A Long Time Coming? An Examination of the Arguments against Women in Combat

Photo: Independent Women’s Forum

By Nicole Magney, Columnist

There is bound to be lingering opposition for some time to the Pentagon’s decision in December to open all combat roles to women in the military. Regardless of the arguments voiced against this from both inside and outside the military, the decision exemplifies a growing acceptance within public opinion writ large on the matter. In his remarks announcing the decision, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter made it clear that no dissent would be allowed, referencing that the Marine Corps’ request that limitations be placed on specific jobs, like infantry positions, had been denied.[i] This decision came as the final step in a long process toward full gender equality in all branches of the military. In addition to assessing whether the arguments against this newfound policy are persuasive or not, it is perhaps even more useful to examine how the various elements of these arguments can be addressed now to ensure the smoothest transition going forward.

The policy will not be implemented overnight and there will not be equal numbers of women and men in combat roles for quite some time, if ever. Therefore, there is ample opportunity to address some of the issues that critics have laid out, which typically fall into two overarching categories: the practical and the morale-based.

The most common practical assertion regards strength. This line of argument goes that women in general are not as physically strong as their male counterparts. While this may be true in some respects, it is largely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. As Secretary Carter emphasized during his announcement in December, only those women who are qualified – and meet the same demanding physical standards as men – for combat positions will be offered the opportunity to engage in them.

In addition, some skeptics argue that allowing women into the infantry will only serve to destroy the morale of tight-knit units, and subsequently diminish their effectiveness and that of the US military’s more broadly. In a provocative essay in the Marine Corps Gazette, Captain Lauren F. Serrano contends that “having women in an infantry unit will disrupt the infantry’s identity, motivational tactics, and camaraderie.”[ii] She emphasizes her point by listing all of the morale-boosting endeavors that members of infantry units would likely forgo if women joined their ranks – things like political incorrectness and burping.

While the ability to burp in the company of your infantry unit compatriots may sound trivial, the larger point here is worth deeper examination. To complement her argument about morale, Capt. Serrano notes that allowing women to serve in these units would be a set up for more instances of sexual assault. This is a valid and important concern. However, instead of attempting to address the root of this problem, Capt. Serrano falls into the common trope that “boys will be boys.”[iii] As fellow Marine Corps Captain Eric Hovey asks in response to Capt. Serrano’s essay, how can we trust these men with one of the most important and demanding jobs in the military if we cannot trust them to control their sexual urges?[iv] Should the nation not expect – and demand – better?

America undoubtedly should expect better of its servicemen, but this does not negate the very real problem of sexual assault that integration of the infantry poses. The military branches have various training programs in place that attempt to address the problem of sexual assault, yet it persists. These programs should continue with vigor, but more importantly, the branches should conduct research on ways to make sexual assault prevention more effective. Women should not be denied equal opportunity out of fear that men will not be able to control themselves or will not be held accountable for their criminal actions.

The above by no means represents an exhaustive exploration of all of the relevant points in this important national conversation. However, it offers some counterpoints to common arguments against the new policy, and suggests ways to move forward, given that integration is now inevitable. As combat roles – and all military positions for that matter – become more integrated, related policies should change to match the new reality. For example, both men and women should be required to register for the draft. The Pentagon’s decision was a significant step, whether one agrees with it or not. Arguments against the decision should not be automatically dismissed as invalid. Instead, they should serve to open constructive dialogue about how to make the integration of combat roles as successful as possible.

[i] “Carter Orders All Combat Jobs Open to Women,” Associated Press, YouTube, published December 3, 2015, accessed February 10, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buO27A5C4Vs

[ii] Capt. Lauren F. Serrano, “Why Women Do Not Belong in the U.S. Infantry,” Marine Corps Gazette 98, no. 9 (September 2014): 38.

[iii] Capt. Eric Hovey, “Why Women DO Belong in the U.S. Infantry,” Marine Corps Gazette 99, no.2 (February 2015): DE2.

[iv] Ibid., DE3.

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