Women in Combat: A Debate

A little over a week ago, the Pentagon announced that under Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, they are lifting the 19-year ban on women serving in front line combat positions and potentially elite commando jobs. The decision opens up some hundreds of thousands of potential job positions for women in the military, and could come to include positions in the Navy SEALS and the Army’s Delta Force.

When I first heard the news, my reaction was twofold. First, I was a little surprised–surprised that the decision came down and curious to know if there really were thousands of women currently serving in the military who were waiting to enter the front lines.

Second, I was certain that, what some saw as progress for women, others would see as an assault on the gender roles between men and women and as an attack on the military, as a whole.

I’ve since considered both sides…

Some have argued that women, who are not physically as strong as men and are not capable of carrying the often 100 pound packs necessary to serve on the front lines. They argue that, in the name of fairness, women must be required to pass the same physical tests as men. If they are unable they cannot serve. The rules can’t be changed to accomodate their gender.

Others have made a moral argument. Our nation has long proclaimed that we will protect “our daughters,” but suddenly we are knowingly sending our daughters into certain danger. And what if a women solider serving in the front lines were captured by the enemy? What would be her fate? Is it just and right for us to allow this as a potential outcome?

What of the men that would serving next to women in the face of such danger? Will men be tempted to seek to protect the woman in combat next to them versus themselves or their fellow male soliders? How will this affect morale?

Those on the other side of the argument say that the decision from the Pentagon is long overdue and that women have long battled inequality in the military. This decision simply brings the U.S. military into the 21st Century.

They argue that the conflicts in Iraq and Afganistan have already propelled many women into combat positions, such as medics and military police, out of necessity. So why not make the decision for women to serve on the front line official?

They claim that there is no need to lower standards, but simply to give women a fair chance to compete. They admit that not all women want these combat positions, but those who do must prove themselves capable like any other solider. More than that, why not cast a wider net in the search for better soliders?

And so, I open this debate up to you. I am genuinely curious and interested in what you all have to say on this subject. I admit that I am conflicted and find both sides of the argument compelling.

What do YOU think? Should women be allowed to serve on the front line? Yes or no? Why or why not?

28 thoughts on “Women in Combat: A Debate”

  1. I don’t know whether this would be good for women or not. My sister was in the Army for a while and told me of the exercise that they had to do. I honestly think I like the men being at the front of the lines because it seems that their brains are built for that stuff.

  2. This may be an odd response, but my reaction upon reading this article was: “Have opponents to the idea of women serving on the front line seen ‘Doctor Who’?” Granted, it’s a TV show and the enemies are fictional aliens, but it portrays women going into battle on a regular basis and proving themselves very capable.

    On a more serious note, I think this is one of those issues where a lot of questions raised can only be answered by creating the situation and learning from it.

    1. Claire,
      Interesting. I know the sow, but have never watched it. I’ll have to check it out, for that reason alone, if nothing else. I agree too. We can talk til we are blue in the face, but we just won’t know until it plays out. But without sounding too dramatic, it seems an awfully dangerous thing to have to watch “play out.”

  3. I served as an Infantry office in the US Army from 2001-2005 including a tour in Afghanistan. My issues around this debate come from my personal experience serving in the military.

    First, the number of 100 pounds of gear isn’t quite realistic. That’s what I trained with, but in war my gear weight probably maxed out 20-40 pounds more. My platoon went to war in the best shape of our lives and I still had guys who struggled to keep up. On one mission we had a military police detachment with a female soldier. I know she doesn’t represent every female soldier, but she bailed on us the first day and took a helicopter ride back to base. Keeping up was to difficult for her. And she wasn’t even carrying anything near our weight in gear. We ended up walking 50 kilometers in a 24 hour period with all of that gear.

    Second, part of the reality of war is that you have a “battle buddy” that does everything with you. Need to go to the bathroom? Your buddy goes with you to pull security for you. It’s uncomfortable and awkward to go do your business with someone standing a few feet away from you out in the open. But that’s part of being in a combat unit. Add a female soldier to the mix and, unless a unit has two female soldiers, this puts both a male and female in a very awkward situation.

    Third, my experience with the military is that it’s a pretty immoral place (I blogged about this recently). And combat soldiers are the worst. With all of the military rape cases and abuse that’s come to light the past few years, I’m not sure how safe of an environment putting one or two females in a male dominated combat unit would be. Combat soldiers are taught to kill, be aggressive, always win, etc…and some soldiers have a hard time turning that mentality “off”. And in war, when it’s cold out, you have to snuggle up together with another soldier for warmth. Yes, that’s still a reality and I had to do it on a number of occasions while on missions. With all of the sexual misconduct happening in the military, it would be difficult for me to figure out how to handle that situation with a female soldier. Both for her safety and the safety of the male soldiers.

    Not sure if that’s helpful for this discussion or not, but those are my main concerns with this whole debate. It’s just not nearly as neat and clean of a decision than any of us hope it would be.

    1. I so appreciate this response, Josh. These are many of my thoughts, but I wouldn’t have been able to articulate them from the perspective of a trained soldier. THANK YOU for your service, both unto the Lord and unto America.

    2. Josh,
      Thank you so much for your comments and the information you shared here. I so appreciate hearing from the perspective of a solider, who has faced the realities of combat versus those making decisions from a desk. You raise some very poignant and thoughtful points.

      Thank you for your service to our country, as well. Blessings to you.

  4. I really don’t think this should be controversial. If women want to go into combat, let them. We shouldn’t tell someone what they can or cannot do.

    1. I don’t think it’s a matter of telling someone what they can or cannot do. But we would be wise to counsel someone of what they should or should not do. Personally, I dont’ want to live in a world that doesn’t care to advice people on life decisions. We were created to provide counsel and advice to one another. There’s plenty of wisdom in that.

    2. Tori,
      Just to play devil’s advocate–as Christians we are certainly allowed to tell other Christians what they should or shouldn’t do. We are called to hold one another accountable. Of course, this situation is different, but it begs the question: Do we have a moral responsibility to protect women or just let them do what they want to do?

      This same line of thinking can apply to so many areas, like abortion, for instance. Do we protect those that we believe need protecting or let women do what they want, no matter the cost?

    3. Even more simply, we do tell people what job they can/cannot have. We, in a sense, are asking if our combat units should employ women. I could definitely tell someone they could not work at my company. Just another point to consider!

    4. Tori, the issue I have with this statement is that our soldiers are not each fighting alone in a vacuum. Their lives depend on each other out there, so who our husbands are fighting next to matters.

  5. Nice picture! Did you draw it?

    When I heard this, I wondered if the military was doing this because we were running out of the number of men we needed to continue the role our leaders on both sides of the political spectrum have decided to give us as the world’s police force.

    In terms of women in the military, we need people in support positions, and women have filled that role well in all the wars. I think the current ratio is at least 3 support people for every officer, though it might be closer to ten (my husband works for a defense firm and they had a “family tour day” recently). When necessary, woman have fought in battles in limited roles as a spur-of-the-moment/time-of-need situations (remember Jael and Molly Pitcher?). If both women and men are fighting, who is going to take care of the children and older people? Plus, I think the heat of battle might incite a little blood lust/adrenaline surge in men that might not have good results for their women comrades. Then there is also the sleeping arrangements and showering arrangements to consider. I also know that battles scar men. I have seen it in some men who have come back from the Afghanistan war, in the first war in Iraq, and even seen my grandfather’s face change when talking about being a German POW. Is this the “gift” we want to give to women, too?

    I suppose if there are women who insist on being in the front lines to defend our country, we shouldn’t stop them. However, I feel that recruiting women would be a disservice to our country and to the idea of protecting women and children in times of war.

  6. War is ugly, inhumane and brutal. Why allow our women to face such awful situations? I have always been of the type that says a man should always defend the women in his life. Yeah, you may say I’m old fashion, others may say I’m a male pig. Personally, I don’t care what they say. But no women should have to experience war in this way.

    Just wait until we see the rape, torture and decapitation of female war prisoners of war in the hands of american enemies. Then we can revisit this argument.

  7. My sister is in the Airforce and she loves it. Women are qualified just like men to go into combat. This shouldn’t be an issue.

    1. My sister-in-law served in Afganistan in the army. She is tiny and petite–a whopping 5’3″. She served proudly and bravely, but she was not on the front lines of combat. See drove tankers, which is extremely dangerous in the Middle East given the number of IED’s hidden there. She now has permanent nerve damage from carrying her pack, gear, and gun at all times. She lives in chronic pain and yet never complains.

      All that to say, I certainly believe women can and should serve in the armed forces. I simply wonder if in the front lines is the best place…

  8. Economic: Of course women should be allowed to die on the front lines. We’ll have twice as many people competing for position of soldier and therefore have a higher quality soldier.

    Equality: If we demand more women in management positions and penalize companies for not giving them positions the company felt they didn’t merit otherwise, then we should certainly give them soldier positions they didn’t (or couldn’t) perform equally for.

    Morality: It’s war, morality is already out the window.

    Biblical: Did God prohibit it? Then what are you prohibiting it for? Notice how the Israelis have had women in their military they became a nation. Of course they admitted it was an abysmally bad idea which brings us to…

    Military: You’re kidding right? Thanks for the post Josh. No one carries more weight in this forum than you. Anyone who doesn’t listen to you needs to ship out first.

    Anyone else think this is a feminist stunt?

    1. Tyler, I agree that this is basically a feminist stunt. But you say that morality is out the window in war–so are you a pacifist then? As the wife of a Christian Army officer, I have to strongly disagree. There are always terrible things that a few people do in war, but it’s not like our military is out there raping and pillaging every chance they get. Sorry, that’s slightly off topic, but I believe that morality IS relevant to the issue at hand.

  9. I think that so far, many responses here are regarding the defense of women. I think in order to answer this question, it must first be addressed why women may deserve defending more than men. It is a traditionally held view that women and children should be protected, but I think that society on a global level is starting to question more and more why women warrent more care/protection than men.

    I can’t really take a position on this debate; I don’t feel that my opinion would be well-informed. But I think the opinions that people will have on this topic will often be emotionally rooted in the concept that women requre/deserve more protection than men.

  10. Unfortunately, I believe the push to have women in combat has more to do with raising the number of women of higher ranks in the armed forces. One of the criteria for advancement in the service is time spent in combat. Because women have not been in combat billets, they have had a more difficult time rising to the higher echelons of command. I don’t have a problem with women in combat if the criteria for the job isn’t compromised to allow women to succeed. After all, being able to lift a 40 lb shell to load the cannon shouldn’t have to be reduced to a 10 lb shell, with less lethality, just because a woman can’t lift and reload often enough to defeat the enemy.

    All that being said, I also don’t believe the US has the stomach for the result of capture and torture of women in combat situations. Women will be raped and tortured and used to demoralize our nation. The US has to develop the stomach to watch this on the news and not flinch, just as the Vietnamese and the Russians and other countries with women in combat. With women in combat there will be no BIG news story like the rescue of Jessica Lynch in 2003. Soldiers run the risk of being captured and tortured. It’s just a fact.

    Unfortunately, I believe at this point in time this decision of putting women in combat situations has more to do with affirmative action for higher ranking women in the armed forces than the actual capability of women to serve in this capacity.

    1. Happygirl, your main point is the one I hear being sited most as the reason for this decision. But I believe it’s silly (not silly of you to say it–I’m sure you’ve heard it from tons of seemingly reliable sources like I have) because people only compete for rank against members of their own branch (in the Army–infantry, special forces, armor, aviation, logistics, intelligence, etc.) So if women are being held back it’s only a problem to be considered within their branch. As it stands, women can deploy all the time, hence getting credit for going to combat zones–but it’s only within direct combat branches that it matters whether you’ve engaged in actual direct combat (which has a somewhat loose definition anyway).
      That said, I completely agree with you–what a stupid reason to open up these positions to women.

  11. Sheesh. This one is hard for me. Both of my parents were in the military, but I was also raised in a home where we boys were taught to treat women with honor and respect yet be ready to physically protect them if needed. We held doors, walked on the outside of the sidewalk, stared down creepers, etc. No, we weren’t boy scouts. :)

    Anyway, I struggle with the notion that women need to do everything men do in order for there to be equality. I am not denying that inequality exists and truly sexist injustices should be addressed. But do women really need to be on the front line of combat? I don’t think so.

    Men (generally speaking) are physically built and mentally inclined to combat. When it comes to fighting for freedom and defending the helpless I want the strongest, toughest soldier holding the gun.

    Is there a place for women in the military? Of course. It’s an honor to serve this country.

  12. Bad idea, all the way around.

    Women are not designed for the physical demands of Infantry life. Infantry and combat situations are not like the movies. We don’t have steaks on the grill and portable showers.

    Shall I mention the menstrual element that would be a liability? (And before you refer to me as sexist, name one woman who has not had a period in her life, and doesn’t exactly know what I am talking about)

    Can a woman go 45+ days without a proper shower and not develop a yeast infection?

    Can a woman make that split-second decision to squeeze the trigger, consistently, without considering the damage and death it will bring, and not become emotional?

    Can a woman carry me, at 186 pounds, and my weapon, to safety if needed?

    If a woman wants to be equal to me in Infantry life, then she will also be required to meet and exceed the APFT standards for males. No exceptions. If accommodations are made because she is a female, then she’s out.

    Panetta is merely waving his pee-pee at all of us as he is on his way out. Men are designed for killing. Women are not. Don’t hate me, hate the Manufacturer.

  13. War is about winning. This isn’t sport. It’s not a game. It’s about answering evil. It’s about self-defense. It is life or death. Given that, we don’t need to play political or social games with it. It is about national survival. Political tinkering is about votes. I’m for men only in combat zones . . . However . . . In Israel all man and women must serve because there just aren’t enough people. Women are required to carry an automatic weapon with them everywhere they go. Shooting isn’t that difficult. My wife is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met. My daughter is an awesome shot. I love strong women. The winner of Stars Earn Stripes was a woman. Self-defense isn’t just for men . . . So . . . If it comes down to winning or losing the country, women are capable and should be called upon. We just aren’t there yet. Right now it’s a disruptive stunt from a politician intent on changing the fabric of the family. I’m for the survival of the family and I think that’s where our greatest battle is right now.

  14. I agree that this is a stunt,a political agenda. If you disagree with women in combat , your labeled a sexist. I served USMC 90/94, and I met many female Marines who were capable of serving in combat. As a matter of FACT EVERY Marine is a trained rifleman and is trained in small and med arms and combat tactics. And if needed ANY Marine can fight.
    What no one is talking about is CHOICE. If women are now cleared for combat roles it means ALL women are cleared for combat just as men are. When the defication hits the rotary device a woman’s choice for combat is out the window they will no longer have a choice, just like men. Are women going to have to sign up for selective service or be denied loans and employment etc as men are? Draft? And if a woman can get out of a combat role by saying ” I didn’t volunteer for combat” How is that equal rights? Sounds like extra rights.

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