Should combat roles be fully opened to women?

Below is an excerpt from this week's CQ Researcher on "Women in the Military" by Marcia Clemmitt, November 13, 2009

More than 90 percent of armed-services jobs are open to women. The largest remaining all-male job category is ground-combat units — infantry troops that directly seek out and engage the enemy in fire.

In interviews with military officers and analysts, “we were told repeatedly that, if relevant and realistic tests existed so that only qualified women (and men) were assigned to these positions, gender integration would not be an issue,” said analysts from the RAND Corporation think tank in an influential 1997 analysis. [Footnote 15]

“Women are already engaged in combat” because under today's conditions, “combat is everywhere,” says Martin of Bryn Mawr. So the old distinctions between front-line positions that are barred to women versus more secure rear areas — where women are allowed — are no longer relevant and should be scrapped, he says.

“Units comprised of women and men have bonded … and maintained good order for centuries — or did they have separate-sex wagon trains pioneering the West?” wrote blogger and retired Air Force Capt. Barbara A. Wilson. “I have known some pretty weak men who wouldn't protect the back of their own mother in a crisis or combat situation and some strong women who would go to the wall for a total stranger in the trenches — and vice versa.” [Footnote 16]

Arguments against women in combat sometimes rest on “the military's mission to make professional killers” of its combat soldiers and women's supposed unsuitability for that role, says Iskra of the University of Maryland. But, in fact, “everybody recognizes that women can kill,” she says. “It's just not the cultural norm,” so it's easy to ignore.

Furthermore, there's now proof that “women in the combat area tend to defuse explosive situations just by their presence,” says Iskra. The evidence comes from the Lioness groups of women soldiers who accompany male Army and Marine Corps units on counterinsurgency missions, she says. With the women there, gaining control of explosive situations in hostile territory becomes mainly a matter of separating women and children out and “talking rather than shooting,” she says. “Imagine if somebody broke into your home. Of course the Iraqi men are shouting, panicking.” But “with the women there they know that their wives won't be raped,” and that confidence helps defuse the danger, she says.

Nevertheless, “the type of ground combat that involves directly attacking the enemy, actively rooting out enemy forces — not simply being in harm's way,” still exists, and there's no guarantee such aggressive missions won't be needed in the future, says Donnelly.

That being the case, “the strongest argument and the one that research backs up is that female soldiers do not have an equal opportunity to survive or help others survive” in situations requiring them to “go out and seek out the enemy,” Donnelly says. “Nobody questions the bravery of our women soldiers,” she continues, but “it's not fair to the women and not fair to the men” to put women in jobs serving directly with ground-combat troops because most women can't carry out required duties, such as carrying a wounded soldier from the front.

In combat areas toilet and washing facilities are rudimentary at best and, often, nonexistent, and some studies have found that, for women soldiers, “unmet basic hygiene needs affect morale” and their ability to cope in combat circumstances, says Browne of Wayne State. In such situations, some women “retained urine and stool and limited their water intake to reduce the number of times they would have to go to the bathroom,” which both increased their risk of urinary-tract infections and dehydration and decreased their ability to work at top efficiency. [Footnote 17]

Though the military is not willing to discuss the topic, sexual attraction would be inevitable in a mixed-gender combat unit and would quickly damage the required atmosphere of life-or-death trust, says a former infantry officer and West Point graduate who did three tours of duty in Iraq, including as a ground-combat officer in the August 2004 battle to control the city of Najaf in southern Iraq.

Women served in one supply company for his unit, and “when you'd go back there, you'd start looking at those girls and thinking, ‘My goodness,’” says the officer. If the women had served alongside the men in combat, “you would be distracted. A woman there would just get prettier and prettier every day,” he says. “I wouldn't do anything inappropriate, but I would worry because I know there'd be guys in my platoon who would act on their feelings, whether the woman wanted them to or not” — an extra concern for an officer already bearing the burden of leading troops in battle.

[15] Margaret C. Harrell and Laura L. Miller, “New Opportunities for Military Women; Effects Upon Readiness, Cohesion, Morale,” RAND, 1997, p. xvii.
[16] Barbara W. Wilson, “Women in Combat: Why Not,” Military Women Veterans blog.
[17] Kingsley Browne, Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence that Women Shouldn't Fight the Nation's Wars (2007), p.259


For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Women in the Military" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF


Greg said...

Absolutely it is time that women should be "offically" allowed in combat. My sister is a Marine that has seen firefights in Afghanistan. They are already in combat.

Anonymous said...

Women want equality yet at the same time mainatin special priviledges, like not fighting in open combat. Women are not the ones coming home by the thousands in body bags. Males are. There are more females in the population than men why should males do all the dying? It is time to let women die for their country, defend their country, equally!