Weighing the Costs of Women in Combat

Now that Congress has officially repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” another military minority is looking for its cause to be recognized. It hasn’t even been a century since American women gained the right to vote, but they have accomplished much in that little time, securing increased political standing and opportunities in the job market. Now, many women also want the right to take up combat positions in the military.

There are women who are not only willing but also fully capable of protecting this country in direct combat positions. Whatever that means. No, really. Who knows what combat even is anymore? As it turns out, technological advances in military training and operation have made it so that many of the positions women are able to hold now may be practically considered combat positions.

They may fly helicopters and other aircraft into combat zones, they may take positions as combat medics and they are allowed to work in civil affairs units among potentially hostile populations. Populations which in the case of our current wars, let’s be honest, aren’t really known for their respect for female authority.

Decades-old statistics will have you believe that average women are severely outperformed by their average male counterparts in physical fitness tests. Why is this relevant? The average woman is not capable of performing 40 pushups or running two miles with a 75-pound rucksack, and the average woman entering the military still falls behind the average, comparable entering man. The fact of the matter is that proper training puts these combat-ready women far above the average represented by these available statistics.

Concurrent studies by the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and Great Britain’s Ministry of Defense in 1995 showed that particular training regiments can be used to condition women, producing fitness levels equal to those of comparably sized men. This data shows that physical ability alone is not sufficient for excluding women from combat. A man at 5-feet-4-inches and 150 pounds isn’t excluded because he appears to be less fit than someone taller and heavier. And so it can’t be that a woman is excluded on those grounds either.

So what is it exactly that women are precluded from doing? Simply put, they may not participate in the direct combat of arms. That is infantry, artillery or armor.

But why, Congress? If not because they aren’t strong enough as we’ve already seen, then why?

There is definitely a slippery slope involved. On the one hand, women already fulfill a number of roles that might seem to fall under the category of combat when considered as a whole, so allowing them to have the specific job title seems rather benign. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence shows that women in combat really do hamper group morale and cause all sorts of problems.

Even if authorities claim the physical standards guiding military operations remain the same, anecdotal evidence supports just the opposite in practice. Military schools forced to integrate women on campus, most famously West Point Academy Virginia Military Institute, suffered a drop in the physical standards they could require.

And that’s not the only problem. Timothy Hendricks, a fourth-year physics major and ex-Marine, tells me that when he was stationed in Iraq, certain viruses were more prominent and spread rapidly throughout camps with women in them, despite warnings and preventative measures taken by doctors.

There are even women who, when finally achieving that position of power they’ve been striving for, manipulate their minority status for political reasons. Hendricks tells another story of a woman who used her high rank to order their vehicle (while travelling through a “hot zone”) to stop so she could take care of “girl things.” A man could never do that but faces real risks in telling her so. There are situations in which male officers have suffered serious repercussions for giving less-than-glowing reviews of particular women in their squads.

If the gender difference is such an issue then maybe women really shouldn’t be involved in combat. The problem is that we get Wollstonecraft’s dilemma: women want to be accepted and assigned the status reserved for men, yet once they have attained it, they still want to be treated as unique women. This distinction is not at all conducive to the team unity required by the life and death reality of military combat.

Still, even though time-old social conventions make women appear unfavorable to the conditions in combat, they are already expected to participate in such capacities by serving as fighter pilots and combat medics. Some are trained specifically and expected to be ready for it by their service in the reserves. If it truly is the case that women are unfit for combat or are distracting and inefficient, then take them out of all related roles.

As long as women are allowed to lead heavily armored convoys through firefights, voluntarily risking their lives alongside their male counterparts, they should be allowed combat positions.

Don’t want them there? Then be consistent, and find someone else to fly your helicopters into hot zones.

Ariana Santoro is a fourth-year physics major. She can be reached at asantoro@uci.edu.