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New Rules for Women in Combat

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Congress recently authorized an expansion for the role played by female troops in combat zones. There’s been a lot of attention paid to this, but it’s actually a relatively small change that only codified in law the reality on the ground for the last ten years. In reality, very little has changed.

Women are still barred from most combat arms professions – especially the infantry and tanks. What Congress did, here, was to allow women to serve in theater at the battalion level – which was thought to be too close to actual combat situations prior to Afghanistan and Iraq. Which means there are still 230,000 jobs – roughly one-fifth of the positions in the active component – in the military that are still off-limits to women purely because of the circumstances of their birth. There aren’t traditional front lines in war any longer. The past ten years of constant war has taught us that. Unlike in conflicts past, when there was a fairly clear delineation between territory contested by combat and territory thought to be “safe,” the nature of counterinsurgency has shown us that the enemy can be – and often is – anywhere. A gaggle of Taliban fighters is, in fact, more likely to attack a supply convoy than a patrol of infantry fighters, because they understand that the warriors on the convoy aren’t as highly trained as the infantrymen.

Thus, a ban on women serving in posts “close to combat” no longer makes any sense, because any place in any country where a counterinsurgency campaign is underway is close to combat. Of the nearly 6,000 troops that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 144 of them were women. None of them were on the “front lines.”

There is some method to the madness, here. But it doesn’t make a lick of sense in the long run (insert joke about Congress here.) The government is merely saying that women have already been in the thick of things for ten years – they might as well be “allowed to” by law. Which makes this entire thing a charade; a correction of a bureaucratic oversight does not a civil rights victory make.  This is not a victory for women.

Congress’ leap of logic is missing an accompanying conclusion – since women have been in the thick of things for ten years, fighting and dying for their country as valiantly as their male counterparts, they should have been authorized to begin serving in combat roles. At the very least, our armed services are long overdue for a plan to implement a repeal of this egregious policy that discriminates on the basis of gender.

I have personally served with many women and men – there are some men I would follow into battle under any circumstances, any time, because they have led me and I trust them. There are some men that I wouldn’t trust to eat an MRE without biting his own tongue and needing to go to medical.

It’s the same with women. I’ve had female counterparts that I don’t think could fight their way out of a wet paper bag. I’ve had female leaders who have inspired me, and who I know I could trust with my life, and who I would share a fighting hole with any day of the week.

When the topic comes up, the laundry of lists of challenges to women serving in combat inevitably gets trotted out: Women aren’t as strong as men. They can’t, on average, perform as well under a combat load – in fact, many can’t wear a combat load and still remain mobile – they can’t run as fast, their endurance isn’t as great, etc. ad nauseam. The Marines, especially, refuse to compromise their standards – if someone can’t perform at the level we demand of Marine Corps infantrymen, they can’t be Marine Corps infantrymen. They’re not incorrect – America needs her Marines to be extraordinary people capable of achieving extraordinary feats.

There are also logistical challenges. Women and men need to be segregated when sleeping, showering and during basic hygiene. There also seems to me to be a very high danger to women not from the enemy, but from her fellow service members; as long as sexual assault remains the prevalent problem within our ranks that it does, sending women out to a forward operating base, surrounded by men, creates a highly dangerous environment for them.

These are challenges, not insurmountable obstacles. The Marine Corps – or any of the branches of service – doesn’t need to lower their standards. They merely need to give everyone a shot to meet them. If you can’t cut it, you shouldn’t be in the infantry. If you can do everything that’s required of infantrymen, you should be allowed in the infantry. Yes, this excludes most women from that particular job – if for no other reasons than those that are purely biological.

But if there’s a standard by which we can judge someone to be fit for combat, regardless of sex, then everyone deserves a chance to try and live up to that standard. If the military wants to avoid the stickier parts of officially sending women into combat by continuing to field Female Engagement Teams and continuing to enforce the present segregation of the sexes, then by all means, it’s understandable (for the present moment, given on-the-ground reality, and as long as it’s on an enforceable timetable to fully integrate the service in a reasonable amount of time.) We can, and will, overcome the thorny sexual issues that come along with the desegregation of sexes in a fighting force. It will take training, it will take professionalism and it will take a monumental effort on the part of officers and noncommissioned officers in all branches of the service. But we’re the brightest and best professional fighting force in the world – if we can’t do it, it can’t be done. And I assure you that it can be done.

We need to allow women the privilege to actually fight for their nation, not just to work the mail room or staff the chow hall. Any soldier would rush to tell you that he or she doesn’t believe in “second-class” soldiers in the military. But the policy, as it stands, creates a de facto underclass of soldiers who are told that they are incapable before they are tested, who are robbed of a chance to earn what all of their counterparts are able to earn, who are unable to show the true grit and toughness of their patriotism and desire to serve America.

In the Marines, we say “We’re all Green.” You can either do the job or you can’t – it doesn’t matter what you look like. This is a radically egalitarian idea, and one that pervades all of the branches of the Armed Services. And it’s exactly this attitude that has led to one of the great meritocracies of the modern era. The military has always preceded great social change by half a generation – just look at racial integration of the service, and the recent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The military has always been a paradox in this way, being a quintessentially conservative organization that continually leads the way on social progressivism.

Women have been in combat for a long time; like men, some make great fighters and others don’t. It’s long past time the military recognized this and put steps in place to fully integrate our female fighters into combat arms occupational specialties. The recent steps taken by Congress are a start, but without a full framework, we’re still failing our fellow service members who are already taking the fight to the enemy every day.

What do you feel about women serving in combat? How about the political implications? The emotional? The impact on the military? What’s your take? I’d like to hear from you in the comments.