The Department of Defense announced on Thursday that it has begun a review of some 230,000 combat rates, specialties, and positions that women are currently not allowed to serve in, and that by September of 2015 any service that wishes to retain all male combat units will be required to submit a request to be approved by the Secretary of Defense.
The announcement came shortly before Secretary Panetta turns over the reins of Defense, most likely to President Obama's announced successor of choice, former Republican Senator and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel.
By requiring a waiver from the Secretary himself, the policy sets the new default expectation that women can serve in all roles, unless some sort of exclusivity can be defended and is actively requested by a given branch.
Since the Pentagon is pondering this, let's do so ourselves: what, today, is a valid criteria for our military leaders to use in deciding whether or not to exclude women from some combat roles?
Since the mid-90s, women have been allowed to serve in a limited number of combat or support roles: service onboard navy surface combatants, as combat pilots in all services, and as corpsman (the "p" is silent, Mr. President, like in swimming). I have served alongside many fine officers and sailors who are women. I support women serving in uniform in many capacities.
So, it is true that, as Army Staff Sgt Jennifer Hunt says:
"Right before the IED went off, it didn't ask me how many push-ups or sit-ups I could do," said Ms. Hunt, one of the women who filed a lawsuit last year to challenge the ban. "Right now the women who are serving are being engaged in combat, so their physical restrictions aren't a barrier."
Though, we hasten to add, stating that women have been exposed to combat is not yet quite the same thing as saying that it is good that this has happened, or that we ought to expand the opportunity for this to be the case.
Some have suggested that whether or not a person has a penis has no impact on that person's ability to shoot straight. Agreed. A woman can be taught to pull the trigger on a modern combat rifle as accurately as a man. However, physical size does matter: a deck mounted .50 caliber machine gun on a naval vessel can be hard for smaller men to control. The same is true with larger caliber machine guns carried by infantrymen.
Others say testosterone plays a role in high stress situations like combat, making it more favorable to men. This is a reality that I won't deny. While women can certainly be fierce, they are fierce in a different way. Moreover, men also have a natural predisposition to be protective toward women. This instinct can alter the focus of a unit in the midst of a firefight. A similar instinct crops up whenever a member of the unit is wounded, but it is amplified in the case of a woman.
A third factor is the rigors of some specialties on the bodies of men and women. The bodies of men and women are built differently; physical activities affect them differently. The question here turns not so much on the quanta of pain a body can endure--most of us guys are very unlikely, even if wounded, to ever suffer the amount of pain a women feels in birth. Rather it turns on the fact that the amount of gear carried by an infantryman takes its toll.
Consider the stress fractures suffered by women who attempted to complete the USMC Infantry course this past year. No one will deny that these were strong women, and mentally tough. If women are, as a general rule, liable to suffer these injuries to a higher degree than men, and are more likely, therefore, on longer rotations in the field to be unable to fulfill their duties as often (through no fault of their own, but simply through the tolerance a body can stand under these conditions) and taking into account the time it takes to build small unit cohesion and the money it takes both to train an infantryman, as well as the medical cost of dealing with the injuries or benefits later down the line, do these factors not merit consideration? (We will refrain from speculation on the impact these rigors might have on a woman's ability to give birth.)
Perhaps you think these notions are outdated because of technological developments. In the future, that may be the case. At present, however, it seems fitting to point to a certain war in a mountainous central Asian country that no one expected but that requires patrols on foot more often than in armored vehicle.
If the objection is raised that women compete in the Olympics, are we not right to point out that mastering one's own body and body weight are not the same as an infantryman carrying equipment, armor, and weaponry into battle (often weighing 100 pounds or more in addition to his weight)?; or those of a special forces soldier under fire carrying another wounded man to safety while exfiltrating from his objective?
Another consideration is some of the physical realities front-line units often must endure. See this article by Ryan Smith, a former infantry officer in the Iraq war. These are the conditions of modern warfare, yes, in 2003:
The invasion was a blitzkrieg. The goal was to move as fast to Baghdad as possible. The column would not stop for a lance corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, or even a company commander to go to the restroom. Sometimes we spent over 48 hours on the move without exiting the vehicles. We were forced to urinate in empty water bottles inches from our comrades.
Many Marines developed dysentery from the complete lack of sanitary conditions. When an uncontrollable urge hit a Marine, he would be forced to stand, as best he could, hold an MRE bag up to his rear, and defecate inches from his seated comrade's face.
During the invasion, we wore chemical protective suits because of the fear of chemical or biological weapon attack. These are equivalent to a ski jumpsuit and hold in the heat. We also had to wear black rubber boots over our desert boots...Due to the heat and sweat, layers of our skin would peel off our feet. However, we rarely had time to remove our suits or perform even the most basic hygiene. We quickly developed sores on our bodies.
When we did reach Baghdad, we were in shambles. We had not showered in well over a month and our chemical protective suits were covered in a mixture of filth and dried blood. We were told to strip and place our suits in pits to be burned immediately. My unit stood there in a walled-in compound in Baghdad, naked, sores dotted all over our bodies, feet peeling, watching our suits burn. Later, they lined us up naked and washed us off with pressure washers.
I leave you to take from that what you will.
A final exigency is the sexual. In my experience, it is impossible to place several hundred young people of both sexes in high stress positions and send them to sea for months on end and not know, somewhere in your heart of hearts, that at least some of them are sexually active, and that this can have consequences for unit readiness, both physical and psychological, and might undermine the chain of command. These conditions can be mitigated, but not eliminated.
This list is not exhaustive, and clever Ricochetti will add their own to it.
Ultimately, I see questions like this through the following lens. At the very beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle reminds us that "Every act aims at some good."
If this is so, what good is being aimed at by the policy? Can you tell me with a straight face that it is improved combat effectiveness?
[H/T to Ricochet's King Prawn for breaking the news to the Member Feed]
*If you are among the members who knows enough Latin to know that the proper plural of phallus is not phalluses, gold star, good for you. But, really, don't write about it in the comments....