Recent news reports about the unprecedented roles of female soldiers serving in Iraq have generated many inquiries about the issue of women in land combat. Should female soldiers be assigned to units that engage in direct ground combat, and if not, why not?
The 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces conducted the last major study on the feasibility of assigning military women to close combat units. In the course of that comprehensive process, the commission compiled a huge body of testimony and documentation on many issues related to the issue of women in combat, ranging from physical capabilities and deployability to interpersonal relationships and cultural questions. Most of these issues remain valid today.
The Commission's Executive Summary provides some of the reasons why a majority of commissioners voted against the use of women in close combat units on land, sea, in the air, and special operations forces.
The Center for Military Readiness is an independent public policy organization established by Elaine Donnelly, a former member of the presidential commission, in 1993. CMR has published many articles examining various aspects of military personnel issues, including women in combat and related issues. Contributors to CMR may view and search by keyword current and archived editions of CMR publications on the CMR Website. Researchers may do so by requesting a temporary password at the same website address.
The following questions and answers briefly summarize many of the general issues addressed by CMR in the ongoing debate about women in combat:
Support for Women in the Military
Q: Does the Center for Military Readiness oppose women in the military?
A: CMR supports both men and women in the military, and there is no question that women in uniform are serving their country well, with courage and distinction. The mission of CMR is to analyze military personnel policies that directly affect discipline, morale, standards, and overall readiness, and to advocate sound priorities and high standards in all forms of military training.
Q: If you support women in the military, what’s wrong with them being in combat?
A: Support for women in the military does not necessarily mean support for women in combat. Definitions are important. The official definition of close combat, or direct ground combat on land, involves deliberate offensive actions; i.e., “…engaging an enemy with individual or crew-served weapons while being exposed to direct enemy fire, a high probability of direct physical contact with the enemy by fire, maneuver, or shock effect in order to destroy or capture, or while repelling assault by fire, close combat, or counterattack.” This description goes far beyond the experience of being in danger, or serving in a combat zone.
Q: Since modern combat is more “high-tech,” why can’t women handle it?
A: In close combat environments, which fit the definition above, physical capabilities are as important as ever. Equipment and survival gear carried by today’s combat soldiers, including electronic weapons and ammunition, satellite communication devices, batteries, and water weigh 50-100 pounds—a burden that is just as heavy as loads carried by Roman legionnaires in the days of Julius Caesar.
Modern body armor alone weighs 25 pounds. This weight is proportionately more difficult to carry by female soldiers who are, on average, shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50% less upper body strength and 25-30% less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance. Even in current non-combat training, women suffer debilitating bone stress fractures and other injuries at rates double those of men.
To summarize an enormous body of well-documented evidence produced by physiologists in the U.S. and Britain, in close combat women do not have an “equal opportunity” to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive.
Opportunity vs. Obligation
Q: But if women can do the job, why shouldn’t they be given the opportunity?
A: Every attempt since the 1970s to establish single standards for men and women, commensurate with the demands of actual combat, has been discontinued or rendered meaningless due to political pressures from feminists and allies who demand that standards be adjusted, or gender-normed, so that female trainees can “succeed.” In various types of training, “equal effort” is equated with “equal results,” and group evaluations substitute for individual achievement scores. In some forms of physical training events that are more difficult for women are dropped in order to make training more “fair.” The resulting regimen is described as “equal” between men and women, even though it is less demanding for the men.
Only a few female trainees are able to perform in physically demanding events at the same levels as average males, but policies must be based on the majority of average soldiers, not the exceptional few.
Voluntary vs. Involuntary
Q: Why not give female soldiers the opportunity to volunteer for combat assignments?
A: The word “opportunity” implies that combat assignments could be voluntary. On the contrary, once a person is in the military he or she must obey orders, regardless of personal preferences or expectations
Registration for the Draft
Q: With regard to registration for the draft, what would be the consequence of putting women in land combat?
A: Elimination of women’s remaining land combat exemptions could result in challenges to young women’s exemption from registration for the draft. In the past, and as recently as 2003 in a Massachusetts federal court, such lawsuits have not been successful. The Supreme Court has reasoned that no one is drafted unless there is a need for “combat replacements.” Since female soldiers are not assigned to land combat units, it would be unnecessary and administratively unworkable to register them for a military draft. In times of war, women have always volunteered and supported the war effort, and will do so again.
American Cultural Values
Q: If some women can meet the physical standards, why not let them into combat units?
A: Even if physical capabilities were objectively measured, and they are not, that would not be the only issue. Discipline, deployability, and unit cohesion are even more important in close combat units, and various kinds of friction associated with gender integration could detract from those factors and undermine mission accomplishment.
Cultural values also matter. Assigning female soldiers to close combat units would be tantamount to acceptance of deliberate violence against women, as long as it occurs at the hands of the enemy. The 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces saw this as an unnecessary and unacceptable setback for American cultural values. The Executive Summary of the Commission’s Report explains why:
An objective review of the body of research and testimony before the Commission reveals that although some witnesses argued that including women would improve combat effectiveness, the case for unprecedented change was most often framed as the "right" or "equal opportunity" of individuals to serve in all positions they desire regardless of military need.
Those skeptical about assigning women to combat, however, primarily have focused on the needs of the military and combat effectiveness, as well as deep-seated cultural and family values millions of Americans hold and are still teaching their children. As one Commissioner put it, those values can be summed up in one simple phrase: Good men respect and defend women.
Equality vs. Special Treatment
Q: Women demand equality, but they demand special treatmen when it comes to combat obligations. Why shouldn’t women have to take the good with the bad?
A: The position advocated by CMR should not be confused with feminist demands for “equality” in military careers and promotions, which are sometimes achieved with the help of gender-normed training scores and other double standards that are demoralizing to everyone who is aware of them. CMR recommends that policy makers recognize differences between men and women that are relevant to military effectiveness. CMR also advocates consistently high and uncompromised standards in all forms of military training.
Self-styled advocates of women’s interests, however, insist that men and women be treated the same, even though women are at a disadvantage in combat environments. Instead of supporting evaluation systems that evaluate everyone against a single standard reflecting military and combat requirements, the same activists demand higher scores for equal effort, rather than equal results. In the alternative, they demand that there be no individual evaluation standards at all. Again, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive in a combat environment, and it is unrealistic and unwise for policy makers to pretend that they do.
A study released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that only 36% of male and female respondents agreed that female personnel would pull their fair share of the load in combat or hazardous situations. This finding was not a reflection of sexism, but honest concern about mission accomplishment and survival. (American Military Culture in the 20th Century, Feb. 2000)
Women are Volunteers
Q: Women now serving in the War on Terrorism,, including those who were killed or captured, volunteered to be in the military. So what is the problem?
A: The nation is proud of women who volunteer to serve their country in uniform, but most have not been informed that the rules changed dramatically in 1994. The three enlisted women captured in a March 2003 ambush reportedly did not expect to be assigned anywhere near land combat units, and nothing has been done since then to inform female recruits of what will face in the gender-integrated military of today. With the exception of the infantry, armor, artillery, special operations forces and associated helicopters, and submarines, there are no laws against women in combat—only Defense Department regulations that some activists want to redefine.
The article below, posted on the CMR website, explains rule changes put in place by the Clinton Administration in 1994, which require women in the military to serve at greater risk:
CLINTON-ERA POLICY CHANGES AFFECT WOMEN IN WAR TODAY
Opinions of Military Women
Q: Why is CMR claiming to speak for military women—don’t they want to go into combat in order to earn promotions—including the position of Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff?
A: Outspoken female officers have led the political push for women in combat, but for decades, women have been promoted at rates equal to or faster than men. CMR does not claim to speak for military women, but we do know that the views of the majority of enlisted women are not being heard. According to the Army's own surveys over the past ten years, only 10% to 15% of enlisted women support involuntary combat assignments on the same basis as men. (See article posted on the CMR website, www.cmrlink.org.)
After 90% of enlisted women expressed opposition in the 2001 survey, the Army Research Institute simply stopped asking the question. Enlisted women outnumber female officers 5 to 1. Their opinions, and the best advice of combat experts, should not be disregarded just so that a future female officer can be appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Violence Against Women
Q: CMR claims to be concerned about violence against military women. What about our men in uniform?
A: At times we have no choice about sending young men to fight our wars, but we do have a choice about sending young women and mothers to fight, especially in direct ground combat.
In 1991, feminists reacting to the Tailhook sex abuse scandal demanded that the Navy make amends for alleged violence in a hotel corridor by supporting their campaign to get other women into close combat—where they would suffer certain abuse at the hands of the enemy. In contrast, CMR’s position is consistent. Military personnel policies that encourage violence against women, and deliberately expose them to a known “substantial risk of capture,” in or near land combat units, do not constitute a step forward for women. Rather, such policies are a step backward for civilization.
Abuse of Male and Female Prisoners of War
Q: You are concerned about female soldiers being raped and abused in captivity, but isn’t it true that male prisoners of war are also vulnerable to such abuse?
A: In 1992 the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the services filed an official inquiry with experts who have studied the experiences of former POWs in all of our wars. In response, they told the Commission that male POWs were subjected to many forms of incredibly brutal torture techniques, but sexual abuse was not one of them. Women, on the other hand, are almost always subjected to sexual abuse of varying degrees. Tolerance and even encouragement of combat violence against our women undermines American cultural values.
Abuse of Pfc. Jessica Lynch
Q: Why are you so concerned about Pfc. Jessica Lynch? Didn’t Iraqi doctors deny that she had been abused in captivity?
A: According to American doctors who examined Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch after her rescue by Special Operations forces, she was brutally raped and sodomized by Iraqi thugs during the three to four hours after the ambush, when she was unconscious. The violence reportedly occurred at a fedayeen headquarters that also included a medical facility and torture devices such as a metal bed, car battery, and electrodes. According to NBC and other news reports, this was the same building where Al Jazeera TV broadcast five prisoners of war and the bodies of several dead American soldiers.
On December 30, 2003, NBC News showed excerpts of a disturbing video taken by Iraqis of Jessica Lynch and her friend Pfc. Lori Piestewa, who was near death and did not survive. The gruesome video showed Lynch’s deathly pale face, cut and surrounded by loose bandages. She was unconscious, but Pfc. Piestewa, a Hopi Indian and single mother of two, was still alive and grimacing in pain when an Iraqi man roughly turned her severely bruised, cut and swollen face to the camera. The barely-alive Lynch was taken to a civilian hospital, where she received compassionate treatment for her severe injuries prior to her rescue by Special Forces.
Experience of Other Countries
Q: Other nations of the world put women into combat—why shouldn’t the U.S.?
A: Following extensive tests in 2000, the United Kingdom decided to exempt female soldiers from land combat units. Israel drafts women (and almost everyone else) for national defense, but women do not serve in combat units, and are exempt if they are married or pregnant. Nations such as Canada that have no laws or regulations against women in combat are largely peacekeeping forces, which depend on the United States for national defense.
Experiences of Female Soldiers in Iraq
Q: Doesn’t the experience of female soldiers in Iraq prove that they are ready for anything, including direct ground combat?
A: Women have been assigned unprecedented duties in Iraq, and have served our country bravely and well. There is no debate or question that the nation is proud of them. Nothing that has happened in Iraq, however, changes the fact that in direct ground combat units, where women have not yet been assigned, physical differences and other factors could detract from mission accomplishment and other factors necessary to prepare for close combat. The Presidential Commission confirmed that during the first Gulf War, servicewomen were three to four times as non-deployable than the men, primarily due to pregnancy and related family issues.
In Iraq today, there have been social problems involving some gender-integrated units in Iraq. The sensational scandal at Abu Ghraib prison indicates that the Defense Department should conduct a full and objective review of policies that may have undermined good order and discipline. One of these policies is gender-integrated basic training, which the Army has admitted in inefficient in the process of transforming undisciplined civilians into soldiers.
The Department of Defense is required to comply with a law requiring 30 legislative days notice before assignment rules regarding women are changed. That notice must include an assessment of the effect of such changes on women’s exemption from registration from the draft.
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