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.


  1. 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.

    I fully agree with this. If people have concerns about what women can and can't do, don't make it directly about gender, then. Give definite measurable tests for ground combat troops to pass. Can carry X lbs.? Check. Can run X miles in Y minutes? Check. Can shoot at a moving target? Check. And so on.

    I'm a small man who as a civilian is often included in requests for "strong guys" to help move chairs and tables or ladders or do other things that require upper body strength. Hey, I don't have upper body strength just because I have male genitals. And women don't necessarily lack it just because they have female genitals.

  2. Back in younger days, as a small (size 2-4) woman who strength trained regularly, I had the upper body strength of a lean, muscular man. Not all women are delicate flowers and it's about time we acknowledged that fact. Everyone deserves the opportunity to prove their capabilities.

  3. snobographer says:

    A lot of the questioning around this is incredibly essentialist. I'm stunned they're actually doing studies as to whether women are equipped to handle combat situations emotionally. Has anyone ever done a study on whether men are emotionally equipped to handle combat situations? Because it seems we have quite a few male vets who require psychiatric care.
    And that statement from Gen Peterson was annoying. Like women who want to sign on for combat duty expect hot cocoa and bunny slippers in their personal fox holes. It's insulting.

    • The studies that have been done look at both men and women.

      • snobographer says:

        That's not what the article says. It's just assumed that men are more emotionally equipped for combat. For anything, really. Because men are supposed to not have emotions at all and women are supposed to be debilitated by them.

  4. mydutytospeak says:

    Not all women can serve in combat, neither can all men but why should we ban ALL women from legally serving in combat. They already in combat but this is about being recognized that they are in combat.

  5. I've also heard of women having trouble getting VA benefits and treatment for PTSD because women aren't allowed in combat and couldn't possibly have difficulty dealing with it. MP's, medics, just to name a few, fight right alongside the men, we just aren't acknowledged.

  6. The Israeli army actually offers an interesting example, where women have successfully engaged in combat for quite some time. However, their army is sex-segregated and ours may need to be too. Psychologically, co-ed combat has an unexpected and detrimental outcome on the battle. When a man is killed in an all-male combat troop, the other men are able to put it aside and continue the fight as planned. However, when a woman is killed in a co-ed combat troop, the men go a bit crazy and start shooting randomly. We're not sure why this happens, but that reaction has been a large part of women's exclusion from combat. If we want women to participate in combat, we may need to be okay with segregation.

    • helen desmith says:

      I must disagree – the men going a bit crazy is probably that old "protect women and children" gut instinct – inborn – that lurks behind the suppressed emotional make up demanded of men in modern societies.

  7. Artemis Eneldo says:

    Women are already there and already serving with heroism, case in point:

    Female medic earns Silver Star in Afghan war
    19-year-old only second woman to receive valor award since WWII http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23547346/ns/us_news-m

  8. While I am certainly for complete equality for women–as well as GBT people–I am deeply distressed that seving in the US military has become such a top priority for feminists & gay/lesbian activists. People should remember that in the 1960s 2nd wave women's movement and the early gay rights movement, OPPOSITON TO THE VIETNAM WAR WAS CORE PART OF THOSE MOVEMENTS.
    Every oppressed group from newly freed Black slaves sent to kill Indigenous people in the West after the Civil War to all people of color serving in WWI and WWII (continuing now with GLBT people and women in the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been told: "Join Uncle Sam's military and kill the people we tell you to kill and you will become EQUAL and no longer a second-class citizen." NO ONE'S EQUALITY SHOULD BE GAINED FROM OPPRESSING OTHERS.
    Rather than fighting to get women in combat, feminism sould be challenging US wars of occupation, dominace and controling other countries' resources.

    • helen desmith says:

      thank you Lydia. Spoken with a true feminist heart and educated mind! PEACE amongst all people should be the banner of women world wide – it is we who bear the deepest most damaging pain driven into our hearts by the weapons of oppression

    • Isn’t that heart warming. Just put all women back into the same file. And because we have a vagina we should all know better. What a load of crap.

  9. Do you guys understand the difference between "reactionary" defensive combat as in being attacked while you are on a supply convoy or and offensive search and destroy combat Operations. In the first you leave the relative security of the Base and move from point A to B and If you are attacked you can fire back from your vehicle. You continue on and an hour later or so you are back at base with showers and a warm cot. Offensive ground operations is where you actively go out to look for the enemy make contact and kill him. You carry 100 plus pounds for 6 hour marches at times, plus your weapon plus ammo in 105 degree heat. the further out you go the more you have to carry. You are not in a vehicle!! This goes on for weeks, greuling, physically demanding, little sleep, knocking down doors and clearing houses looking for hostiles. You are not back at home base an hour later!! This is a tremendous difference from shooting back at the enemy in a defensive manner. I have read posts from female soldiers on other blogs. They clearly state that they know there is a huge difference between the two types of fighting and they state that a woman soldier cannot hold up to the same physical requirements. But ya know the Army already knows this cuz they have very different Physical standards for men and women. Not my fault… natural selection made things that way.

  10. It seems that the United States is some sort of island where our vision does not extend beyond our borders. Women have been fighting in combat since the beginning of time. Read about female Jewish partisans in WWII, the Russian women who distinguished as combatants while fighting the Nazis, the armies of other countries that have allowed women to serve for decades. What our government has said is that “American women” are not suitable for combat, which goes to show how they view women. Besides, let women fight, next they will be wanting to vote and drive cars.

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