Women Have Been in Combat All Along


In a groundbreaking move, the Pentagon lifted the ban on women in combat this week. But it’s somewhat misleading to report that the military will now allow women to serve in combat, because guess what: women are already serving in combat, just without receiving the requisite benefits and honor that are supposed to follow. Acknowledging as much is facing reality.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to announce today that more than 230,000 on-the-ground posts are now open to women. But that doesn’t mean women will automatically be able to sign up for any job they please; military leaders have until 2016 to decide whether some positions will still be closed to women. Some jobs will open this year, but more elite and dangerous commando positions will take longer to sort out.

The transition won’t be seamless, and much is still up in the air. What will happen to the draft? Will enough women be able to pass the infamously tough Infantry Officer Course? (BTW, most men can’t pass it, either.) But large-scale initiatives of this scope are never simple. That’s why it’s inspiring that few members of Congress opposed the decision. “It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations,” Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin told the AP.

Unfortunately, not everyone is ready for that reality. Jerry Boykin, retired Army lieutenant general and executive vice president of the Family Research Council, called the move “another social experiment” that military commanders won’t be able to handle. “While their focus must remain on winning the battles and protecting their troops, they will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast moving and deadly situations,” he said.

It was also “distracting” when women first enlisted in the Army, right? (Also “distracting” at first: minorities and openly gay people.) But women now make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women have helped fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women. So forgive us for being a bit irked at former Marine infantryman Ryan Smith’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today in which he literally argues that women shouldn’t fight on the front lines because men might have to poop in front of them.

“Many articles have been written regarding the relative strength of women and the possible effects on morale of introducing women into all-male units,” he writes. “Less attention has been paid to another aspect: the absolutely dreadful conditions under which grunts live during war.”

Aw, man. I always envisioned war as a particularly exciting tea party. Does that mean American Girl dolls aren’t allowed on base?

Smith describes some of the conditions he experienced as a Marine: wearing chemical protective suits because of the fear of chemical or biological weapon attack, urinating in empty water bottles, defecating “inches from his seated comrade’s face” and stripping down to his naked, sore-covered body. Thank heavens no ladies were around to witness that.

Societal norms are a reality, and their maintenance is important to most members of a society. It is humiliating enough to relieve yourself in front of your male comrades; one can only imagine the humiliation of being forced to relieve yourself in front of the opposite sex.
Despite the professionalism of Marines, it would be distracting and potentially traumatizing to be forced to be naked in front of the opposite sex, particularly when your body has been ravaged by lack of hygiene. In the reverse, it would be painful to witness a member of the opposite sex in such an uncomfortable and awkward position. Combat effectiveness is based in large part on unit cohesion. The relationships among members of a unit can be irreparably harmed by forcing them to violate societal norms.

“The Pentagon would do well to consider realities of life in combat as it pushes to mix men and women on the battlefield,” he writes. But Smith: women are already on the battlefield! As we’ve covered before, the realities of Afghanistan and Iraq forced women to unofficially join the front lines as medics, military police, and intelligence officers. But since women were technically banned from combat, they weren’t able to move up the ranks to higher-paid, elite positions. That constitutes discrimination — and also helped foster an environment in which massive sexual assault scandals were par for the course. Now, thanks to Panetta, they’ll have those opportunities.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who lost both legs flying helicopters in Iraq, quipped yesterday that she “didn’t lose my legs in a bar fight.” Her point? “The reality on the ground in a 360 battlefield is that women have been serving in combat.” Changing the way the system works won’t be easy. But moving backwards isn’t an acceptable alternative.


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