Women in Combat–The Next “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?

By March 15 2011, a recommendation will be handed over to Congress and the White House to lift the current ban on military women participating in combat. On January 13, NPR highlighted the progress of this recommendation but also pointed out the reality of the situation: that women are already very much involved in the fight, albeit invisibly. Since the 1990s, women have served on combatant ships, flown combat aircrafts and acted in supporting combat roles. So why is there a restriction preventing them from serving in ground combat?

One possible answer comes from Ret. Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Petersen, who spouts the sort of ideology that continues to tag women as weak. Last September, when the Military Leadership Diversity Commission held a meeting with a panel of military women, Petersen declared to the women:

Here is my problem. We’re talking about ground combat, nose-to-nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, eating what’s on your back, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you have seen how infantrymen, the ground troopers, live, and how many of you would volunteer to live like that?

Petersen received a reply he probably didn’t expect. Tammy Duckworth, second in charge at the Department of Veterans Affairs and a former helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in Iraq, said, “I would do it in a minute [ground combat] for the honor of being able to serve next to some of the greatest folks that I’ve ever been able to serve next to. … Women are doing that right now.” In other words, the military has been practicing it’s own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of using women in combat roles even though it’s not supposed to.

The NPR report laid out a few of the other concerns that remain commonly expressed:

There are also questions about retention. If the Pentagon opens combat jobs up to women, how long will they stay in them? What if they get pregnant and can’t deploy? And there are the perennial concerns about unit cohesion. Will allowing women into intense fighting situations undermine the morale of all-male combat units?

Note the similarities between these sorts of questions and those surrounding gays and lesbians in the military–who were often accused of potentially doing damage to unit cohesion.

Probably the biggest question that critics raise is the inherent physical differences between the sexes. Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, notes that,

Physical differences between men and women do matter. If the purpose of the change is to help with career advancement and diversity, it’s fine. But if the purpose is to help better defend the country, then it’s divorced from reality.

Though Donnelly’s remarks are often echoed, an issue paper prepared for the Military Leadership Diversity Commission notes that there is little empirical evidence that supports restricting women because of strength differentials:

When it comes to arguments about carrying equipment or even wounded soldiers, some argue that inability may be more a function of size than gender, and that the capabilities of smaller men and larger women overlap. Ultimately, there is a lack of empirical data on female fitness and correlation with battle performance other than basic physical requirements by the Services.

The issue paper also took on the question of whether women could deal with the emotional ramifications of combat as well as men can:

The limited published studies on gender differences in mental health impacts of combat exposure suggest the evidence is mixed; some research shows slightly more negative impacts for women but other research finds no gender differences.

Besides creating a level playing field by opening up ground combat to women, another benefit in allowing women to fulfill combat roles relates to the issue of promotions. The quickest way to ascend through military ranks is to do well in combat-related missions. Since women aren’t supposed to participate in such missions, it remains difficult for them to earn promotions similar to those of their men colleagues.

Genevieve Chase, founder of American Women Veterans, notes that the military has largely gotten around these restrictions. Commanders can attach women troops to combat units when needed without officially assigning them to said units. At the end of the day though, the matter isn’t how loopholes can be exploited to create a level playing field; this is about women’s visibility, says Chase:

We’re asking for women to be recognized and acknowledged for [their] work.

According to Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan, “[The Department of Defense] will look at the recommendation and go from there. We’ll see what the nature of the report is when it’s done.”

Additional Resources:

Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq by Lisa Bowden

The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq by Helen Benedict

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Photo via Flickr user kalacaw under Creative Commons 3.0.


Kyle Bachan can dance all day. He's also a feminist from Toronto, Canada who enjoys travelling the world and meeting new people. He currently writes as a Senior Editor over at Gender Across Borders.