In January 2013 it was decided that women could serve in combat roles in the United States military. Obviously enough, American women in the military have been involved in combat—being wounded, earning combat medals and being killed. As such, the change simply makes policy match the reality of the situation on the ground (and in the air). Of course, there is a rather important change because of the policy: women can now serve in the positions that provide the best opportunities for career advancement and promotion—positions that had previously been the exclusive domain of men.
On the face of it, this policy change seems perfectly reasonable. As was noted, women have already served in combat situations and have performed at a level comparable to that of their male colleagues. Other nations have long employed female soldiers effectively in combat roles. While people can, of course, find cases in which individual women performed poorly in combat, this no more disqualifies women in general than the poor performance of individual men.
Despite the fact that this change seems sensible, there has been some very loud opposition, primarily from certain conservatives. Other conservatives, such as John McCain, have publicly supported this policy.
Not surprisingly, the old arguments against allowing women in combat have been trotted out in response to this change. Some of these arguments are refurbished versions of those used to argue against allowing women into the military at all and some are sexist retreads of old racist arguments. That is, there is really nothing new being presented as arguments against women serving in combat roles. However, it does seem worthwhile to consider some of these arguments and give them a fair assessment.
One stock argument, which was used to argue against racially integrated units, is based on the claim that the presence of women would destroy unit cohesion. This is a point of concern since unit cohesion is rather important in combat. In the case of women, a variety of reasons are presented as to why they would damage unit cohesion. The first is that men and women would be sexually attracted to each other and this would undermine cohesion. While it is true that men and women generally find each other sexually attractive, the empirical evidence shows that professionals are capable of functioning as professionals—even in combat (as shown in Afghanistan and Iraq). Naturally, some individuals are not capable of acting professionally, but the failures of specific individuals should no more preclude women from serving in combat than it should preclude men.
The second is that male soldiers will be distracted by trying to protect the women soldiers and this would impair the effectiveness of the unit. Since men do often try to protect women (and this is often regarded as heroic), this is a point of reasonable concern. However, the evidence seems to be that trained men and women can function together without this becoming a special problem. Also, the fact that soldiers look out for each other is generally presented as a positive factor—a male soldier who risks his life to save his male buddies is seen as heroic, so why should a willingness to protect female soldiers be regarded as a problem? If a soldier is incapable of acting professionally, then that would be his (or her) individual defect, not grounds for denying women the opportunity to serve in combat roles.
A second stock argument is based on the claim that women soldiers will be subject to sexual assault (either by enemy forces or by fellow Americans). Given the amount of sexual assault that occurs within the American military, this is a matter of concern. However, allowing women in combat roles would not seem to increase the chances of their being assaulted by American soldiers. There is still, however, the concern that sexual assault will be inflicted by enemy forces—after all, rape has often been employed as a tool of war against civilian women, so it makes sense that it could also be employed against female soldiers.
In reply, it must be noted that we have long been willing to send young men into battle where they can be mutilated and killed. They can also be taken prisoner and subject to terrible tortures (as happened to McCain). If the concern that women soldiers might be sexually assaulted is grounds for keeping them out of combat roles, then it would seem that the concern that men might be wounded, killed or tortured should suffice as grounds to keep men out of combat as well. That is, if we are really worried about terrible things happening, then we should not have wars at all. But, if are going to have wars, then we need to recognize that horrible things are going to happen to people regardless of their sex.
A third stock argument is based on the claim that there will be quotas set for women in combat roles, thus displacing men. There is, of course, usually the assumption that the women will be unqualified and will be displacing qualified men—thus wronging the men and also making the military weaker. Arguments of this sort were given in the context of race rather than sex.
There are some reasonable grounds for concern here—after all, if it were true that unqualified women were displacing qualified men just to meet some sort of diversity metric, then that would be both unjust and harmful. Naturally, it would need to be shown that this would occur.
There are, however, compelling reasons for initially having some quotas. After all, the existing system excludes women and without some compulsion to admit women into these circles, the tendency would be to simply find all women unqualified and thus keep the boy’s club intact. This would, of course, unjustly deny qualified women the opportunities they deserve. There is also the obvious analogy to the civilian world: women were long excluded from traditional male professions but, once they had the opportunity to do so, they proved as capable as men. There seems to be no reason to think that the same would not apply here as well.
The final argument I will consider is the one that I believe has the most merit, namely the concern about the physical capabilities of women. Obviously enough, men are generally larger, stronger and faster than women. Men also seem more inclined towards traits that serve well in combat—although perhaps some of these are the result of socialization rather than nature. Because of this, it would seem that women would be a poor choice for combat roles since men would be better suited in such roles.
Critics of the idea that women should allowed in combat roles often point to the fact that the military has two sets of physical standards: one for men and one for women. Not surprisingly, the standards for women are considerably lower than those for men. While it could be argued that the lower standards are needed to allow women a chance to qualify, the obvious concern is that if women are held to lower standards then they will be thus less physically qualified than men. While this would not matter if one is filling out requisition forms, it certainly would matter in combat. There is also the obvious moral concern—a man who would meet the qualifications set for women but not those for men would be denied a job simply because he is a man. That seems to be clearly wrong.
It is well worth noting that the general differences between men and women as groups obviously need not hold true between individual men and women. Being a runner and a martial artist, I know many women who are considerably stronger and tougher than the average man. They would easily exceed the requirements set for men. Being an academic and gamer nerd, I also know plenty of men who could not meet the physical qualifications that women have to meet to be in the military.
Because of this, I contend that the military should either differentiate physical standards solely by role (rather than by sex) or that there should be just one general set of physical standards. This would allow women who are qualified to legitimately qualify without there being unjust double standards. It would also respond to the charge that the women in combat roles would not be qualified because they “qualified” by meeting watered down standards.
Because I believe in fairness, I believe that women who qualify for combat roles should have every right to serve in the roles that they earn. I also believe that the sex-based standards should be eliminated and replaced with either role-based standards or a bar that everyone must meet. That is, no more sexism.