More Women Will Make a Stronger Military

Be afraid, Islamic State, be very afraid.

Photographer: U.S. Army

An attempt to undermine the Pentagon's decision to allow women to serve in combat roles backfired spectacularly last week -- and the U.S. will be safer for it.

During a congressional debate on the defense policy bill, Representative Duncan Hunter of California proposed requiring all 18-year-old women to sign up for the draft, just like their male counterparts. He didn't actually support the idea -- in fact, he voted against his own amendment -- but said he wanted to start a "discussion" about Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's December announcement that women would be able to apply for all combat positions. It was "wrong and irresponsible," Hunter has said, for Carter to have made that move without congressional input.

To everyone's surprise, Hunter's proposal to instate the draft for women passed the House Armed Services Committee by a narrow margin. After a floor vote on the entire bill, it will be taken up by the Senate, and it deserves support there, too.

Men who fail to register face felony charges and are ineligible for federal jobs and college loans. Now that women are getting more equal opportunities for their military careers, they should bear the same responsibilities as men. Other countries in which women also serve in combat roles, such as Israel and Norway, also conscript women.

Critics are fond of noting that few women have applied for combat roles in the five months since Carter announced the change. The reasons are clear enough: The current group of women joined a military in which combat roles were not an option, and thus may not fit in with their career plans. Also, given the daunting prospect of integrating the most macho parts of the military, many enlisted women may be waiting for a larger female combat officer corps that can "have their backs."

So the best way to judge this policy is not necessarily by the numbers. Nor is it only about fairness and responsibility. The strongest case for opening combat roles to women, and requiring them to register for the draft, is that it will result in a stronger military. This surely figured into Carter's reasoning, and is why he was right to do what he did.

Women have served in the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, albeit in support roles. There are women capable of every physical act required of the most elite men; two graduated from the Army's legendary Ranger School last year, and one is now the Army’s first female infantry officer. As it faces Islamic extremism, a rising China and an unpredictable Russia, the U.S. military needs to draw on the talent pool of all Americans -- not just half of them.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.