Women, Men, Combat, And The Draft

Recently the Department of Defense announced that, beginning in January, all combat jobs in the military would be open to women.  The decision means that about 220,000 combat military positions, mostly in the Marine Corps and the Army infantry and armor units, are available to female members of the military, provided they can satisfy certain gender-neutral performance standards and other qualification requirements.

women-in-combatThe last point is, I think, the most important one, because objective standards that are based upon a rational assessment of the expected needs of the job, but are blind to gender, should be the goal.  Does the recruit, regardless of their gender, have the physical strength and capabilities, eye-hand coordination, mental characteristics, and other attributes needed to be part of the squad and do the job?  If so, they should be eligible for the position.

I applaud this decision from the Obama Administration, which removes one of the last broad rules providing for differing treatment of men and women.  Of course, the performance standards for various positions will need to be carefully determined, and in some instances the objectively determined physical demands of the position — such as the need for substantial upper-body strength in certain combat roles, for example — might ultimately lead to qualification of more men than women, as happens in, say, firefighting jobs.  But they key point is that women who can meet the requirements have the opportunity to do so, without being barred by an unfair, across-the-board rule.

Much of the traditional opposition to the notion of women in combat roles, in reality, seemed to have little to do with actual physical capabilities and more to do with antique notions of sexuality and proper gender roles.  There were expressions of concern that romantic relationships might form in the foxhole that could destroy unit morale, or that men in the unit might feel so protective of women in the unit that they would forsake their training to recklessly rescue the damsel in distress.  Whether there was a factual basis for these concerns in the past is debatable, but my observation of group dynamics among younger people suggests that old-fashioned notions of appropriate gender roles don’t have much significance these days — and in any case I’m confident that tough Marine and Army drill instructors, and squad leaders, can train and discipline troops so that such concerns don’t materialize in reality.

There’s now one, last sign of unequal treatment between men and women when it comes to military service in America:  registration with the Selective Service System, and the possibility of being drafted, which is required only of men between 18 and 25.  When will this last bastion of inequality also fall to the enlightened attitudes of modern America?

Women In Combat

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reportedly will announce today that the long-time ban against allowing female soldiers to participate in combat operations will be ended.  The move is being made upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The decision would overturn a 1994 edict that barred women from participation in ground-combat units.  It also recognizes the reality of what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the turmoil of terrorist-oriented wars has caused female soldiers operating in “combat support” roles to become involved in combat itself.  In those chaotic situations, women have performed coolly, competently, and with valor — like the well-trained, capable soldiers they are.

The primary objections to women soldiers in combat have been that they could create a sexually charged atmosphere that might detract from performance of the mission and might not be physically capable, from a strength standpoint, of performing all tasks that could be necessary on a particular operation.  The first excuse seems antiquated, and in any case can be addressed by proper training of soldiers of both sexes and attentive leadership.  The answer to the second concern is easy — establish the physical capabilities that actually are needed and see whether individual women, as well as individual men, can meet them.  If so, they should be permitted to participate.  What is the point of arbitrarily excluding professional soldiers who want to serve and can do their duty?

I’m all for knocking down exclusionary barriers — particularly those that arose from outdated cultural and social mores.  I’m glad we are discarding the lingering, Victorian era notions about the delicate conditions of women and giving them the opportunity to fully serve their country and pursue a military career, if that is their choice.