Women in Combat: Every Coin Has Two Sides

Opinion   /   January 28, 2013  / 

The Pentagon’s decision to lift the ban on women in front-line combat has led to both commendation and criticism.

Supporters of the Pentagon’s move believe that having women in combat will increase opportunities for women and increase diversity. “Combat experience—and especially leadership of combat units—is a key factor in promotion decisions,” writes University of Southern California Professor Susan Estrich. In that vein, lifting the ban on women in combat gives women more opportunities for top military jobs.

Detractors, however, believe that having women in combat will compromise the military’s culture. “To have women serving in infantry […] could impair the mission essential task of those units, and that’s been proven in study after study,” Rep. Tom Cotton, a veteran, said. “It’s nature—upper body strength and physical movements and speed and endurance and so forth.”

In contrast, female veteran Rep. Tulsi Gabbard offered an alternative opinion: “No one is asking for the standards to be lowered. We are here because we want to serve our country in the best possible way […]. The standards are set [to] open doors to allow anyone to serve our country.”

So who was right: Tom or Tulsi?

A pragmatist would probably say: It is too early to tell. Having women in combat is probably an idea worthy trying, but it might take several years (and wars) before we have definitive proof of whether this new policy will strengthen or weaken our military.

That being said, some things are worth noting:

First, all other things being equal, diversity is a desirable goal. Diversity is no substitute for courage, victory, or military glory, but is nonetheless still a good thing to have.

Second, it goes without saying that countless female soldiers have performed admirable feats of courage. Silver Star recipients like Monica Lin Brown and Leigh Ann Hester represent only the tip of the iceberg: A silent majority of female soldiers have served with honor.

Third, even if we make the worst-case assumption that having women in combat will somehow weaken the military, this factor alone is unlikely to cause America to lose wars.

Consider a thought experiment: Imagine that in March 2003, America had invaded Iraq using only female soldiers (maybe led by Ann Dunwoody). Would America still have beaten Saddam’s army within a month? Probably yes, because we had sophisticated weaponry that Saddam lacked: Tomahawk missiles, Apache helicopters, Abrams tanks, and F-117 Nighthawks. Even if we assume that the decision to allow women in combat is motivated by egalitarian ideology rather than military necessity, the U.S. military could probably afford the occasional ideological indulgence—and still win an absolute majority of its battles.

But that being said, one should not paint an overly rosy picture of the new policy. There are no free lunches in life, let alone in war.

Combat is harsh. It means dealing with IEDs, enduring hostile fire for days without a break, and sometimes watching your comrades getting blown up. It sometimes means going for months without hot showers, sleeping in filthy environments, living off the land and eating stuff that would make python puke.

A contrarian might ask: Is it possible that a woman’s right to not serve in combat might reflect not male patriarchy, but female privilege—the privilege of being spared from warfare’s worst horrors?

Moreover, a policy that gives women greater combat opportunities will also lead to greater casualties. Greater rewards are inseparable from greater risks. In the years to come, we might see more female four-star generals, but will also see more female soldiers suffering from PTSD, losing their legs to IEDs, developing herniated discs, or lying in flag-draped caskets. A system that makes it easier to for female soldiers to rise will mean more women wearing Silver Stars but also more women wearing Purple Hearts.

A feminist might argue that this tradeoff is worth making, because having more women in top military positions with their medals and insignia might inspire young girls to have similar aspirations. But the probability of becoming a general is far lower than the probability of death, disease, or permanent injury. Many will never walk again.

The military life is a noble calling, and there is a case to be made for allowing patriots of both genders to serve together in front-line combat. But the Pentagon’s decision—like most decisions—is fraught with costs, consequences, and complex tradeoffs. Every coin has two sides.

Chris Seck is a 3L. His column runs every other Monday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

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5 Responses to Women in Combat: Every Coin Has Two Sides

  1. Santosh Stephen

    Chris, thank you for the well written, timely piece.

    You have tried hard to present a viable case for the “second side” of the coin (the “anti-women in combat” side) – for which I commend you. However, while the result is a well-presented case, it is a very weak one.

    In my opinion, the arguments presented on the “second side” do NOT adequately address the basic weakness of the position which is: strict exclusion as a principle has negative unintended consequences; and all intended consequences here could be arrived at through softer measures such as eligibility criteria and choice (which is what the “first side” of the coin does).

    To state it contextually: if women wont meet the standards, then they may not serve in combat; if they do, they will.
    You want to spare women the ignominy of PSTD, amputation, and death – give them the choice, dont force them one way or the other. Want to know if they can handle difficult living conditions, no showers, no food – look at Canada, and Europe: somehow it works very well in the “advanced” countries – are our women (or men) inferior to theirs?

    I think you have done a great job of presenting the “other side”. But I wouldn’t have faulted you if you took the next step and addressed the issues raised.

    The way it stands, sorry to say, it feels like segregation (or the anti pro-choice movement) all over again.


  2. I agree that the argument presented against women in combat here is weaker than the argument in favor, but for a much different reason.

    The entire argument against operates in the world of conscription. If we are speaking statistically, are women less likely to endure the violence of combat? Generally, they are less likely. But are the women who voluntarily enlist and select combat operations less likely to endure the violence? That is much more ambiguous, and one could even argue these most-motivated women actually represent more qualified combatants than the median male soldier.

    Since Nixon’s presidential platform against the draft in 1968 and its subsequent end in 1973, America has maintained an all-volunteer corps. The likelihood that America will return to the draft in the foreseeable future is small. Considering that the new policy will allow women the option of combat roles, the denial of such cannot be considered a matter of female privilege. It’s patronizing. No woman has ever served on the Joint Chiefs, and until women integrate in senior leadership, men have no role determining what women do or do not prefer.

  3. I think that opening combat positions to women will hurt rather than help their opportunities for promotion. I attended the Marine Corps Basic Officer Course (BOC) where all newly commissioned officers (male and female) are assigned to a training company (approximately 150-200 members) for six months. Along with general leadership and administrative training, all officers are instructed in how to lead a rifle (infantry) platoon. My company was “experimental” in that we integrated the female and male officers at the smallest unit level (fire teams of four to five members and squads with twelve to fifteen members). Previous training companies segregated the male and female officers at the platoon (40-50 members) level. The effect was that the female members of the squads were almost universally ranked at the bottom of their squads on peer evaluations (an important part of the overall evaluation process). The reason was mainly physical. Infantry work is very physically demanding. There were women in my unit who were national-level athletes and could score better than I on the USMC physical fitness test, but couldn’t carry a standard infantry load in the field. Invariably, the worst tasks such as carrying radios, machine guns, mortars, and other heavy supplies, weapons, and equipment fell to the men. Leadership abilities degrade with physical exhaustion and fatigue and the women were harder hit than the men because of the physical difficulty of the job. When the female officers were segregated from the male officers, they only competed against each other for peer evaluations and, on average, were ranked higher. Once integrated, they competed with the males, and their peer ranking suffered for it because of these physical reasons. Women who enter combat roles will be in direct competition with men, and even the most physically fit woman will have a disadvantage against the average male infantry officer. I think that in such a physically competitive environment, their career prospects will end up worse than in non-combat positions.

    • Santosh Stephen

      Tom, while I agree with your observation, I submit that this can be largely remedied, say with better designed peer-evaluation & promotion processes, among other things.

      The issues you raised are all part of the current as-is state, and it shows the potential pitfalls of making a single rule change, rather than a system-wide change. In this case, I expect a broader set of changes to follow, even if we started with a single step.

  4. I’m not seeing the logic behind changing the peer evaluation process because someone does poorly. If they are actually performing poorly, then their evals should reflect that. Changing the eval does not change the performance. This methodology is why many people feared female admission into non combat roles, police, and fire service. The widespread gender norming and reevaluation of physical standards produced a more diverse but less physically capable pool of talent. Granted some standards, like a six foot height requirement some police departments had, should be removed or lowered to reflect the actual needs of the job. When the actual needs of the job include meeting extreme physical demands “system wide change” that hides the innefectiveness of any candidate will produce sub standard soldiers.
    As is, the system may not be fair to women who want to advance their career. It may be unfair to women who want to serve in the infantry. However, the military is not in the business of fair. Nor should it be concerned with inspiring young girls. Its business is killing the enemy and protecting its country’s interests.

    The author minimizes the trade offs. The issue here is not whether its worth having women killed so that we can have female generals. The issue is should we risk men and women needlessly dying and national security being weakened to test the belief that the military would benefit from expensive to maintain and physically weaker infantryman?
    As far as im aware this right to choose combat did not come tied to the responsibilty of selective service enrollment. Draft or no draft, deploying integrated combat units presents real issues. When screening applicants the military will reject people with certain pre existing medical conditions. The logic being the military wants to get its moneys worth in both a soldiers effectiveness and avoiding cost like health care, lawsuits etc. Why isn’t the same logic used here?
    I have reservations about the female soldier’s orthopedic injury incidence, variable reproductive status, ability to introduce sexual politics onto a battlefield, ability to keep up with men in battle gear and combat loads ( not just for training, but everyday for a year in a desert), and less upper body strength for battlefield tasks like moving ammo crates and wounded men. That said, I am fine with a both sexes same standard approach. How long that will last I can’t say.
    Will the enemy specifically target females? Will infantry units be conducting sex crime investigations at FOBs? Will combat units become more feminine and if so do we mind?
    Lastly, the author makes good points both sides. I’ll assume that the last oversight I wanted to point out wasn’t done maliciously. We are not talking affimitave action at Local U. This is our military and if we as a country get this wrong, people die.

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