Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ushered in a new era in the U.S. military on Thursday when he announced that all combat roles will be opened to women.
The dirty little secret of modern warfare is that women have been serving in combat roles in our armed forces since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even before. In an age of asymmetric warfare and responding to insurgent operations, there are no frontlines. Women can and have served in combat and have done so with honor and valor. They have served and sacrificed in nearly every capacity from driving in convoy operations that have come under attack to being members of Cultural Support Teams with special operations forces. Women have, time and again, proved that they can serve anywhere, anytime, in any capacity.
The fact that we continued to have this discussion about women in combat for so long is a testament only to the pervasive misogynism and sexism in our culture. Women have been able to serve in combat roles for decades in militaries across the globe.
Since 1985, for example, Norwegian soldiers can serve in all combat assignments regardless of gender. Norwegian soldiers serve in mixed units and live in mixed dorms. Over sixteen other industrialized nations allow women in their combat forces including allies with mandatory military service like Israel. It is way past time to allow all of our best soldiers to serve in whatever roles in which they can meet the standards.
Just allowing combat jobs to be open to women is an important step towards women's equality in the military, but it is hardly the final step - Congress should require them to register for the draft, too.
Nearly all male citizens and immigrants aged 18 to 25 are required to register with the Selective Service. Nonregistration carries significant penalties. In addition to being a felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 or a prison term of up to five years, or both, nonregistration can ban you from a litany of services. You cannot obtain federal or state (in most states) student financial aid. You cannot obtain most federal jobs. If you are an immigrant, you cannot obtain citizenship.
The basis of exclusion for women in the draft has historically stemmed from their exclusion from combat roles. In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Rostker v. Goldberg that because women were excluded from combat arms, excluding them from registration was constitutional. Now that women have won the right to join the combat arms ranks, they should be subject to one of its many responsibilities.
Congress may also get a pass on this. On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit will hear National Coalition for Men v. The Selective Service System, a case that challenges male-only registration. Should the 9th Circuit allow the case to proceed (it was dismissed in 2013 as being premature), the courts may fix this injustice for Congress. As the last domino for registration fell (the combat exclusion), so too will the discriminatory policy of the male-only registration fall either on Capitol Hill or in the courts.
The burdens of the last fourteen years of war have been borne by so few of our country's men and women. Repeated deployments have strained the lives of families of all stripes, within that one percent who serve. While a hallmark of the U.S. military must remain its all-volunteer character, the current significant drawdown will have critical implications for any new large scale mobilization effort.
Any future decision to go to war must at least consider invocation of the draft, and that discussion will be fundamentally changed by considering unwillingly sending not just our sons but our daughters into harm's way. Critics point out that this may hamper our willingness to engage in military operations around the world. But if we think just a little bit harder about the costs of wielding the broad sword that is the U.S. military, is that really such a bad thing?