The primary mission of military forces is to fight and win their nation’s wars. Whatever enhances martial capabilities is good; all else is superfluous and, in some cases, counterproductive. To that end, military forces are teams honed for one purpose: winning. They are not about creating equality of outcomes for individuals. This begs the question: Will putting women into combat units enhance U.S. combat capabilities?
Women already serve in combat or in capacities that potentially put them in mortal danger. This includes women on naval vessels, especially aircraft carriers and submarines. There are women who fly rotary and fixed-wing combat aircraft. Today’s dynamic “battlespace” potentially places almost all female military personnel—regardless of service—in harm’s way. That makes it difficult to bar women from more exotic and demanding roles in fighting units.
The process of natural selection will prove determinant. More than a quarter of a century ago, the Air Force and Navy examined the possibility of women flying fighter planes. One argument against putting women in cockpits was that fighter pilots must be securely harnessed to their ejection seats, which could present problems for women. Solutions were discovered, however, and women with keen senses and stout nerves can now fly modern combat aircraft as well as men. Additionally, women do not see aerial combat as a “sport,” as males are more inclined to do. In land combat, however, stamina and strength count for a lot. While rigorous training winnows out the physically and spiritually weak regardless of gender, some women—not many, but some—will qualify.
There are cultural aspects also to this issue. Historically, women have played three roles in war: victims, instigators (Helen of Troy and Beersheba) and warriors (Boadicea, Queen of the Inceni, and Joan of
Arc). As in the case of Boadicea, the opportunities for women in certain roles are better in unconventional situations, like rebelling against the Romans, or the French resistance and Russian partisans during World War II. The roles for women in unconventional organizations (like U.S. Special Operations) are often specific, where their sex is an asset, as in gathering intelligence.
Placing women in combat units raises at least three concerns. First, the American cultural norm is to protect women. Last week, a U.S. Air Force news release indicated over 700 documented cases of sexual harassment, ranging from inappropriate comments and touching to forcible rape by airpersons on airpersons on one training base. In combat, soldiers must watch out for each other based on a sense of comradeship akin to brotherly love. This cannot be sexually driven, since the overwhelming power of such attraction can divide rather than unite those facing mortal danger.
Second, given the bureaucratic nature of the U.S. military, any Joint Chiefs of Staff initiative (like the current one to put women in combat) generates a policy-implementing program. High-level interest means good people will direct the program with quantitative assessments monitoring progress. Normative success will generate politically acceptable outcomes as the inevitable affirmative-action mindset takes hold. Pressures for “getting with the program” will compel the “career-minded” implementers to overlook weakness and incompetence to achieve expected outcomes.
The consequences of this mindset were made evident in the Major Nidal Malik Hasan case, which resulted in the deaths of 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas. A radical Muslim’s jihadist inclinations were overlooked. Major Hasan was “passed along” rather than cashiered because senior officers feared being politically incorrect. As in that tragic case, the end result of this new initiative could be catastrophic, because senior officers will feel compelled to make decisions based on politically correct ideology.
Third, putting women in combat units opens a vulnerability sentient that enemies will exploit. Al Qaeda might target women for capture. After taking a sufficient number of female captives, imagine these women being tortured, sexually assaulted and mutilated -- live on the Internet. Parents, spouses, children and siblings would demand daughters, wives, mothers and sisters be withdrawn from combat. The National Organization for Women may even lead the clamor. Given the moral courage demonstrated by senior leaders supporting this initiative, imagine what would happen to U.S. war-fighting capabilities if the armed forces suddenly suffered a 25 to 30 percent reduction in fighting forces due to women being withdrawn from combat units. Keep in mind that in the first Gulf War, every prisoner of war, including the two female captives, was sexually assaulted. Sadly, it’s not unusual.
Winning or losing in warfare is ultimately a matter of will. Is this country ready for large numbers of dead women soldiers? How will the nation react to female POWs being tortured and sexually abused?
Ultimately, the question must focus on whether or not women in combat makes for a more capable armed force. With reductions coming on the heels of budgetary cuts, the fewer must be better.
Earl Tilford, former Air Force intelligence officer, is a military historian for terrorism and the Middle East with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.