It’s Time to Let Women Serve in Combat Roles

American women are already fighting and dying alongside male soldiers. So why is it taking a lawsuit to get U.S. policy changed?

You probably didn’t notice when Brittany Gordon came home from Afghanistan in a body bag. It happened in October; the Army specialist, a 24-year-old died in Kandahar of wounds suffered in a bomb attack. And you may have overlooked the news a few days earlier that Sgt. Donna Johnson, a 29-year-old member of the 514th Military Police Company, was killed in Khost when a Taliban suicide bomber attacked her joint U.S.-Afghanistan patrol.

Even if you pay close attention—or try to—to such matters, you probably even missed the names of Tamarra J. Ramos, Kimberly A. Voelz, Jennifer M. Hartman and Ashly L. Moyer, all Pennsylvania women who are among the 146 women (at least; numbers vary by source) who have died serving the U.S. military since 9/11.

So yeah, it’s kind of absurd at this late date that women are still having to sue the U.S. Department of Defense to be allowed into combat roles in the military: Clearly, they’ve been fighting and dying alongside men for more than a decade now; the remaining restrictions against women in combat seem to have done more to protect them from the hazards of promotion and higher pay than against enemy bullets and bombs.

Along the way, they’ve answered a question that long plagued the debate about whether women belong in combat roles: Can America stand to watch its daughters come home in flag-draped coffins? It turns out we collectively care about as much about the deaths of young women soldiers about as much as we care about the deaths of young male soldiers, which is to say: Not nearly as much as we should. But at least our indifference is gender-blind, in this case.

So what arguments are left against women participating directly in military combat units?

• They can’t handle the physical strain: Women are generally weaker and smaller than men, the argument goes, so you sacrifice combat readiness by admitting soldiers couldn’t otherwise compete on a level playing field.

The answer: Create one set of physical requirements for placement in combat units and let the chips fall where they may. It’s true that under such a system many women would be omitted from combat ranks—as the Steve Rogerses of the world are today. But some women would exceed those requirements and thrive. (My wife, for example, is an inch taller than me and probably stronger; I’m smart enough not to put it to the test.) Let inclusion or exclusion rest on ability, not on some arbitrary decision based on one’s genitals; today’s policy is basically a crotch-oriented version of phrenology.

• Men can’t handle fighting alongside women: This is always the argument against inclusion: It used to be that white soldiers can’t fight alongside blacks. Straight soldiers can’t fight alongside gays. So far, the argument has proved wrong every time.

The argument takes two forms in the women-in-combat debate. The first is that men, being chivalrous, will concentrate more on the safety of their female colleagues than on completing the mission at hand. Which sounds like a training issue more than anything.

The second concern seems more legitimate: To the extent that women already serve in the military, they often face as much threat to their safety from their male colleagues as they do the enemy. But if the argument is that we can’t let women serve the military because our mostly-male armed forces are full of rapists, well…that signifies the problem isn’t with the women.

• Women don’t really want to be in combat, really: That was the contention of a somewhat bizarre AP story about the lawsuit last week: “Interviews with a dozen female soldiers and Marines showed little interest in the toughest fighting jobs. They believe they’d be unable to do them, even as the Defense Department inches toward changing its rules to allow women in direct ground combat jobs.”

Well, um, okay. Let’s assume those dozen female soldiers represent the feelings of most women serving in the military. So what? Nobody’s going to make them apply for combat roles. But the women who do want to seek out the combat placements—who might have the physical and mental fortitude needed to attain those roles and serve in them—shouldn’t be denied the opportunity just because other women don’t want it.

Not every woman belongs in a combat role, but neither does every man. U.S. security can only be enhanced when we have all our best warriors on the front lines—and not just the dudes.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Frances/1703966077 Mark Frances

    Your statement that women in the military have just as much to fear from their colleagues as from the enemy does not offer a whole lot of confidence in your ability to differentiate the truth.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=571634606 Joel Mathis

      Mark: The link in that statement contains information about intra-military rape statistics. Unless you want to argue those statistics are A) inflated or B) meaningless, I’m comfortable with my characterization.

    • armyvet05

      Mark, your inability to recognize the problem of sexual assault and rape by members of the military does not offer a whole lot of confidence in your ability to differentiate the truth. Joel hit the nail on the head- the problem with military sexual assault is very troubling and just as troubling is the use that problem to deny women the opportunity to fully serve instead of using that problem to, say, remove rapists from military service.

  • Secutor

    There is already precedent of lowering physical fitness standards to allow women to get in and stay in the military, police, and armed forces. Political pressure may push this into the infantry if certain politicians feel that the standards for offensive combat are too hard for women. Somehow i think our enemies on the battle field will not be as accommodating.

  • Secutor

    Returning fire from a defensive position (as women have done) like a guard check point or a vehicle convoy is extremely.. profoundly different from offensively actively hunting the enemy deep in their own territory….. In offensive ground infantry combat (like battle of Fallujah) you are kicking down doors and doing house to house fighting to clear out insurgents. You may end up having to stab a full grown man to death or crush his windpipe with your hands while he and his pals are trying to kick your face in. Lowered fitness standards get people killed injured or captured in these situations.

  • Ted

    Women have been given opportunities to compete with men in combat training and have failed miserably. Why is this fact not understood? When are people going to start standing up to ridiculous political correctness?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=571634606 Joel Mathis

      Ted: I think your assertion is wrong, or at least more complicated than you suggest. My proposal lets individuals of both genders succeed or fail on their own merits in combat roles. What “women” have done tells us nothing about how any particular woman may perform, and to arbitrarily restrict her rights and options isn’t a form of smart-thinking anti-PC: It’s just bigotry.

      • Ted

        Wrong. It’s not bigotry and you are being intellectually dishonest. There are too many reasons to list here why putting women into combat units is unreasonable. It’s not fair to piggy back your argument on to bigotry and impose your own social views upon the most important part of our nation’s defense. You don’t dictate how men are supposed to feel about sharing intimate space with members of the opposite sex for weeks and months at a time in a combat zone the name of your own vision of justice when mixing the sexes in all other parts of the military has already caused us enough problems. Read the book Co-ed combat sometime. That book is filled with rock solid and irrefutable hard evidence against your case.

  • Secutor

    Joel I would like to have a courteous and sincere discussion with you on this subject since it involves the lives and safety of those serving. Please carefully read my post and reply. First I would like to clear the confusion caused by the general media’s reporting on this subject. They say women are already in combat but they actuality is they are in defensive combat, they are not in offensive ground combat. (see my posts below that explains the drastic difference) You explain that as long as infantry training standards are kept the same for both genders, then you are OK with this… but this creates a dilemma for proponents of this change as you observe in your quote “Create one set of physical requirements for placement in combat units and let the chips fall where they may. It’s true that under such a system many women would be omitted from combat ranks…” And there it is…. if with equal standards many women would not make it, then those women who are suing for this change will not meet their goal of creating significant female representation at the senior officer (General)and Chief of Staff/Joint Chief levels. They argue that women’s careers are held back because thy do not have the offensive combat experience needed to attain those positions. From 7 plus years of army experience I will tell you that you can look at infantry training as a meat grinder that is designed to eliminate the weak.. i.e. those who will slow down an infantry squad and who literally can’t carry their weight (80Lb ruck plus weapons and body armor). Tough standards keep our infantry alive they must not be changed. If women do not make it in sufficient numbers what do you think may happen next? Will those standards be diluted?

  • Secutor

    Joel read the below article please. It furthers my point that the Department of Defense may not ascribe to your equal training standards outlook.

    http://www.airforcetimes.com/news/2012/07/PRIME-air-force-tacps-lower-fitness-standard-hurts-mission-071612/

    As per the article the overseeing military officials may not go out and say that they are lowering standards just for women but what they do is lower standards overall so that women pass and there does not appear to be a difference between men and women. (Happened when Westpoint went Co-ed). They will use smoke and mirrors but the enlisted personnel know what is going on (as per TACP Instructor Sgt Del Toro).

    Air controllers have to be able to keep up with infantry to do their job, to provide close air support many times in mountainous or difficult terrain ie Operation Anaconda http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/apjinternational/apj-s/2009/3tri09/3tri09_images/andres4.jpg

    One look at the above terrain map will let you know that you absolutely need demanding stamina and strength standards. Air controllers/air liaison officers can definitely come face to face with the enemy because they are with or out in front of our infantry. Read the third name down on this casualty list at this link http://seanlinnane.blogspot.com/2012/03/in-memoriam-operation-anaconda-2002.html.

    If such a job can have it’s standards lowered don’t you think the same will be tried for infantry? If infantry standards are lowered people die. BTW If Infantry standards were lowered after it was seen that so few women made it, would you write another another article condemning it?