Readers debate the role of women in the U.S. military and whether they should be allowed in combat units and forced to register for the draft. To join the discussion, especially if you’re a female servicemember, send us a note at email@example.com.
Reader Alana A. Roberts is very proud of her family members with military service—a sister, brother, husband, and two grandfathers—but she strongly disagrees with the idea of women joining the Selective Service. Her argument is one I’ve never heard before:
Nicholas Clairmont’s piece laying bare the political process behind the effort to make women liable to conscription was interesting. [The subsequent reader note from Susan argued that women have just as much of a national duty to protect their country as men do.] As a 34-year-old mother of a daughter and a son, I oppose this measure so strongly that I’m learning another language in preparation for the possible necessity of taking my daughter elsewhere to avoid the dishonor of her registering for the draft. The reasoning behind my opposition is as follows, although it’s instinctive and (if you will) archetypal rather than rational:
Because only women can bear children, and the survival of the nation depends on it, this is an actual duty—not for the individual woman, but for women as a class.
The sacrifice and difficulty of this duty is so great, and the physical courage required so real, and the survival of the nation (and humanity) so dependent upon it, that the duty of childbirth is equal in dignity and weight to the duty to defend one’s nation.
Like a soldier in battle, the woman who gives birth must shed her blood to do it. For nine months she donates her blood and bodily substance to the baby growing within her. Osteoporosis, anemia, and other maladies often result—injury and death, occasionally. In the act of childbirth, a woman actually spills her blood.
Even women who do not give birth or do not plan to are subject to the physiology adapted for the purpose. Thus women shed blood monthly in a cycle of preparation for pregnancy. Menstruation, awkward as it sounds, is the female draft.
This feminine physiology—not merely menstruation but the whole feminine mode of being human—renders military life more onerous for most women than for most men, in ways that are obvious to most people.
In nearly all civilizations, the childbearing class is preserved as such by exemption from military duty.
Israel’s policy is born out of an unusually necessitous situation: a small country under continuous attack. It is still not ideal.
What women desire is the liberty for exceptional women to do things that most women don’t want to do. We do not generally wish to force the activities of the exceptional woman upon the ordinary woman. We feel that the ordinary woman is, compared to the ordinary man, exceptional enough.
If you would like to address that argument, drop me a note and I’ll update. I’ll just quickly point out—because it’s close to home for me—that having children and serving in the military are by no means mutually exclusive; my mother had two sons and a long career in the U.S. Army. When I was born, she left active duty to focus on raising my brother and me but returned after several years and eventually retired as a full colonel, outranking my father. Unlike him, she never deployed to a war zone, but her best friend—a mother of three and high-ranking Air Force officer—did.
If you’re a woman who’s been deployed, especially in a combat unit, and would like to share your perspective, please say hello@. Update from a reader, Rory, who makes an essential point:
The push to register women for the draft is based on the idea that women are now eligible for combat so they should share the load, but the simple fact is only a minuscule number of women would ever be able to contribute in a combat role. In any draft scenario, all that would happen would be that men would automatically be sent to the front lines while women would fill all the support positions.
Women registering for the selective service would only provide an illusion of equality. The politicians will decide the issue based on ideology and gender optics, but I doubt the generals in Washington are factoring women into their contingency war plans.
Just because different people would have different roles in a draft, and because men and women would on average serve in different ways, I don’t think that’s an “illusion of equality.” All Americans would be serving in some way, based on their individual capabilities—just as the draft was done back in the day but with various kinds of men.
Susan has a strong opening argument in favor of gender equality when it comes to conscription:
I have my Dad’s draft card calling him up for “the duration plus six months,” and it still makes me stop and think. Although I was opposed to the draft during the Vietnam War, when my brother registered with Selective Service in 1971, I argued with my father that women should be subject to the draft as well. (At the time, of course, the roles for women in the military were limited to administrative or medical support, even if you tried to volunteer.) I wanted to be treated equally, and I thought equal rights and equal responsibility went together.
Certainly there are some women not physically capable for ground combat duty, but the same can be said for some men. And in a technology-driven military environment, physical size and strength are not the only determining factors, as proved by our current volunteer military forces.
My belief, then and now, is that the only appropriate use of conscription would be if a fundamental threat to our nation arose. In such a situation, I see no reason why women have less of a duty to serve. And I can’t rationalize the value of a life based on gender.
Over the past few months, Congress has been in the middle of a debate over whether to expand the Selective Service registration requirement to include women in any future military draft. In the latest development, the full House just voted on the idea for the first time after Ohio Representative Warren Davidson attached an amendment to a major government funding bill that would bar the government from paying for the expansion. It passed, causing another setback for supporters of women joining Selective Service:
House passes ban on funding changes to Selective Service registration 217-203, pushing back on Senate women draft provision #FY17NDAA
Some background: Proponents of gender equality when it comes to the draft hold that after Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in December 2015 opened up all combat jobs to women, it’s only logical—and only fair—that women should be conscripted alongside men if the draft is ever resurrected. After all, the Supreme Court case in 1981 that upheld the male-only draft did so on the basis that women weren’t eligible for combat roles, and now women are. Plus, there’s a symbolic issue at play: While no one particularly wants to be drafted, supporters argue that there’s value in making clear that women have the same duty to protect their country as men do.
Not everyone in Congress agrees. As Duncan Hunter, a Republican representative from California, said during an Armed Services Committee hearing in April:
I’ve talked to coffeehouse liberals in San Fransisco and conservative families who pray three times a day. And neither group wants their daughter to be drafted. [...] The draft is there to get more people to rip the enemy’s throats and kill them for our nation, sanctioned by the U.S. government. That’s what a draft is for.
Hunter is getting at something that runs culturally deep. It’s why the issue of women in combat is so fraught. The moral stakes of conscripting women to fight and die are high, and this cuts right to some of the themes that drive America’s bitter culture wars: gender roles, patriotism, support for the military, support for actual wars.
Hunter’s quote comes from his ill-conceived attempt to prove that America couldn’t support drafting women. In early May, I wrote about how the amendment to expand the draft came about: Hunter himself proposed it to the House Armed Services Committee—as a bluff, sure that his opponents were all talk. He was convinced that when they faced the gritty reality of women being drafted, they’d see what Hunter regards as reason and vote against what they claimed to believe.
The vote didn’t break his way, and that’s when things went through the legislative looking glass. Hunter’s powerful ally from Texas, Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, used his position to go against the will of his committee’s members, killing the measure before it got to a vote on the House floor, where it was predicted to pass. Meanwhile, it passed in the Senate despite some loud protestations from, among others, Ted Cruz, recently back from the campaign trail. As it stands, the two chambers are conferring about how to bring their respective versions of the bills into agreement so that they can send it on to the president.
One of the reasons the debate has been so bitter is that each side assumes the other isn’t playing in good faith, and in a sense the two opponents aren’t talking about the same thing.
Enemies of the draft expansion see themselves as defending an old and noble chivalric idea about the male duty to protect—one of the last remaining justifications men have for themselves in modern society. Advocates of the expansion, on the other hand, see it as a way to reify an important conviction that the differences between men and women aren’t substantive enough to mean that the genders should play different roles. Some also see it as a basic issue of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, not to mention a a matter of basic fairness.
When the sides of a debate don’t even agree on what the debate is really about, things tend to get heated. According to one Atlantic reader who supports the draft expansion:
What it’s about is the fact that Hunter really would prefer if women couldn’t serve in many posts at all. He thought the draft threat was enough to get women’s advocates and political representatives to back down on the issues. He completely misread them, as well as women in general. It turns out, women don’t object to women being drafted. Many actually support the idea quite strongly. That was pretty easy to see beforehand, except for those who are really ignorant on the subject.
Women are much less likely than men to say women should be required to register for Selective Service when they turn 18, according to a poll conducted June 18-20 by The Economist/YouGov. Thirty-nine percent of women supported registration for women, compared to 61 percent of men.
It’s impossible to know why this is, but one explanation more or less suggests itself. We are, after all, talking about people being forcibly shipped off to war, and regardless of one’s stance about the principle of the thing, that’s not the most attractive proposition in the world. But as another reader points out:
There is a difference between not personally wanting to be drafted, or not believing in the draft, and not believing women should be drafted simply because they’re women.
Plenty of people twist themselves into knots decrying how horrible it is that some Americans don’t pay taxes or receive government subsidies, but then they always have a reason why industries they’re in should receive help from the government, or why people in their particular situation should receive tax breaks. It’s just as dishonest. Pretending to hide behind some sort of principle just because you benefit in the short term is not being principled.
Should principle guide policy in this case? If so, what principle? To join the debate about whether women should have to register for the draft, and why or why not, send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What the happiest Springsteen album in decades can teach us about Joe Biden, the wisdom of maturity, and the meaning of life
I recently saw a photo of Lyndon B. Johnson in the first year of his presidency. He looked like a classic old guy—wrinkled, mature, in the late season of life. It was a shock to learn that he was only 55 at the time, roughly the same age as Chris Rock is now. He left the presidency, broken, and beaten, at 60, the same age as, say, Colin Firth is now.
Something has happened to aging. Whether because of better diet or health care or something else, a 73-year-old in 2020 looks like a 53-year-old in 1935. The speaker of the House is 80 and going strong. The presidential candidates are 77 and 74. Even our rock stars are getting up there. Bob Dylan produced a remarkable album this year at 79. Bruce Springsteen released an album today at 71. “Active aging” is now a decades-long phase of life. As the nation becomes a gerontocracy, it’s worth pondering: What do people gain when they age, and what do they lose? What does successful aging look like?
How anti-Trump women in America’s suburbs are ushering in a new era of political activism
To say that Susan Polakoff Shaw is a delight is to say nothing particularly controversial. The 61-year-old Ohioan’s charm is an objective fact, like snow being cold or a square having four equal sides. She laughs loudly and swears often. Her strawberry-blond curls are piled on the top of her head, like Ms. Frizzle, and she wears jean jackets, chunky jewelry, and blue plastic-framed glasses, like the kooky aunt you wish you had. She is also, importantly, a woman of action—“a mover and a shaker,” as one of her friends put it to me. Her one-woman communications firm, which she founded in 1991, has been hired by the International Olympic Committee to work press operations for 15 Olympic Games.
So naturally, when Shaw attended her first meeting of a local Democratic club in 2018, she saw it as her next big project. The gathering was fairly dull, a handful of older people seated around tables in an echoey ballroom on Cleveland’s west side. There was pizza, sure, and a lineup of local speakers. But there was no attendance-taking, no callouts for volunteers, no planning for weekend projects—even though the midterm-primary season was under way. Things have got to change if we’re going to beat Donald Trump, Shaw thought to herself as the meeting wrapped. And things did.
To raise doubts about the Democratic nominee, right-wing-media smears don’t even need to make sense.
On Tuesday, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham broke some news: An “investigative journalist” named Matthew Tyrmand had uncovered a cache of 26,000 emails belonging to Hunter Biden’s disgraced business partner Bevan Cooney, who is now in jail. Tyrmand claimed that he had gotten hold of the emails via a person in the same facility as Cooney (a “federal work camp for white-collar infractions,” is how Tyrmand put it). Tyrmand explained that Cooney felt stiffed by Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and implied that Cooney had handed over his own Gmail password in an act of revenge.
Perhaps that’s what happened. Or perhaps not: I have good reason to doubt the reliability of the source. The last time I saw Tyrmand was in October 2017. I was speaking at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and he was in the audience. Security guards were keeping an eye on him after I warned them that he might show up: He’d come to another public lecture of mine the previous day in New York City, then had turned up in Boston and announced on Twitter that he was following me to Cambridge. His goal, I think, was to shout at me and draw attention to himself while waving a cellphone camera in the air, which is what he’d done in the past. But the lecture went off smoothly; afterward, a very gentle and very tall Harvard professor stood firmly between us, engaging Tyrmand in vigorous conversation so that I could slip away unharassed. I didn’t hear directly from Tyrmand after that—I block the social-media accounts of tiresome trolls. But I gather that, year in and year out, he continues to post obsessively about me and my husband, a Polish politician, including photographs taken surreptitiously in public places. I have no idea why.
“Our boyfriends, our significant others, and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1. Our worlds are backward.”
Kami West had been dating her current boyfriend for a few weeks when she told him that he was outranked by her best friend. West knew her boyfriend had caught snatches of her daily calls with Kate Tillotson, which she often placed on speaker mode. But she figured that he, like the men she’d dated before, didn’t quite grasp the nature of their friendship. West explained to him, “I need you to know that she’s not going anywhere. She is my No. 1.” Tillotson was there before him, and, West told him, “she will be there after you. And if you think at any point that this isn’t going to be my No. 1, you’re wrong.”
If West’s comments sound blunt, it’s because she was determined not to repeat a distressing experience from her mid-20s. Her boyfriend at that time had sensed that he wasn’t her top priority. In what West saw as an attempt to keep her away from her friend, he disparaged Tillotson, calling her a slut and a bad influence. After the relationship ended, West, 31, vowed to never let another man strain her friendship. She decided that any future romantic partners would have to adapt to her friendship with Tillotson, rather than the other way around.
The president of the United States poses a threat to our collective existence. The choice voters face is spectacularly obvious.
In 1973, a United States Air Force officer, Major Harold Hering, asked a question that the Air Force did not want asked. Hering, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was then in training to become a Minuteman-missile crewman. The question he asked one of his instructors was this: “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”
The writer Ron Rosenbaum would later call this the “forbidden question.” Missile officers are allowed to ask certain sorts of questions—about the various fail-safe systems built to prevent the accidental launching of nuclear weapons, for instance. But the Air Force would not answer Hering’s question, and it moved to discharge him after determining that officers responsible for launching nuclear weapons did not “need to know” the answer. “I have to say I feel I do have a need to know because I am a human being,” Hering said in response.
As society gets richer, people chase the wrong things.
“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
One of the greatest paradoxes in American life is that while, on average, existence has gotten more comfortable over time, happiness has fallen.
According to the United States Census Bureau, average household income in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, was higher in 2019 than has ever been recorded for every income quintile. And although income inequality has risen, this has not been mirrored by inequality in the consumption of goods and services. For example, from 2008 to 2019, households in the lowest income quintile increased spending on eating out by an average of about 22 percent after correcting for inflation; the top quintile increased spending on eating out by an average of just under 8 percent. Meanwhile, domestic government services have increased significantly: For example, federal spending on education, training, employment, and social services increased from 2000 to 2019 by about 30 percent in inflation-adjusted terms.
The bumbling provocateur who stormed the United States in 2006 has now become an unlikely voice of reason.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the already infamous climax of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the Amazon sequel that heralds the return of the titular Kazakh journalist and agent of chaos played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat’s daughter, Tutar, is interviewing Rudy Giuliani in a hotel room when the situation takes an alarming turn: The former Mayor of New York, and current lawyer to the president, is shown reclining on a bed and reaching his hand into his pants. The whole scene is so cringe-inducing that it’s a relief when Borat himself bursts into the room, interrupting the encounter and jolting the tone from creepy dread back to zany confusion.
“She’s 15. She’s too old for you,” Borat tells Giuliani, a typically tasteless rejoinder from America’s favorite faux-foreign mischief-maker. (While Tutar, the character, is 15, the actor playing her is 24.) As absurd and embarrassing as the hotel meeting is for Giuliani, who called the scene “a complete fabrication,” it underlines the accidental premise of the movie, which was shot surreptitiously over the course of this year. When Borat first rampaged through the United States for his 2006 cinematic debut, he held up a fun-house mirror to Americans’ views of outsiders, capturing real people nodding and smiling politely at this supposed journalist and his provocations. But in 2020, Borat has become the peacekeeper rather than the agitator.
Cases are rising in all but nine states. Unlike the past two waves, this one has no epicenter.
Updated at 9:20 p.m. ET on October 22, 2020
The United States is sleepwalking into what could become the largest coronavirus outbreak of the pandemic so far. In the past week alone, as voters prepare to go to the ballot box, about one in every 1,000 Americans has tested positive for the virus, and about two in every 100,000 Americans have died of it. Today, the United States reported 73,103 new cases, the third-highest single-day total since the pandemic began, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic.
This third surge is far more geographically dispersed than what the country saw in the spring or summer: The virus can now be found in every kind of American community, from tiny farm towns to affluent suburbs to bustling border cities. This is the first of the American surges with no clear epicenter: From North Carolina to North Dakota, and Colorado to Connecticut, more Americans are contracting COVID-19.
As the U.S. heads toward the winter, the country is going round in circles, making the same conceptual errors that have plagued it since spring.
Updated at 5:28 p.m. ET on September 13, 2020.
Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
America survived one Trump term. It wouldn’t survive a second.
Updated at 11:14 a.m. ET on October 14, 2020.
The most important ballot question in 2020 is not Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, or Democrat versus Republican. The most important question is: Will Trump get away with his corruption—will his crooked and authoritarian tactics succeed?
If the answer is yes, be ready for more. Much more.
Americans have lavished enormous powers on the presidency. They have also sought to bind those powers by law. Yet the Founders of the republic understood that law alone could never eliminate the risks inherent in the power of the presidency. They worried ceaselessly about the prospect of a truly bad man in the office—a Caesar or a Cromwell, as Alexander Hamilton fretted in “Federalist No. 21.” They built restraints: a complicated system for choosing the president, a Congress to constrain him, impeachment to remove him. Their solutions worked for two and a half centuries. In our time, the system failed.