Women in Combat


Photograph of two female american soldiers.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Women enlisting - England (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

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.

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  1. I think the issue is not so much putting women in a combat role. They’ve already been in the field for decades.

    It’s putting them in a kill role. As I understand, women were prohibited from being in kill roles. A drone pilot does not need extraordinary physical strength (gaming experience may be of assistance). Many military positions do not require Rambo like muscle – and many men in the military in combat roles do not have that kind of muscle and are quite small. I think the issue is the prohibition on pressing a kill button.

    I think the problem is the idea of letting a woman kill.

  2. JRMC:

    Wouldn’t letting women kill and torture be the final step in their liberation, in giving them the possibility to be as monstrous as men are?

    Yes, I know that mothers and lovers can be very cruel and sadistic and destructive, but up until now, women, except Mrs. Thatcher and a few privileged members of that gender, have missed the chance to do it in the big time.

  3. Dennis Sceviour

    Women in front-line combat could aggravate a hostile situation by creating another cause in the name of vengeance for the murdered women and the unborn children.

  4. swallerstein,

    “Wouldn’t letting women kill and torture be the final step in their liberation, in giving them the possibility to be as monstrous as men are?”

    Yes. They become as monstrous as men. It’s my belief that it was only a cultural fiction that they were not. During the second world war, publicly women were only allowed to serve in military positions as glorified tea ladies. But Churchill constituted the Auxillaries (the terrorist organisation who were to take over on an invasion and occupation of Britain), with women trained to kill.

    “Yes, I know that mothers and lovers can be very cruel and sadistic and destructive, but up until now, women, except Mrs. Thatcher and a few privileged members of that gender, have missed the chance to do it in the big time.”

    I think the generals in Argentina got a big shock with Thatcher. They found out pretty quickly they weren’t dealing with a tea lady. Thatcher was tougher, and more unforgiving precisely because she was a woman – she had to go a bit further to prove a point.

    Germany now has Angela Merkle – and she is not to be messed with. In the contemporary world, women make better political leaders – because they believe they have to be tougher and harder or they won’t be taken seriously. Hilary Clinton would make a great president – because she really has something to prove, and she has decades of experience.

  5. David Ben Gurion once remarked:
    “we will know that we (Israel) have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew”.

    Israel has since become a normal country, with Jewish torturers and targeted-assassinations and Jewish nuclear weapons and Jewish war crimes and Jewish ethnic cleansing.

    That’s progress.

    I assume that women can make similar progress.

    I agree about the presidential capacities of Hillary Clinton, who is famous for eloquently bragging about the U.S.’s ability to
    “obliterate Iran”.

  6. Of course the marines are skeptical they have no respect for women. They have facebook pages up against them, and if you read comments on this issue it’s marines making derogatory remarks about women in combat.
    The marine corps takes in criminals now and 14,000 drug waivers a year. They have the biggest problem with rape and discipline.
    I don’t trust the marines to protect women in combat, they aren’t doing now! And they are afraid women will show the men up. It wont’ be that hard.

  7. swallerstein,

    “Israel has since become a normal country, with Jewish torturers and targeted-assassinations and Jewish nuclear weapons and Jewish war crimes and Jewish ethnic cleansing.”

    Progress in the sense of slowly going insane, yes. Their nuclear arsenal is definitely very worrying. It’s not five warheads like Pakistan, it’s in the hundreds – a doomsday device.

    But Golda Meir is an interesting point. She was a political leader while the role of women in politics in Europe and American was to act as fragrant wives. And that is still a strong view in the advanced nations. When the Republicans in 2008 thought they could do with a woman to bolster their vote, all they could get their hands on was the girl from Wasila, Sarah Palin.

    “I agree about the presidential capacities of Hillary Clinton, who is famous for eloquently bragging about the U.S.’s ability to
    “obliterate Iran”.”

    With politicians, watch what they do, not what they say. Clinton has always had a huge problem with the right-wing media. The few choice statements she’s made that sound strangely out of character (or just strange) are an attempt to head Fox news off at the pass. The reality is there hasn’t been some idiotic gungho invasion of Iran. Clinton is not a idiot. She has slowly learned how to deal with the right wing media, and get control of her image.

    Dick Cheney, was a very typical kind of American idiot. His plan was to invade not just Iraq, but Syria and Iran. Only he was living in a fantasy world – the kind of fantasy world idiotic rich and powerful people live in, where anyone who disagrees or points out the reality is fired. The invasion of Iraq had the result of seriously weakening American power in the region and the world. Iran is a major client state of China – and Russia. Dick Cheney’s dream of all his business pals shaking down Iraq, never materilised either. Iraqis don’t like doing business with Americans – they’re still a little upset over being bombed (and very suspicious of Americans in general). So the business beneficiaries have been Russia and China. (Though America funds the private military contractors who defend the oil installations from attack).

    Iran has done very well too – they have huge influence over Iraqi politics. Under Saddam, Iraq was unfriendly to Iran – not nowadays. As Barrack Obama has said, a very dumb war.

    The question is, would Clinton do something as stupid as Cheney. Had Cheney’s moronic plan gone beyond the invasion of Iraq – American women would very definitely have been needed in combat roles, because every young man and woman in America would have been needed to fight the counterinsurgencies in Cheney’s colonies.

    I think Cheney’s longer plan was even more jackass stupid. By securing all the oil in the middle-east, America would be ready to take on China. And then what? People like Cheney never think.

  8. JMRC:

    Golda Meir!!

    I had forgotten about her completely. When I was younger, women who wore shoes like hers did not register as worth paying attention to.

    I missed out on meeting some very interesting human beings that way.

    Here’s Hillary on obliterating Iran.

    It seems clear that given the discrimination and prejudices that women face (including about their shoes in stupid males) those women who make it to the top are very capable human beings: Mrs. Thatcher, Clinton, Merkel, Rouseff in Brasil and my own dear Michelle Bachelet, the most skillful Chilean politician since the return of democracy in 1990, according to the polls, sure to be re-elected president in this year’s election. (Immediate reelection is prohibited by the Chilean constitution so she could not run when her first term ended in 2010).

    Up until now, women presidents have tended to be exceptionally capable. We’ll have a normal world, one without discrimination and sexism, when the female equivalent of George W. Bush is elected president of a major nation.

  9. Three comments –

    On sexual assault – the fact that we’re willing to let our children die and be tortured does not imply that we should be willing to let our children be raped and sexually assaulted at much higher rates, which would be the case for women soldiers. I don’t think this consideration is strong enough to deny women their equality, but I do think it’s a valid point.

    On physical tests – part of the reason for the physical tests is not to achieve physical capabilities but rather physical fitness. Since women are built differently, achieving the same standard of fitness for women requires a different level of objective achievement levels. That does not account for all the differences, but it is a large part of them. So it needs to be taken into account.

    That said, however – this is all theoretical. Philosophy. In practice feminism does push the army to lighten the standards on women. Women will hence generally subperform in certain roles – but, and this is the key point, overall this is a fairly negligible effect. Women would still perform adequately. Only in some very rare roles or circumstances would the job be botched because the soldiers were women; in the vast majority of cases it won’t matter at all, and in most of the others the effect will be more “friction” – more lost and wounded – but still an adequate, professional level of performance.

    Which I think brings with it the really difficult question that was not considered above – should we compromise on the quality of female-soldiers, so as to allow more gender-equality in our society in general and our army’s society in particular?

    An army where 50% are women, at all command and combat levels, is simply another type of society, one that may better reflect our values. Are we willing to bleed more to have our army be more our army, an army that lives and breathes our culture of gender equality? Serving in such an army is more right by both the women and men who serve there (excepting those who will suffer because of subperformance…), maintaining such an army is more right for our society, and using such an army would reflect our values and thus in the long-run better serve our political purposes.

    But there’s a cost. A cost of more blood, more sexual harassment and exploitation within the army, and drastically more sexual assault on the battlefields. At the realistic level, I don’t think these costs – especially the last two – can be disputed.

    Your post seems to argue that women can achieve equality without costs. I think the more interesting question is whether we should push for equality despite costs. I believe we should. I hope that you’ll be right and there’d be no costs – but even given (what I consider to be) plausible costs, I think an army with women is the morally right choice.

  10. Yair,

    I stick with my view that the various positions should have minimal physical standards that are not set by gender. Otherwise, having different standards would seem to indicate that some people would not be qualified or that some people would be unfairly excluded by their sex.

    I don’t argue that there is no cost for equality. Obviously, if more women are in combat positions, then more women are going to be wounded, maimed and killed. Also, there will no doubt be various social and legal matters arising as the military settles into the new status quo.

  11. It strikes me that your argument is exactly the same argument Plato puts forward in the book 5 of the Republic to argue for the equal participation of women in all the activities of the polis. I’ve always thought Plato got it right in this matter.

  12. The tools of modern warfare are beyond the days of the ancient Greeks. Swordsmanship and archery are useless against drone missiles and atomic bombs. The modern combat soldier will never die looking his enemy in the eye. Combat soldiers are mere cannon fodder, and useful for suicide positions. To suggest that women should be in front line combat is misogyny.

    On the other hand, perhaps some women are suicidal and want to die for a cause. Should the military be the instrument of suicide? Until there are arguments to the contrary, this is wrong. It is not only a wrong cause, but it is also wrong to use moral causal reasoning.

  13. Dennis,
    While modern weapons have changed warfare, it is still the grunt that holds ground-be it with a sword or an assault rifle.

  14. I think that Dennis has a point.

    If a war, at least the wars waged by the U.S. since Korea, is a wrong cause, is there a right way to fight it?

    Is fighting a wrong war with women somehow “righter” than fighting a wrong war excluding women through sexism?

    I guess that there is a question of the lesser evil and maybe fighting a wrong war with a non-sexist combat force is a lesser evil, but still, it seems that the basic moral issue is that of whether a war is justified or not.

  15. Look I to em a combat soldier and know first hand that women can be
    just as effective
    combat warriors as men. A goodly number of American casualties came at the hands
    of female Viet-coms. But unlike those men who want to put women in combat I have a strong Paternal
    instinct which instinct
    protects women and children and would not put
    women and children in harm’s way.

    For me the question is not as much can women be effective combat
    warriors as it is
    should women be combat warriors. The answer for me is decidedly no.
    Why? Because in order to kill an enemy you must first vilify, and
    demonize enough to hate
    the enemy enough to kill him.When a woman goes into battle it will most
    likely be a male
    enemy she must demonize and vilify him in order to kill him. When she
    comes home
    she will be expected to form loving relations with the gender she just
    vilified and demonized.
    Good luck with that one.

    In addition women will have to suppress their nurturing instinct in
    order to kill. this is the very trait
    so badly needed in society. Why do you suppose most of the violent
    crimes are committed by men.
    It is because of our nation’s perpetual wars. Already we are seeing an
    increase in violent crimes
    committed by women. As more women are put into combat we will see
    even more violent crimes
    committed by women.

    In addition in order for men to kill women enemy soldiers men must
    suppress their natural
    paternal instinct which serves to protect women and children. thus
    both women and men must suppress
    their finer instincts. Isn’t civilization great? When primitive
    savages went to war it was men aganist men.
    Now that we have civilized the savages we send women and men so that
    each can share in the
    killing business. Oh what progress!

    Have we men deteriorated so much that now we must call upon our
    sisters to defend the nation? There
    are plenty of jobs women can do to aid the military than to serve in
    combat roles. As for career advancement
    if combat is holding females back wouldn’t it be better to wave the
    combat experience as an obstacle
    for women in preference of seeing them come home in body bags.No real
    good man would object.

    As for America’s military brass that support women in combat
    I would remind them that the male
    paternal instinct is one of men’s finer instinct. good men do not put
    women in harm’s way.

  16. @deepthink

    Good man!

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