Women may be ready for combat, but Republicans aren’t. When the Obama administration announced that it would allow women into combat units, prominent Republicans were quick to say that they supported the policy — generally without any reservations or hints that there might be reasons for concern. A party that fought for decades against allowing open homosexuals to serve in the military is now thoughtlessly accepting a much more problematic change in military-personnel policy.
They are doing so on naïve assumptions. The first is that physical standards will not change, and only those few women who meet ones developed for men will be placed on the front lines. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has already breached that defense: “If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high?” Thus were the Armed Forces welcomed to the world of disparate impact that corporate attorneys have already come to know so well.
The second mistaken assumption is that only women who volunteer for combat will ever have to engage in it. It has been reasonably well understood until now that any man who joins the military, whatever his reasons for doing it, becomes the military’s to use as it sees fit. There is no reason to think women will be treated any differently by a military that officially denies that average differences between the sexes should have any impact on its treatment of individuals. (Nor will there be any reason to restrict draft registration to men — as we trust the courts will find in short order once this policy takes effect.)
Many women who have volunteered to serve our country in the military do not wish to play a combat role. As people come to see that a woman who joins the military may be effectively signing up for the possibility of combat, the number of female applicants may actually decline. The military bureaucracy will presumably see that as another reason to lower standards.
Initial polls suggest that the public likes the idea of giving women who want to serve in combat a chance. This support, no doubt, partly explains the reluctance of Republicans to say anything negative. But we suspect Americans would oppose lowering standards and forcing women into combat zones if these issues were brought to their attention. The pollsters have not asked whether it is possible that military men can be trained to treat their female colleagues in distress the same way they would treat men on the battlefield, or in enemy camps, or whether it is desirable.
Republicans — and for that matter, sensible Democrats — who have been silent about the new policy should speak up against it. Those who have prematurely endorsed it should read General Dempsey’s words, and reconsider. This policy barely even pretends to serve the goal of military effectiveness, which means it is not in the best interests of men or women, inside the Armed Forces or out.