewhere. The last thing the United States government needs as an instrument of national policy is a military encumbered that way. And the last thing American society needs is a policy that mistakes fighting spirit for a universal trait rather than the uncommon virtue it is.
Fortunately for all of us, the least of our wartime requirements these days is cannon-fodder. We should get rid of draft registration once and for all as a small way of acknowledging the men and women who make the choice to serve.