Women in Combat: The Devil’s in the Details

by Stephanie Gutmann

Yesterday was a busy day for military reporters. Around noon the House Armed Services Committee began hearings detailing what one congressman called “a culture that allowed pervasive sexual abuse of [young female] recruits [by their instructors]” at a Texas Air Force base. Then, late in the afternoon, came a press release from outgoing secretary of defense Leon Panetta who announced he is striking down the 1994 Combat Exclusion Law, the law that stipulates “women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”

Guess which story got wall to wall coverage? Somewhere David Axelrod is smoking a cigar.

Okay, to be fair, one is the much bigger story. Hearings on sexual abuse of female military personnel — whether at training camps, on deployed bases, or at elite schools like West Point — are by now yawningly routine. Military sex scandals, now catalogued with nicknames like “Tailhook” and “Aberdeen,” surface every two or three years — or ever since the modern world discovered a phenomenon known as “sexual harassment” (heretofore called flirting) and ever since the mid-nineties when the Clinton administration attempted to achieve a perfectly gender-integrated force, one where men and women served in equal ratios, did the same jobs, and attained equal ranks. An obsequious Pentagon was directed to “make it work” but decades later, after recruiters practically went after women with butterfly nets, the percentage of women in the armed forces remains stubbornly around 15 percent.

Back in the present, Panetta’s announcement is historic and will give him a nice line for his bio but it is still conveniently vague. The devil is always in the details with these things and there are, so far, few details. We know that Special Forces are not excluded from Panetta’s plan, but the guys in the SEALs can cling to the sentence about “exceptions being allowed.” There is, however, one paragraph that I find distinctly ominous. It’s the part about each service being “charged with developing policies to integrate women into every military job.” Army Times quotes a defense official who says, “For instance, it’s likely the Army will establish a set of physical requirements for infantry soldiers. The candidate, man or woman, will have to lift a certain amount of weight in order to qualify. The standards will be gender neutral.”

Erm . . .What’s wrong with current physical requirement standards for infantry soliders? Is this official implying that more woman-friendly standards will have to be developed? The male/female upper-body strength difference is by now tediously well documented. There is no question that the average woman (and yes the average enlistee is often quite average indeed) especially in our overweight times, will have difficulty, say, carrying a wounded comrade to safety and walking for days dressed in full “battle rattle.” Study after study shows that women get injured at at least twice the rate of men — and this is in a military where women are not doing the most physically demanding jobs.#more#

There is more than a whiff of “do it or else” in this little paragraph. Will the services now be expected to “make it work” by moving heaven and earth (changing standards, dumping qualified men) to get women into those previously closed jobs so Chuck Hagel or whoever the sec def turns out to be, can have lots of nice photo-ops to send to NOW and other feminist groups? Recall that in the ’90s, after Congress opened Navy’s combat aircraft to women, the Navy and the Air Force began a very undignified scramble to be the first to get a woman into the cockpit of a fighter jet. Critics blame the hurry-up policy on, for instance, the untimely death of Lieutenant Kara Hultgren who flew her fighter jet into the sea on a clear day during a routine training run.

The usual suspects in the mainstream media are dancing around maypoles and singing Hosannas. Trumpeted the New York Times, “women have long chafed under the restrictions.” Not quite. Some women, high-ranking, West Point and Annapolis-educated, D.C.-residing type military women have “chaffed.” But enlisted women — the women who’d actually have to live in the smelly, crowded tents and schlep all the “battle rattle” — not so much. Several major studies have shown profound apathy about combat roles among the vast majority of enlisted women. For instance, Army staff sergeant Stacey Zinda, a career counselor, told CNN yesterday that “she has yet to have a female soldier approach her about joining a combat unit.”

The other bit of pathos being draped about by mainstream-media reporters is that the Pentagon is merely putting “the official seal” as the U.K. Guardian put it, on something women have been doing for years and not gotten career-advancing credit for. “In reality,” says the New York Times, “women have frequently found themselves in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 20,000 have served. As of last year, more than 800 women had been wounded in the two wars and more than 130 had died.”

But that’s not true either and it illustrates a fuzzy civilian’s notion of combat as something to do with bullets whizzing around. Women have been in support roles. Driving supply trucks or flying helicopters, accompanying patrols as interpreters — some of them have come under fire, some of them have undoubtedly fired back, and a few may have engaged in fire-fights spurred by the need to defend themselves. But getting shot at is not “combat” — at least not the way the official military defines it. The Department of Defense defines a combat job as one in which a soldier’s primary duty is to seek out, engage and neutralize the enemy. This is a distinction that should be recognized. Special credit should be given. Operating in a combat zone requires bravery but seeking out and “engaging” an enemy requires even more bravery. Sorry, the U.S. military is — well, used to be — a meritocracy. It makes distinctions.

Now, (I think we can all stop pretending that there aren’t sex differences here) men like this seeking-out-the-enemy thing. Infantry jobs, jobs involving combat, have to be requested and young men will continue to enthusiastically request these positions. Will women? I doubt they will in great numbers. I think they will continue to swell the ranks of intelligence, management, medical, and logistical jobs, continue to do these jobs admirably, but avoid the combat roles. If so, the impact of this historic policy change may be insignificant. It may go down as more of Obama’s gestural politics.

On the other hand, if implementing this policy looks like a replay of the 1990s when the services were turned inside out to try to achieve a utopian notion of a 50/50 sex ratio force, if women are coerced, bribed, cajoled, and standards are lowered to welcome them, the policy will cost billions, sap morale, and generally degrade military readiness.

— Stephanie Gutmann is the author of the Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America’s Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars (Scribner 2000).