The Department of Defense decision to end the combat exclusion policy for women has been met with both enthusiasm and harsh criticism. Indeed, many of the objections of conservative naysayers seem less practical than ideological. But some arguments about potential downsides of women in the field must be taken seriously -- and the end of the combat ban should also prompt us to reexamine some feminist shibboleths.
On one point, the critics are correct: The primary purpose of the armed services is not to promote social justice, but to be effective in military operations.
A powerful argument for lifting the combat exclusion is that in modern warfare, distinctions between combat and non-combat roles are often blurred -- and combat-related restrictions for servicewomen can hamper effectiveness. A 2007 Rand Corp. study, carried out during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, concluded that the current policy was not sustainable. Female soldiers were often assigned to work with all-male combat units, and there was a widespread belief among service members that "strict adherence to the Army policy would have negative implications."
The story of Pvt. Monica Brown, the second woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star, illustrates these limitations. In 2007, Brown, an 18-year-old medic serving in Afghanistan, found herself in the middle of a Taliban attack while on a mission with an all-male unit. She risked her life to save injured comrades. A few days later, she was reassigned because her participation in such missions violated Army regulations -- due solely to her gender. (The platoon leader whose men Brown had rescued said no male medic had been available.) Such an outcome seems a travesty -- an injustice to a female hero, with no pragmatic justification.
While chivalry-based arguments that women deserve special protection from violence and harm are generally dismissed as sexist, the fact is that feminists promote similar arguments in other areas. Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson was skewered for a Twitter post jeering that "the administration boasts about sending women to the front lines on the same day Democrats push the Violence Against Women Act." True, as Carlson's critics noted, fighting for your country is not the same as getting beaten up by your boyfriend.
Yet laws that single out women for special protection at home do seem at odds with equality on the front lines. Feminists scoff at arguments that gender differences in strength and aggression make women unfit for combat; yet, when studies show that domestic violence is often perpetrated by women, they invoke the same gender differences to dismiss this as a nonissue.
The integration of women into combat units on a larger scale also raises real questions about effectiveness. For the most part, women are not as physically strong as men -- as reflected in Army standards for recruits. To pass the basic fitness test, an 18-year-old man must run two miles in 15 minutes and 54 seconds, do 42 pushups and 53 sit-ups; a woman the same age is required to run two miles in 18 minutes and 54 seconds, do 19 pushups, and 53 sit-ups.
If the policy change on women in combat is to work, it is imperative that performance standards are not watered down. Remedial strength training for women, which has been successfully tried in the past, is one way to ensure that women meet the same standards as men. Avoidance of quotas is another. Better to have very few women in combat roles, which are voluntary, than to put them into jobs for which they are underqualified -- which could cost lives.
Equality is equality; we cannot uphold it only when it places women in heroic roles.