The recent decision by outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta to allow women to serve in front-line combat units is fraught with problems, and no one in the administration or at the Department of Defense seems to be considering them.
First of all, it is important to understand that the nature of warfare has changed substantially in the last couple of decades. Linear battlefields with clearly defined front lines and rear areas are no longer the norm and are unlikely to re-emerge in future warfare. Furthermore, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers have become a ubiquitous threat that does not discriminate between combat soldiers and support personnel. Consequently, everyone in combat areas is vulnerable to enemy attack and could find themselves in contact with the enemy in an instant. This means women are already in combat and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. All one has to do is visit Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and observe the number of women who are recovering from wounds or check the statistics on the number of Purple Hearts that have been awarded to women. Women have fought well and displayed courage and commitment during contact with the enemy. Bottom line: They have done well.
Col. Martha McSally, now retired, was the first female U.S. Air Force combat pilot, flying the A-10 Warthog in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also commanded an A-10 Squadron. I am quite sure that when the infantry and Special Forces units on the ground called for tactical air support or close-air support, they could have cared less about the sex of the pilot. Col. McSally performed well by all accounts. She is an example of how women can be employed in a combat role.
Yet that example should not lead people to the misguided conclusion that all units are suitable for mixing sexes. Some units, like infantry, Special Forces, SEALs and others, are not suitable for combining men and women. It has nothing to do with the courage or even capabilities of women. It is all about two things: the burden on small unit leaders, and the lack of privacy in these units.
These ground units have the mission of closing with and destroying the enemy by fire and maneuver, direct assaults, raids, ambushes and close combat. When an infantry unit is operating, there are no facilities to return to at the end of the fight. These units are routinely in combat operations for days and weeks at a time. Many veterans of the initial push into Kandahar and Baghdad report that it was 30 days or more before they were even afforded an opportunity for a shower. They simply used any opportunity they had to conduct rudimentary personal hygiene and lived, ate and slept in primitive conditions. Just look at the Internet photos of U.S. Marines resting in shallow holes in the sand next to their vehicles and judge for yourself how living conditions were for these warriors.
Suffice it to say, their personal hygiene regimen and normal bodily functions were humiliating enough among mates of the same sex. What would it have been like for a mixed-sex unit? My thoughts, based on personal experience, are that it would be humiliating for all. When bullets are flying or mortars are dropping on your position, you do what you need to do while focusing on overpowering the enemy.
Leaders of these units must be focused like a laser on keeping their soldiers alive and defeating the enemy. It is unreasonable to encumber them with the additional burden of worrying about how they provide privacy for the few women under their command during stressful and very dangerous operations. It is not the same as being a combat pilot who returns to an operating base or an aircraft carrier after the fight, where separate facilities are available.
The emotion of this argument about mixing the sexes in ground combat units runs high, but reality must prevail. It is unfortunate that the leaders of our military have not stood firm on this issue and have let political expediency override common sense.
Remember, be careful what you ask for, because you might get it. In this case it will not be good for readiness or morale.
Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, retired, is executive vice president at the Family Research Council and was an original member of the Army’s Delta Force.
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