Congress Retreats on Women in Combat Bill

Duncan Hunter and other House Republicans backed off on their efforts to strengthen the ban on women in combat. In related news, a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll shows the public overwhelmingly supports women in combat–but not in the ground roles Hunter and company were seeking to legislate against.

Lawmakers Retreat on Women in Combat (LAT, p. 1)

In a major reversal, congressional Republicans on Wednesday abandoned an effort to limit the role of women in combat and instead instructed the Pentagon to keep Congress informed about the status of women deployed in war zones. The compromise, part of a $490.7-billion defense spending bill for 2006, marked a retreat from a campaign by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and other Republicans to restrict the role of women in the military.

That plan raised hackles across Washington, drawing the opposition of Army Secretary Francis Harvey, the American Civil Liberties Union and lawmakers of both parties. Commanders feared that any new restrictions on women in combat would make it more difficult to fill the ranks at a time when wars on two fronts have dampened enthusiasm among young Americans to enlist and have left the Army missing its recruiting targets.

Democrats on Capitol Hill derided it as a sexist effort to carve into law a special — and reduced — status for women in uniform.
“At a time when our armed forces are overstretched, we shouldn’t be turning away people who want to serve their country,” said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Walnut Creek). Invoking the names of two female soldiers captured by Iraqi insurgents and later freed, she added, “This step is a slap in the face to the Jessica Lynches and Shoshana Johnsons of our military, who served our nation ably and nobly.”

The measure on women in combat was stripped from the defense bill that authorized $441.6 billion in regular defense spending plus $49.1 billion in emergency budget authority to support costs related to the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The overall bill, approved on a 390-39 vote, would provide a 3.1% pay raise to military personnel and authorize 10,000 more Army soldiers and 1,000 more Marines. The bill also includes $3.4 billion for the Army’s next generation of combat vehicles and weapons systems, and $7.9 billion for ballistic missile defense. Those numbers could change when the Senate takes up its version of the defense bill.

As of Wednesday, 35 women were among the 1,649 American troops who had been killed in Iraq, and six female troops had been killed in Afghanistan. Another 279 women in Iraq and three in Afghanistan had been injured. Women comprise 22,020, or nearly 10%, of the 232,974 U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding regions.

Public backs female troops in Iraq, but not in ground force (USAT, p. 6)

Americans overwhelmingly favor the use of female troops in Iraq, including having them serve in support jobs that often put them in or near combat, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll. A majority of those polled, however, oppose women serving as ground troops. The results seem to support Pentagon policy that limits women to support roles on the ground.


The Iraq war, which has lasted more than two years, has blurred the distinction between front-line and rear areas. Though women are prohibited from serving in ground combat jobs, the unpredictable nature of attacks has increased the danger to many support troops, including truck drivers and military police.

By 72%-27%, respondents said women should be able to serve anywhere in Iraq. By 67%-32%, respondents said they favored women serving as support troops for all-male ground combat units, the current policy. By 54%-44%, Americans oppose women being assigned to jobs where they would do “most of the fighting†such as in infantry units. That’s a drop from a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll in 2001 that showed 52% favored women “serving as ground combat troops.â€

USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll results women in combat

Thirty-five U.S. military women have been killed and 279 wounded in action in Iraq. Eight American women — all nurses — were killed in the Vietnam War. Several hundred U.S. women were killed in World War II, the vast majority of them nurses or auxiliary troops in rear areas. World War II lasted nearly four years and involved a significantly larger military force of 16.1 million, compared with about 1.4 million today.

As I’ve argued before, Hunter is right that the current Pentagon policy is in defiance of current law. The problem, though, as the USAT piece points out, is that the letter of the law is unenforceable in the current environment. Either women are to be shielded from combat risk or they will be given every opportunity to serve in the Army; they can’t do both.

The complete poll results are available here. There’s also an interesting sidebar piece:

Do U.S. women belong in the thick of the fighting? (USAT)

“Modern wars will be fought 360 degrees, which means women will be on the ‘front lines’ whether the Congress likes it or not,” says retired Army Col. Dan Smith, a military analyst with the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington.

Though many servicemen in Afghanistan and Iraq have children, it is the mothers in the war zones who seem to raise greater concerns. (Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, the first American woman to be killed in Iraq, left two small children to be raised by their grandparents.) Until recent years, if a woman in uniform got pregnant or adopted a child, she had to leave the service. Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., says his parents are a good example of what happened in the past. His father was an Army colonel who served with Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in China. His mother was an Army major on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff during the occupation of Japan. They met in Korea and married. “Some time later I was conceived and Mom got the boot, even though she appealed her involuntary retirement all the way to the Senate Armed Services Committee,” recalls Dr. Thompson.


“To pretend that women would have an equal capability of doing that is a dangerous philosophy, and lives could be lost as a result of it,” says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and one of the most outspoken critics of current military policy on women in war zones.


“If we as a nation endorse the idea of women in combat that engages the enemy deliberately, we would be saying that violence against women is OK as long as it happens at the hand of the enemy,” says Ms. Donnelly. “That would be a setback for our civilization.”

That may be a debatable point, and public opinion surveys aren’t clear on how many agree with it. But women in Iraq have been decorated for directly engaging enemy fighters and saving other soldiers’ lives as a result. Army Airborne Capt. Kellie McCoy earned a Bronze Star with combat “V” (for valor) for a 2003 incident in Fallujah. Leading a patrol that got ambushed and took casualties, she hopped up into the Humvee’s machine gun turret, killed a couple of the attackers, then led her men to safety.

While I’m enough of a traditionalist to be squeamish about sending women off to die, there’s no rational reason why getting women killed in combat is worse than getting men killed, let alone why one validates violence and the other doesn’t.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    Now to address the discriminatory physical fitness standards, directly used as criteria for promotion and acceptance to professional development schools.

    Male soldiers will not follow female leaders unable to perform to the same standard.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Male and female soldiers will do as they are told.

  3. McGehee says:

    I think DCL has the right of it; there are already quite a few senior officers who are women. If their subordinates weren’t taking orders from them I think we would have heard about it.

  4. LJD says:

    Perhaps I was not clear enough. I’m not talking about soldiers refusing orders because their commander is a woman. I’m talking about women who have attained rank at a faster rate than men, because of lowered standards. This alone creates resentment. All things being equal, with women in combat, physically they need to be able to the same job. A fat, out of shape female officer or NCO willl not cut the mustard in combat. When they are unable to perform at the level of their subordinates, the ywill become unable to command. No spite, no refusal of orders, just unfit to command. I’ve seen it with male officers as well. Failing a PT test or dropping out of a ruck march is extremely damaging to the command authority.