What will women in combat mean for U.S. security? Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Pentagon would lift the ban on women serving the military in combat roles.
Over the past decade, the nature of counterinsurgency warfare has often exposed military women to danger, and the latest move opens up military specialties – and promotions – long denied them. “The time has come . . . to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
What will the decision mean for national security? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlue America columnists, debate the issue.
Women are already fighting and dying in the United States armed forces.
They have guarded our prisoners. They’ve flown our drones. They’ve been in firefights with the Taliban. They’ve died from roadside bombs. They’ve sacrificed and suffered and served with honor, proving an indispensable part of America’s fighting forces since 9/11.
And they’ve performed so well at these tasks that, by all accounts, the move to finally and formally open up combat positions to women didn’t come, as cynics might expect, from the politically correct, liberal namby-pamby civilians who run the Pentagon with an eye toward social engineering. It came from the generals themselves.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously join me in proposing that we move forward with the full intent to integrate women into (combat roles) to the maximum extent possible,” Dempsey said in a letter to Panetta.
That last phrase – “to the maximum extent possible” – should hopefully assuage critics who believe women will be blindly rushed into combat positions based more on gender concerns than for security reasons. The military’s first guiding principle, Dempsey said, is to ensure its own battle-worthiness “by preserving unit readiness, cohesion and morale” and to retain the trust of the American public with policies that retain “the most qualified people.”
As Dempsey noted, that means mental and physical performance standards will be gender neutral as required by law. Men and women will have to meet the same standards to fill those combat roles: The law does not allow the military to reduce those standards to allow more women in. Which means, as always, that those who serve will be “the few and proud.”
But as noted: Women are already serving admirably throughout the armed services. Panetta’s decision just makes messy reality a bit more official.
Women are already fighting and dying in the U.S. armed forces. So what? That isn’t necessarily a good thing or a trend worthy of greater encouragement.
Giving women combat roles will mean putting them even further in harm’s way, risking not only death, but lifelong injury – both physical and emotional. It’s bad enough for men, as combat veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will attest. Do we really want to subject more American women to that kind of hell? Ideally, women seeking combat roles would be held to precisely the same physical standards as their male comrades in arms. It isn’t simply a matter of knowing how to shoot straight under fire. Can she march for miles over harsh terrain carrying a rifle and 100 pounds of gear? Can she carry a wounded man?
Without a doubt, some highly motivated women can do those things, and do them well. But let’s not kid ourselves: We’re talking about very few.
How long before the Pentagon succumbs to political pressure to turn “very few” into “many”? Don’t put much stock in the fact that the generals have given this policy change their seal of approval. They can glad hand as well as any member of Congress.
Fact is, combat duty leads to promotion. Few service members reach the highest echelons of the armed forces if they haven’t served in a combat unit. The Pentagon will be badgered and cajoled over time to place more women in combat units for precisely that reason, and standards will slip.
Of course, there is one area where women have men beat: childbearing. In the U.S. military, unplanned pregnancy is a big problem. A 2005 Pentagon survey found more than 16 percent of female active-duty personnel reported an unplanned pregnancy over the previous year. That’s more than double the rate of the civilian population.
We shouldn’t compromise the nation’s security for a social and political folly, but that’s exactly the direction we’re headed.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and Joel Mathis is a writer in Philadelphia. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.