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.