Women in Combat: Every Coin Has Two Sides

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.