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Should women be in combat?

Mark Gordon - published on 02/13/13

A look at the recent DOD policy change as Senate votes on Hagel’s nomination as department head

In January, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that he intended to lift the longstanding ban on women serving in key combat positions in the US Armed Forces. Panetta’s plan includes opening virtually all Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) to females across the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. (Women already have access to all jobs in the US Coast Guard.) In the US Army, the largest military branch, the change would mean that women could compete for all MOS’s in Infantry, Armor, Armored Cavalry, Air Defense Artillery, Army Aviation, Special Forces, and Engineer units. The branches have until May to present their plans for implementing the Secretary’s decision, and until January 2016 to justify keeping any MOS’s closed. An assessment of the suitability for female participation in such special operations units as Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEALS may take longer.

The restriction on women in combat dates most immediately to a 1994 Pentagon decision, but the exclusion has been part of the military tradition of the United States since the founding of the Republic. That tradition has come under fire lately from women’s and civil rights groups who contend that it is a form of discrimination that inhibits the careers of women in the military. The claim is not without merit. Under the present system, it is difficult for anyone, male or female, to rise to the top of the officer ranks without having either been in combat or commanded a series of combat units. Still, defenders of the tradition counter that such considerations must be outweighed by the need for combat effectiveness, which relies in part on the qualities of individuals – including, sometimes, physical strength – as well as unit cohesion. They argue that cohesion, or esprit de corps, is undermined by the natural tendency of men to protect women in times of danger, and also by the certainty of attraction and even intimacy between soldiers on the front line, with all the distractions that such relationships entail.

It is not known for certain what position former Senator Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to succeed Panetta as Defense Secretary, takes on the matter. He was noncommittal during his confirmation hearings, even when pressed on the issue. Hagel is a Vietnam combat veteran, and is likely to have a different perspective on the matter than Panetta, who did not see combat as an Army Intelligence officer in the mid-1960s. But the lifting of restrictions on women in combat is clearly President Obama’s policy as much as it is Panetta’s, and if the president wants to follow through, as is likely, then Hagel can be expected to back it. As it is, the lifting of the exclusion isn’t expected to play any part in tomorrow’s confirmation vote on the floor of the Senate, in part because it has not been met with strong opposition from any faction, including conservatives, and in part because the Hagel nomination is a proxy battle for other contentious issues, including Benghazi and support for Israel.

Which leaves the question: is permitting women to fight alongside men on the front lines a good idea? Is it moral? Will it have effects on society, both positive and negative, that are as yet unforeseen?

On the question of morality, we have to remember that being a combat soldier, marine, or airman is a job – one that shares a high degree of danger and stress with other occupations, such as firefighters or police officers. If there is nothing that innately disqualifies women from doing those jobs – a psychological deficiency, for instance, or physical weakness – then there is nothing inherently immoral about them filling the role. Some will argue that it is wrong for women to fight because it is not in their nature; but beyond an idealized, socially constructed view of femininity, this argument has little weight. From Deborah and Jael in the Old Testament and St. Joan of Arc in the 15th century, to the women who fight today for the State of Israel, there is a long history of women warriors acquitting themselves well in battle.

The more compelling objection has to do with combat effectiveness, and particularly the issues I highlighted earlier: physical strength and the likelihood of romantic and sexual entanglements. As for physical strength, so long as the standards for combat MOS’s are not lowered, this should be no bar to women. There are men who can’t quickly load a 49-pound sabot round into the breach of a tank’s 120mm main gun, and there are women who can. There are men who can’t carry a 75-pound rucksack on a 25-mile speed march and there are women who can. Just as we would not include a man who wasn’t physically able to do the job, there is no basis for excluding a woman who is.

On the other hand, there have been a whole series of special “breaks” accorded to women in the military that, in fairness, should be dismantled if the combat exclusion is to be lifted – things such as frequency of access to shower facilities, lower standards on PT tests; and so on. If women are to be treated with absolute equality in terms of access to military occupations, then that equality ought to be enforced across the board. Male soldiers, many of whom will be displaced by the lifting of the exclusion, have a right to nothing less.

On the issue of romantic and sexual entanglements, there are real difficulties, in my view. Most frontline troops today, at least among the junior enlisted ranks, are young, male, unmarried, near the apex of their sexual development, and trained to be aggressive. As anyone who has ever served can attest, the testosterone flows thick and fast in such units already. When we add romantic attraction and sexual tension to conditions of no privacy, little sanitation, long hours, high stress, fatigue, and the sickening thrill of lethal violence, problems are bound to ensue. The US military is already dealing with an epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases as soldiers rotate into and out of long combat assignments. That problem can be expected to increase.

On the other hand, combat effectiveness is a command responsibility. It is the job of officers and senior NCOs to train, equip, and discipline their troops in order to achieve the mission they’re assigned. If women are to be successfully integrated into the ranks without a loss of combat effectiveness, it will be up to squad and platoon leaders as well as company commanders to make it happen. It can be done, I believe, but not without superior leadership, accountability up and down the chain of command, and the insistence on thorough professionalism at every level of the armed forces.

Finally, there is the question of whether the lifting of the exclusion rule will have broader social effects. I doubt it. Women’s roles in society have changed so much during the past few decades, and the volunteer military comprises such a small percentage of our population, that this change will likely have no effect on the perception of either women or the military in society at-large. There is one potential positive effect of women in combat that should be mentioned. In the future, if the American people start seeing their “girls” return home dead by the hundreds or even thousands, perhaps they’ll pressure Congress to end the reckless military adventurism that has marked American foreign policy during the past two decades. Then again, perhaps not. 

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