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Grace under Fire

A female U.S. Marine on patrol in Afghanistan, March 12, 2011

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The Defense Department has announced the opening of some 14,000 new “combat related” roles to women in the military, another incremental win for those seeking to erode the protections that have long kept women out of the most dangerous assignments.

Supporters believe the move, and the eventual removal of all barriers preventing women from combat, represents a great advance in “equal opportunity.” That belief is dubious, but more to the point, it is irrelevant. The purpose of the military is to fight and win wars. Personnel policies should be based, first and last, on combat effectiveness. If putting female soldiers on the front line had even a small adverse impact on combat effectiveness, it would outweigh whatever other, political or symbolic benefits might accrue. 

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Conservatives — most recently Rick Santorum and Virginia governor Bob McDonnell — have been divided on this issue. We think there is sense in Santorum’s suggestion that, e.g., a soldier faced with the prospect of a female comrade’s death might be driven to act in ways contrary to the best interest of the mission. We also think that the instinct of men to protect women in danger is both natural and moral, and that there would be something perverse about seeking to train it out of our soldiers. 

But we take issue with Governor McDonnell’s assertion that the reality of female soldiers’ having died in Iraq and Afghanistan counts as evidence of the propriety of dropping them into firefights in forward areas. There remains a gulf between combat support and combat per se, just as there is a gulf between the soldiers who fall in combat and the civilians who die as collateral damage. 

But leaving such disputes aside, it is important to emphasize that, before the first woman could fire a single shot in an infantry unit, there would already be a host of practical challenges to overcome. The very Pentagon report announcing the policy shift acknowledges that a broader integration would mean forward barracks, and even whole “weapons systems,” would have to be retrofitted to provide privacy to each sex. Is this the most cost- and combat-effective way to spend defense dollars that are suddenly in short supply? 

Perhaps more insidious is the inevitable injection of gender politics into military affairs that would come with full combat integration. The physical demands of a number of intense combat and special-operations roles are already barriers to entry for countless servicemen, and were in fact a part of the Pentagon’s original rationale for precluding women from them. But the influence of political correctness, which has already seeped into Pentagon culture from greater Washington, would only increase with the culturally charged entry of women into these intense roles. Current integration policies have demanded gender-normed scoring on physical tests owing to undeniable sex differences in physical abilities. But the ability to survive is not gender-normed. 

Military women have served bravely and selflessly and done everything asked of them. The present direct-combat exemptions ensure that they won’t be told to serve in ways that deny them the most important equal opportunity of all: the opportunity to come home.



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