On Thursday, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta opened up combat roles to women in the military. This foundational change came without the preparatory fire of congressional deliberation or analysis on behalf of the military. Three reasons are posited for allowing women to serve in combat jobs: that women’s rights are conscribed otherwise, that their career opportunities suffer, and that the change is moot because women already serve in combat. What has eluded necessary focus is whether the average service woman can serve effectively in combat roles such as infantry, and more importantly, whether they should.
As a practical matter, persons serving in the military voluntarily sign away most of their personal freedom when they join. You serve how, where and when you are told, subject to regulations, so there really is no “right” to any particular job.
The justification for women in combat also perches on the tottering supposition that women do not have successful career opportunities in the service already. Though women historically have been underrepresented at senior ranks, this has changed for the better over the last decade. For the first time in history, two women were promoted to four-star rank in 2012, Generals Ann E. Dunwoody and Janet C. Wolfenbarger.
The only other argument offered to justify women’s foray into combat arms is that it’s already happening. The Department of Defense lists 6,437 total military dead in Iraq and Afghanistan combined as of May 2012. Of that figure, 144 are women (2 percent). About half of female deaths are categorized as “non-hostile,” while the majority of the rest are from indiscriminate roadside bombs. In 10 years of combat, fewer than a dozen women have been killed by small arms and grenade attacks. This is not to minimize their noble sacrifice, but it is hardly justification for wholesale expansion of women into combat arms due to the implication that it is a fait accompli.
If men and women had the same physiology, all sports would be unisex. Biologically, men evolved to hunt and kill bison, women to bear and raise children. According to the San Diego Center for Health, males on average have a 20 percent to 25 percent higher lung capacity than females; women have 30 percent less maximal cardiac output. The average female will be 10 percent smaller, 25 pounds lighter, have 8 percent to 10 percent more body fat, and less dense bones.
Speed, endurance and strength are still critical for the modern military. Indeed, the more elite the unit, the more time spent training the body. Although it doesn’t take strength to pull a trigger, you still have to get to work—sometimes carrying 100 pounds of gear for many miles. Women would be unlikely to be able to pick up a 225-pound male soldier, especially with his gear, to carry him to safety in a firefight. Moreover, life-or-death hand-to-hand combat still occurs.
Women currently have lower physical fitness standards across the board. Though there are GI Janes who can perform at men’s standards, Mr. Panetta’s change doesn’t apply to elite female athletes, it applies to the average female soldier. That means that either separate all-female infantry units will have to be formed with a lower combined physical standard, or a combined male/female unit will have to move no faster than the slowest person.
More importantly, if you mix the unit, it will radically alter the dynamic. It is ludicrous to pretend that letting women into the men’s locker room of the infantry won’t change anything. Hygiene in the field is sketchy or nonexistent. There is no personal privacy whatsoever, to include biological functions. In combat, will men react the same if a woman on their team is wounded? Tortured? Finally—brace yourself—men and women are attracted to each other, which presents a landslide of potential issues.
Unlike organized sports, combat has no women’s division. But for a minuscule fraction, it is fought by men worldwide. American women will be facing a male enemy. The curtain needs to be drawn down over what can happen to women captured on the battlefield—as happened to Jessica Lynch, as happened in World War I to Russian women serving on the front, as has disgracefully happened throughout history.
A distinction must be made between being exposed to combat and being in a combat unit whose singular mission is to close with and brutally kill the enemy face-to-face. The United States doesn’t have women in combat arms because as a society we have chosen not to. We have chosen not to have planeloads of mothers and daughters coming home in flag-draped coffins. Instead of the 144 women who have died overseas, what if that number were 3,200—an equal-opportunity half of the men’s total? We need to cease asking whether we can do something and start asking whether we should.
Mark J. Kilbane, a former Army combat arms captain, is a student at the Naval War College.