Women in Combat: Changing Rules for the Wrong Reasons?

It may be time to change rules keeping women out of combat roles. But "fairness" isn't the right question.

An Army Times piece which asks “A woman’s place — in combat?” undermines its case in the subhead: “Rules that limit female soldiers’ careers likely to change.”

The story begins with an irrelevant anecdote about a female Army lieutenant in the Engineer branch and then states:

Despite her accomplishments and her West Point pedigree, under today’s rules Gourley will always be a second-class combatant.

While the Army has long encouraged soldiers to “be all that you can be,” it has institutionally prevented women from reaching new heights as it restricts the career fields in which they can serve — namely, the combat arms community and direct-contact units.

Those restrictions seem destined to change as military and congressional leaders give careful consideration to softening — if not eliminating — combat exclusion rules. “I’m confident that this is an area that is going to change,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during an April 7 visit to the U.S. Division Center Camp Liberty in Baghdad. “Time scale of the change, I have no idea.”

[…]

The Military Leadership Diversity Council and the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Service in the past month have submitted reports that call for an end to combat exclusion rules. The reports say these “unnecessary barriers” are detrimental to the careers of women serving in uniform, prevent deployed women from getting necessary combat training and keep capable and qualified women from contributing to the strength of these units.

The Army opened most jobs to women more than a decade ago. But combat-exclusion policies still prohibit women from serving in certain tactical and operational career fields, such as infantry and armor. Today, 9 percent of Army and 8 percent of Marine Corps occupations are closed to women. In comparison, 6 percent of Navy, 1 percent of Air Force and no Coast Guard occupations are closed to women.

Women serving in the remaining career fields often lose key assignments because they can’t be assigned to the units or jobs most likely to see direct offensive ground combat. When this restriction is added to the mix, only 70 percent of Army positions and 62 percent of Marine Corps positions are open to women, according to the Military Leadership Diversity Commission’s March 15 report, “From Representation to Inclusion: Diversity Leadership for the 21st-Century Military.”

These lost opportunities have a lasting effect. Today, 80 percent of general officers come from the tactical and operational career fields that are closed to women. Just one female soldier was selected for brigadier general in 2010, out of 100 military officiers chosen in all the services. Only 24 of the Army’s 403 general officers — or 6 percent — are female, though women represent roughly 15 percent of the force.

I’m open to the notion that modern combat has rendered old distinctions meaningless. The “front line” is increasingly an irrelevant concept; women in Iraq and Afghanistan came under enemy fire all the time. Modern technologies have, in many cases, rendered strength differences moot. And our culture has changed such that the notion of taking orders from women is no longer novel. But the issue in terms of career path “fairness” is relevant only insofar as these issues are addressed.

Can today’s women carry a 130-pound ruck for twenty miles? Or are they still like the women I trained with in ROTC, who were an additional burden on the men in the unit because they quite literally couldn’t carry their own weight? Or is it that, in modern combat, infantrymen no longer carry heavy objects?

Twenty years ago, Pat Schroeder and other feminists talked about push-button wars and wondered why women couldn’t serve as equals. But those making such statements hadn’t the first clue about actual field service. There was no reason at all a woman couldn’t have served as an MLRS crewman in my platoon–at least, insofar as the duties were limited to driving the vehicle, operating the targeting system, and firing rounds down range. Indeed, the cramped cabin was more suited for smaller soldiers.

Alas, pushing buttons and operating electronic equipment wasn’t the totality of the job description. A large part of a 13M’s day was spent doing maintenance on the vehicle. That not infrequently involved lifting very heavy parts or the back-breaking work of replacing treads on the launcher. Are there women with the brute strength to do that? Sure. But their number is vanishingly small.

If we’ve invented self-changing treads and self-lifting vehicle parts over the last two decades, I’ve missed the news.

Perhaps the more interesting question is: Does one have to have served as an infantry platoon leader to command an infantry brigade or division? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s not an obvious Yes. Why can’t a woman who successfully led military police, engineer, or intelligence units at the platoon and company level go on to command a combat arms battalion? It’s all one combined arms team, after all. Would she really have that much trouble commanding the respect of grunts?

These are important issues. It makes no sense to systematically exclude a large portion of the force from an opportunity to compete for senior leadership positions based on outdated notions of gender roles. But we need to first make sure that the notions actually are obsolete.

via Crispin Burke

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Gender Issues, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. jwest says:

    Fodder for a different thread:

    From previous articles on a variety of subjects, I always got the impression that you were in the camp of people who discounted Iraq’s purchases of aluminum tubes as being for something other than reviving a centrifuge program. Now that I learn you were a trained 13M, I can’t believe you would think those tubes were meant for a MLRS rocket motors. We’ll need to have a debate on this in the future.

  2. Andy says:

    Does one have to have served as an infantry platoon leader to command an infantry brigade or division? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s not an obvious Yes. Why can’t a woman who successfully led military police, engineer, or intelligence units at the platoon and company level go on to command a combat arms battalion?

    That all depends on what you think the role of those commanders is. Is it a “management” position in the bureaucratic sense or something more? If it isn’t something more, then yes, such commanders are interchangeable since it will be there management skills that matter most. Someone from services could theoretically be able to command an infantry unit in that case. The thing is, commanders are more than mere managers.

  3. Andy says:

    apologies for the misspelling and bad grammar in my last post….

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I’ve never understood why this is a tough issue. Set the bar on capability not gender. Can you do the job or not? If the answer is yes then male or female go for it. If not then male or female do something else.

    I remember Pat Schroeder on this and groan even now remembering. Her approach actually hampered equality by insisting on equal outcomes not equal opportunity. She discredited women soldiers by treating them as pawns in a political game. My guess is most women know they have no business carrying a heavy machine gun around the mountains of Afghanistan. And if some woman can do that job? Blessings upon her.

    As the heavy lifting component lessens — inevitably it will, but will never disappear — women will come closer to an equal outcome in the Army and Marines. The Navy and Air Force already have more possibilities for women.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Andy: Oh, I get that command is more than mere management. But a carrier captain has likely never flown a fighter mission, yet gives commands to put them in harm’s way. A commander of an infantry division has artillery, MPs, engineers, etc. under him and gives orders despite never having done their tasks.

    Further, Armor and FA officers rise to 4-star billets with some regularity. No one questions their competence to give orders that effect the 11B in a foxhole.

    @Michael Reynolds: Agree. But what is “the job”? The duties of an infantry private have very little to do with those of an infantry company commander–much less an infantry division commander. How path dependent should command be, then?

  6. Even in the Navy, on a Carrier, women were often more trouble than they were worth. 95% of the women I served with simply could not do anything that required more than sitting on their butts and talking into a JLC, or doing yeoman’s work. Anything requiring physical exertion, they were simply useless. This is in addition to other social issues such as the propensity for them to get knocked up right before a deployment, and social pressures of having opposite sex members in such tight quarters for extended periods of time. Leadership can browbeat that problem by issuing orders and directives on what not to do, but to think that makes the problem go away is naive.

    It sounds more sexist than it is, but women should not be in combat positions because they are not as capable of handling them as men. Period.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    I follow the principle that anyone in position of authority should have an intimate understanding of the jobs done by those under them. You don’t have to have been the best, but you have to know what’s involved, and the best possible way to acquire that knowledge is to do the job yourself.

    Obviously not every infantry company commander will know every job of every specialist under his/her command. But the key job of infantry — from Roman legions to the modern day — is to schlep heavy weapons long distances, to dig holes, to endure harsh conditions, to follow orders you’re pretty sure are stupid, and to fight and win. I think a commander should have intimate personal knowledge of those realities.

    If this means fewer women get stars, then that’s too bad. So long as the requirements we set are appropriate to the job that needs to be done, and those requirements are fairly applied, then the demographic outcome is not the issue.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Bowen:

    If you make it strictly about gender you exclude women who do happen to be capable, and you automatically include men who are not. Make capability the issue, not gender.

  9. Also:

    But a carrier captain has likely never flown a fighter mission, yet gives commands to put them in harm’s way.

    Every Captain I’ve ever either seen or had on board carriers was an experienced fighter pilot. I served on the George Washington, for reference.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Christopher Bowen:

    My impression is that fighter pilot is the route to CAG, not Captain. Most XOs and Captains–but not all–were ship drivers (SWOs) not aviators.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Fundamentally, I think you’re right. As a practical matter, it gets hard above a certain level of the military chain. At the battalion and even brigade levels, you’re still fairly specialized. After that, it’s a combined arms team and a commander will have come up one path and have only tangential experience with others.

    Had my Army career taken its natural progression, my next step was Intelligence and I’d have tried to track Strategic, since that’s where my aptitudes and interests were strongest. That was almost a guarantee that I’d top out at lieutenant colonel, maybe bird colonel. And I was fine with that.

  11. @ Michael

    What should be happening is a lack of separation in fitness tests. Right now, women have less stringent tests than men do, and the tests go down as both get older (IE: someone who is 39 has to do less than someone who is 19). Furthermore, the tests are not so much for strength (something that is important, moreso in a combat position) as they are for cardiovascular fitness (situps, pushups, 1.5 mile run). Even in those almost irrelevant tests, women don’t have to do as much as men.

    Get rid of those separations and make women and men TOTALLY equal – meaning we get rid of bad sailors, and not just bad women – and you’ll see things turn around.

  12. @ JJ

    My point is that in the Carrier fleet, it’s different. Every CO + XO of a CVN was a fighter pilot, without exception. They all came from squadrons. SWOs just don’t take command posts on CVs or CVNs. If it’s changed since then, I’d be shocked, but I’m almost 100% sure that that’s still the case.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Christopher Bowen:

    You’re right. I got the wrong impression–from a Superhornet driver, odd–that the aviator’s path was generally to CAG rather than XO and command. But a quick spot check reveals that the carrier commanders are in fact flight officers (not necessarily fighter pilots, but aviators). SWOs command other types of surface ships and run various departments on carriers but, oddly, don’t command carriers.

  14. ponce says:

    “95% of the women I served with simply could not do anything that required more than sitting on their butts and talking into a JLC, or doing yeoman’s work.”

    That doesn’t sound right considering how well women function in civilian society.

    Are the women who join the military different in some way than American women in general?

  15. Southern Hoosier says:

    Perhaps the more interesting question is: Does one have to have served as an infantry platoon leader to command an infantry brigade or division?

    The question that needs to be ask, how well will men perform for a commander that has no infantry experience?

  16. Andy says:

    James,

    If you get up to a 2-4-star, that’s a different ball of wax. At that point one is operating more at the strategic level and you actually do see officers from different branches serving in those billets. The question is, how low down the chain can you go with that? I think we’d agree that we don’t want, for instance, an FA branch person leading an infantry platoon. So where does one draw the line? At what point do tactical and operational skills and knowledge become less important so that someone from a different area could reasonably command? Probably at least at the brigade level IMO.

  17. RADM Nora Tyson, Vanderbilt University NROTC ’79, is commanding Carrier Strike Group 2, flagship USS George HW Bush. Her only vessel command was of USS Bataan. She did serve as navigator of USS Enterprise.

    Since she’s a Vandy grad like me, all is well.

  18. A Female Soldier says:

    Perhaps the more interesting question is: Does one have to have served as an infantry platoon leader to command an infantry brigade or division? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s not an obvious Yes. Why can’t a woman who successfully led military police, engineer, or intelligence units at the platoon and company level go on to command a combat arms battalion? It’s all one combined arms team, after all. Would she really have that much trouble commanding the respect of grunts?

    Your faux-naive act is astounding. Do you really believe that male soldiers who consider female soldiers as additional burden would accept a female commander who has never served on the front line? A male soldier who spent his entire career in military police or intelligence unit would probably have trouble commanding the respect of grunts, never mind a female soldier. Besides, if your suggestion is implemented, it would only be seen as extra accomodation given to women, special treatment that women do not deserve, a sop to political correctness etc etc. Never mind the non-combat serving male soldiers who could achieve promotion under the policy as well. It’s only considered a special treatment when it involves women.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @A Female Soldier: “Do you really believe that male soldiers who consider female soldiers as additional burden would accept a female commander who has never served on the front line?”

    It’s not as cut-and-dried as you imply. In today’s force, where everybody and has dog has had three deployments, maybe not. But my battalion commander in Desert Storm had, like the rest of us, never previously been in a combat zone.

    Then again, a female MP good enough to be considered for brigade command in today’s Army has likely been through several rotations in Afghanistan and/or Iraq herself. If she’d served admirably in company and battalion commands in units that came under fire–which is pretty standard in the COIN/SASO battlefield–then I don’t know that it’s a certainty she couldn’t command respect.

    In any case, I don’t care one way or the other what the answers to my questions are. It may well be that we’re just not ready for this and, if that’s the case, so be it. But we shouldn’t rule out asking the question because “we’ve always done it this way.”

  20. A Female Soldier says:

    @James Joyner

    But I’m assuming your batallion commander in Desert Storm was a man. The outcry would be different if it was a woman, the questioning of her ability more severe. And let’s not pretend that that is not true. We both know what the situation is in the military.

  21. Southern Hoosier says:

    I totally agree with A Female Soldier. I was in the military for 20 years and was in 3 branches of service. I spent 4 years as an AF dog handler, including a tour in Thailand during the Vietnam War. While in the Navy I spent 3 years as a Security Guard at NAS Sigonella. That comes down to 7 years of MP type duty. I was qualified on the M-14, M-1, M-16, M-60, .38 and .45. Nothing in those 7 years even remotely qualified me to be a grunt. And nothing qualified any of my CO’s to even remotely command a battalion of grunts. Your battalion commander, even though he had never been in combat, had spent his entire military career doing one thing, training to leads grunts in combats.

    This female MP you talk about having several rotations in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. When did she have time to train for leading combat troops the way your Battalion CO did? Assigning troops to stand guard duty is not quite the same as leading your men on search and destroy missions. And being in a combat zone is not the same as being in combat.

  22. Southern Hoosier says:

    James Joyner says: Sunday, April 17, 2011 at 21:16
    But we shouldn’t rule out asking the question because “we’ve always done it this way.”

    Instead of asking, “Can women qualify to be in combat?” maybe we should be asking, “Do we need women in combat?”

  23. James Joyner says:

    @Southern Hoosier

    Instead of asking, “Can women qualify to be in combat?” maybe we should be asking, “Do we need women in combat?”

    That’s not the right way to look at it. We need to have the widest possible talent pool so that we’re not limiting our options. I thought having women fighter pilots was a crazy idea. And the early implementation was bad. But we now have a lot of them and the consensus seems to be that they’re every bit as good as the men.

  24. Ole Sarge says:

    Personally, from the “grunt” end, as opposed to the “O” end of the discussion there are three factors and yes, gentlemen and ladies, the major one IS BIOLOGICAL. (For those that forget, I am a retired USAF Senior NCO (MSGT), that happens to be female, and the parent of a young man in uniform now that recently returned from combat in Afghanistan)

    Young women are at their peak in fertility in their early 20s. Whether they are in a position to bring children into the world (economic, social etc…) is not the question. There are TOO MANY hazards encountered in military service in a combat/hostile fire area. Hazards to the mother and hazards to the unborn child she may carry.

    The second is also biological, and physiological and can affect men as well as women and that is strength and endurance. Women may have the edge on endurance, but average to average comparisons, women in the FIELD can not put their weight compared to a man. There are the outliers, the woman that can pull her own plus, and the man that cannot, but average to average, you need MORE bodies to do the work when you factor in women.

    Example, in Kuwait, taking DOWN tents in a tent city, I needed a detail of about 5 MEN per tent, but with women, had to have at least two more women. In a “mixed” detail of men and women, men did the “physical” work of hoisting and lifting, and the women did the folding.
    It did not “Start out” that way, but it went faster.

    Last, is again, biological and also societal, men protect the weak, the innocents, and those caught up in the hell of war. And frankly we as a society like it that way, that men do have (an expected) internal control on their behavior. Same for women, we allow for “self defense” and protection of the ‘innocents” in women too. But women are NOT expected to normally shoulder the burden. Women are the LAST not first resort.

    In a peacetime service, men and women are pretty much interchangeable. It is only when we go to war that we see the chinks in the system. We are at war. I do not doubt the patriotic fervor, dedication, and drive of our daughters, and sisters in uniform.

    We have GREAT women pilots, but those are all officers, not enlisted. We have great women in many leadership positions, and we have an even greater number of women that had their bodies broken in military service literally! One woman I served with, while in an Avionics Maintenance Squadron had the vertebrae in her back crushed. She was out, 100% disabled and NO military medical retirement. Many young women do serve only one enlistment, some go for two, but then left the service because of medical problems.

    The burdens are REAL, but I fear political “games” will win over intelligent decision making.

  25. Southern Hoosier says:

    James Joyner says: Monday, April 18, 2011 at 07:19 But we now have a lot of them and the consensus seems to be that they’re every bit as good as the men.

    How can that be, if women can pull less g force in a plane due to body mass.
    http://jap.physiology.org/content/85/4/1471.full

  26. James Joyner says:

    @Southern Hoosier Your study looks at leg mass and finds no real impact on G force tolerance. For a while, there was a consensus that women are better at handling G forces than men. It turned out, though, that height it the difference–and being shorter is an advantage.

  27. R_Dave says:

    Can today’s women carry a 130-pound ruck for twenty miles? Or are they still like the women I trained with in ROTC, who were an additional burden on the men in the unit because they quite literally couldn’t carry their own weight?

    Emphasis supplied. Would they be an “additional burden” at the mission level, though? If we could increase the number of boots on the ground by, say, 10-15% by allowing women to serve in infantry roles, the overall benefits that come with greater deployable numbers might outweigh the unit-level burdens of male soldiers having to divvy up part of the female soldiers’ gear.

  28. Wayne says:

    One we should consider not only action being performed today by the military but those in the future. The main job of the army is taking and securing ground which is done by the Infantry and\or Armor. Everyone else is there is to support them. That includes artillery, air assets, MP’s and anyone else except for SOF forces at times.

    The reason you would want an Infantry or Armor person commanding a brigade, division or combat task force is they understand the needs and abilities of the Infantry\Armor units. They know what support the Infantry\Armor units need from the MPs, Artillery, etc.

    By the way I’m not sure where people get the idea that being on the “front line” is anywhere you can come under fire. Same goes for those who think a “Combat Unit” is anyone who comes under fire. There is much more to it than that but I guess if people misuse a term enough it takes on the mistaken meaning.

  29. When i was serving in 3d Armored Div in the mid-1980s, the grunts, treadheads and redlegs were scandalized that the division commander made an engineer officer the division’s G3 (operations officer). And the engineer was a man.

  30. TylerDurden says:

    The Israeli’s tried women in combat. (out of necessity). The results were classified. Leaks indicate it did not go well.

  31. A. E. B. says:

    My only question is: with the advances in technology, do we still need to send any people into combat at all?