Will U.S. Women, Recently Cleared for Combat, Join Israelis in Facing the Draft?

Comments from top military officials suggest next steps for a newly egalitarian U.S. military, bringing it closer to - and in some ways, surpassing - Israel's military ethos.

Sergeant Asyah Moore during an air assault training course in South Korea, 2013.
Bloomberg

The United States could soon have its first female Commander-in-Chief, and she may preside over another major “first” for American women in the military.

Women, like men, may soon be required to register for the U.S. military draft at the age of 18 and be prepared to serve their country in time of war.  That’s what a couple of high-ranking officers in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps said in front of the Senate Armed Services committee this week on the issue of fully integrating women into the U.S. military. 

“I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft,” declared Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and Gen. Robert B. Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps concurred - the first time such a position has been publicly stated. This major shift in Pentagon policy follows the move by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter to open all jobs in the military to women. Carter’s decision, in early December, will allow women to apply for any combat role in the military - including membership in the toughest and most elite special forces units like the Navy SEALs and Green Berets. 

The generals said in their testimony on Tuesday, in response to a question by Sen. Claire McCaskill, that if women are indeed “fully integrated” into the military, including all combat roles, it means women should register with the Selective Service System, which is responsible for providing the normally all-volunteer U.S. military with additional drafted servicemembers when war requires it. (Young Americans were actively drafted through the Selective Service in both World War I and II, the Korean War and Vietnam, ending in 1973.)

From an Israeli perspective, it is rather fascinating that the Pentagon has linked drafting women so closely to the issue of whether or not they serve in combat roles. 

In the Jewish state, the two issues have been utterly disconnected. Ever since Israel was founded, women have been subject to the same universal conscription as their male counterparts, which, given the country’s constant military alertness, doesn’t mean they merely have to register, but actually be drafted and serve. 

Drafting women has been a central tenet of the Israeli national ethos. The country’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared in a letter, "The army is the supreme symbol of duty and as long as women are not equal to men in performing this duty, they have not yet obtained true equality.”

At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces has been historically hesitant when it comes to putting women in combat positions. Women took up arms against the enemy by necessity in the pre-state militias and the War of Independence when their numbers were seen as indispensable. But very soon, it became the country’s official policy to remove Israeli women from the front lines. The stated reason has been the danger of women being captured as prisoners of war and suffering disproportionate risk because of their vulnerability to rape and other sexual abuse. 

As a result, although their service has been mandatory, the vast majority of the  young women who enter military service after high school at the age of 18 have been directed into training, support, and secretarial roles (a situation that was stingingly lampooned in the hit 2014 film “Zero Motivation.”)

Alice Miller had to take the Israel Air Force to court in 1994 to win the right to apply to its combat pilot’s course in what became a turning point in allowing female Israeli soldiers, many of whom yearned for a more meaningful army experience, to assume more powerful and responsible positions. The change, however, has been evolving slowly and cautiously - utterly unlike the sudden plunge into equality now taking place in the U.S.  In 2000, a pilot project called the Caracal Brigade became the first mixed-gender combat battalion in the Israeli army. 

So why the tight linkage between combat and the draft in the United States? The primary reason, it seems, as in the Miller case, is equality under the law. In 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Selective Service System was not discriminatory or unconstitutional and rested that decision on the fact that women were not allowed to join combat units. “The existence of the combat restrictions clearly indicates the basis for Congress’ decision to exempt women from registration,” wrote Justice William Rehnquist at the time. “The purpose of registration was to prepare for a draft of combat troops. Since women are excluded from combat, Congress concluded that they would not be needed in the event of a draft, and therefore decided not to register them.”

So now that American women are no longer excluded from combat, it follows that they can be drafted and therefore will likely soon be required to register for the Selective Service with their male counterparts. And, if the need presents itself, be prepared to be called to duty. 

Meanwhile, in Israel, young women will continue to register, enlist and serve in a turbulent reality in which the definitions of “combat service” and “front lines” have become hopelessly blurred.

This was made terribly clear when Hadar Cohen, a 19-year-old member of the paramilitary Border Police, was killed in a terror ambush alongside her female comrade, Ravit Miriashvilli, whose life she reportedly saved by blocking and firing at their attackers.  The attack took place on Wednesday - a day after the U.S. generals testified on Capitol Hill that like Israelis, young American women will soon face the fact that total equality not only comes with rights but with painful burdens and sacrifice, too. 

Now that the generals have spoken, the ball will be in the court of Congress and the president to legislate whether women will be required to register for Selective Service - and the issue has managed to infiltrate the presidential campaign. 

Though Hillary Clinton could become the nation’s first female top military leader, she is already being called out by the press for refusing to take a clear stand on drafting women after she clearly endorsed it back in 2007. When asked about it by Anderson Cooper at a CNN Town Hall on Wednesday night, she avoided taking a stand. 

“I have a hard time imagining the kind of national emergency that would require the use of the Selective Service system. So I just have to be better informed about why they’re making this recommendation,” Clinton said.

“The idea of having everybody register concerns me a little bit unless we have a better idea of where that’s going to come out.”