Debate: Women Serving in Combat Arms

Recently, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with the Obama administration made it possible for female Soldiers to serve in direct combat roles such as front-line Infantry.  This action has sparked some serious debates from both sides of the political spectrum and amongst male and female Soldiers and military leaders alike.  While I refrain from articulating my own personal convictions with regards to the issue, I do believe that seeing things from other people’s point of view is important.  The purpose of this post is to present the opinions and views from our Part-Time Commander subscribers to gain some perspective and generate discussion.

To begin, I would like to state some of the more common arguments for and against the new precedence set by the Army.  But before I get started I think that it is important to remember that women have essentially been serving in some aspects direct combat role for quite some time.  The cultural complexities we faced during the Iraq war forced female Soldiers outside the wire as they patrolled with combat maneuver elements in support.  Oftentimes, these women manned gunner’s hatches, were in direct contact and humped a few clicks alongside their male counterparts.  Despite these facts, there is still a lot of speculation on whether females can really cut it in roles that have been dominated by men since the dawn of time.  So, let’s take a look at the debate:

Here are some of the points of view I have heard from those opposing the female integration:

  • Physical Ability. While the majority of jobs in the armed forces are open equally to men and women, there are some to which women are just not physically suited.
  • Efficiency. While integration of women into combat is possible for those qualified, the small number versus the additional logistical, regulatory and disciplinary costs associated with integration do not make it a worthwhile move.
  • Morale & Cohesion. Having women serving in direct combat will hamper mission effectiveness by hurting unit morale and cohesion.
  • Military readiness. Pregnancy can affect the deployability of a unit when the unit has a disproportionate number of women or is understaffed.
  • Tradition. Men, especially those likely to enlist, maintain traditional gender roles. In some situations, men are may act foolishly to protect women in their combat units. Harassment and resentment of the presence of women in a hyper masculine military subculture would likely become a problem.
  • Abuse by Enemy. Both male and female prisoners are at risk of torture and rape, but misogynistic societies may be more willing to abuse woman prisoners.

Here are some of the opinions and views of those who support lifting the ban:

  • Ability vs Gender. As long as an applicant is qualified for a position, one’s gender is arbitrary. It is easy to recruit and deploy women who are in better shape than many men sent into combat. In modern high technology battlefield technical expertise and decision-making skills are increasingly more valuable than simple brute strength.
  • Military Readiness. Allowing a mixed gender force keeps the military strong. The all-volunteer forces are severely troubled by falling retention and recruitment rates. Widening the applicant pool for all jobs guarantees more willing recruits.
  • Effectiveness. The blanket restriction for women limits the ability of commanders in theater to pick the most capable person for the job.
  • Modern warfare and public support. In the modern world of combat (Afghanistan, Iraq), all women serving in the military are exposed to “front-line risks”.  Support for women serving in the armed forces has not wavered as warfare has changed, a clear sign that the necessity of women serving in combat is recognized.
  • Cultural Differences & Demographics. Women are more effective in some circumstances than men. Allowing women to serve doubles the talent pool for delicate and sensitive jobs that require interpersonal skills not every soldier has. Having a wider personnel base allows militaries to have the best and most diplomatic soldiers working to end conflict quickly.
  • Career advancement. As combat duty is usually regarded as necessary for promotion to senior officer positions, denying female personnel this experience ensures that very few will ever reach the highest reaches of the military and so further entrenches sexism.

I would love to generate some debate from our site visitors and contributors to see what you all think.  Regardless of our opinions, I think that we can all agree that in lifting a ban on women serving in combat roles in the U.S. military, the Obama administration has made a monumental move toward gender rights that could ultimately change the way our current and future wars look.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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8 thoughts on “Debate: Women Serving in Combat Arms”

  1. The question is moot because since this was written, women HAVE been put into combat positions in the Army. The sad thing is that all of the concerns mentioned here have been shown to be valid. No matter that we say they should have the same physical fitness standards, they don’t. Women, in general, are not physically designed to have upper body strength.

    It often takes double the amount of women to do the same job as men. Changing a tire on a 5-ton truck takes two women, whereas most men can do it by themselves. Special strength training has even been implemented, but it still did not bring them up to the same level as most men.

    Also, no matter that we say there should be no special treatment, there is. There is the expense of separate latrines, separate showers, and separate barracks. There is the special treatment when a female soldier gets pregnant. I believe that female soldiers are not in any way inferior to males, and I certainly do not believe that women have specific feminine tendencies that prevent them inherently from emotionally and psychologically handling a combat situation.

    But I do think that experience with women being IN combat positions shows that in most cases, there are just some MOSs where women cannot adequately perform the duties. The sad part is that now that women do serve in combat in the Army, it will be all the more difficult to change the requirements to something more equitable for men in the same positions.

  2. Feminists would probably tar and feather me for being a woman traitor but here are my opinions. Though I believe women can be as strong and fast as men – generally they are not. In battle you cannot call a time-out and change your feminine hygiene products. Rape is abhorrent but it happens – and not always by the enemy. I believe men in the troop would put themselves in further jeopardy trying to protect the female soldiers from harm. If women choose this path then I agree with Chuck, they need to register with the Selective Service upon turning 18; no special treatment in time or weight expectations in PT, hair cuts, shower time, etc. Sadly, as Justin points out, you need combat under your belt to reach the higher echelon so there is a very real ceiling when it comes to promotion of women.

  3. As a woman, I personally do not feel that women should be placed in that sort of role. In my husband’s words, “It is unnecessary!” When it boils down to it, if a Soldier is injured in the battlefield, and the woman needed to pull him to safety – the question would be, “Could she do it, or not?”
    Aside from that, women are very emotional beings and seeing the gore and horrors that happen out on the field might be a lot more difficult for them to overcome than a man. With saying all of this, if a woman can pass the male standard for any given specialty (in this case, combat arms), then yes she could be considered qualified – BUT she must past the same exact standards as a male!

    I think gender rights are good in one sense, but hinder us in another sense. Women have their roles, and men have theirs as well. Women are caring, loving and emotional, and men are masculine, and tend to brush things off their shoulder quicker than that of a woman. I just think that women are meant to stay out of the combat scenes.

  4. I couldn’t agree more, Chuck. I feel that oftentimes civilian policies and expectations find their way into the military which is not right. The idea of equality in the civilian world is a nice concept but is not applicable as you indicated in your comments. You have to demand the same exact standard regardless of the sex of the Soldier. Many people do not understand that but I do believe that many women do. Like you, I have served with many strong female Soldiers and many weak. I say, if you can meet the same standards as the male to my left, right, front and rear then I can count on you when the bullets start flying… But, as anyone in the military knows, your job, regardless of MOS is not just physical standards but relies on intellectual capacity and common sense as well. It is a tricky policy and I believe that if the DOD wants to have it that way, the proper steps have to be taken and the proper policies put into place before they just allow it to happen.

    1. I’m not sure there is any way to make it equal without having one standard. Having different standards for men and women, especially in the combat arms branches does more harm than good (my opinion). At a minimum, there should be a required registration for the selective service for both men and women, one physical fitness standard and one hygiene standard. Hopefully, the DoD will work out all the kinks before they roll out the policy.

  5. I’ve served with many women during my career and most of them were very competent and good at what they did (no different than the men). I think women are capable of serving in combat arms, but I believe that if they do, there should only be one standard.

    If the law passes, I think it is only fair to have all women also required to register for the Selective Service, just like men have to. And in the field, they shouldn’t be given special treatment for showers, time off, or anything else.

    If the Army can find a way to do that I say go for it. If not, they might want to rethink their approach and hash out some of these details before they make a decision.

    Just my thoughts.

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